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Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is generally classified as science fiction and contains some science-fictional elements:

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes "unstuck in time" and experiences large parts of his life out of order. He's also captured by aliens at one point.

It has been years since I read the book. But my interpretation at the time was that the story is constructed in the same way as for example K-Pax. The sci-fi elements are introduced during a horrific period in Pilgrim's life, and it's somewhat ambiguous whether the sci-fi elements are really happening, or whether Pilgrim has had some kind of psychotic break.

I think I read once that Vonnegut didn't really like his work being labelled as science fiction. That could reflect an attitude that sci-fi wasn't considered literary enough, or maybe Vonnegut actually considered Slaughterhouse to be a story about a man pushed beyond his limits.

Is it established within the book that the sci-fi elements really do take place?

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    It's been years since I've seen any of Vonnegut's work classified as SF. I'd say that he is firmly established in the Fiction/Literature category.
    – TGnat
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 21:15
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    @TGnat, how about The Sirens of Titan? Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 7:53
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    Whether or not the book gets labelled as SF has no bearing on whether the SF elements in the book should be taken at face value. Plenty of other Vonnegut books (e.g. The Sirens of Titan) are often classified as Literature but contain quite unambiguous science-fictional elements.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 7:55

3 Answers 3

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I had the same doubts about this book at first; but later on in the story, you can see that there are some clues that lead us to think that the answer is NO, it's not sci-fi.

Vonnegut seems to be writing about PTSD even before the term was conceived. Billy Pilgrim is suffering from his wartime experiences. He is having flashbacks and delusions involving the story about the abduction by the Tralfamadorians by putting together a lot of events that happened to him in the past.

Here are some parallels between Pilgrim's fantasy life and events of his past.

  • The Tralfamadorians refused to give an answer to Pilgrim's question "Why me?". So did the Nazis, with almost the exact words.
  • The Tralfamadorians made Pilgrim strip when he arrived at their planet, just as the Nazis did in Dresden.
  • He saw some porn movies starring Montana Wildhack in the book store in New York, where he went looking for Trout books. She will be later his companion in Trafalmadore.
  • There was a Kilgore Trout book narrating a situation where a man is abducted by aliens and taken to a zoo.

Also, one can realize that in the Tralfamadorian fantasy he rewrites his story, washing away painful memories. For example, when the Nazis made him strip it was a shameful situation, but when he stripped on Trafalmadore he felt free, being confortable with his body for the first time. So it seems that he is, in some way revising history so he can feel released, comfortable with it.

The same with the "so it goes" thing and the Trafalmadorian deterministic interpretation of time, where everything is pre-established and there is nothing but fate, and no guilt.

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    You've managed to capture in five paragraphs that which few (if any) literary critics have captured about Slaughterhouse Five in nearly 50 years and thousands of pages of discourse.
    – Praxis
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 0:01
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It's impossible to say either way since the book relies on an unreliable narrator. Everything that happens in the novel is narrated to us by the protagonist. So it's really up to the reader how much they trust the words he writes. The thing with Slaughterhouse-Five is that, unlike most SF, the SF elements aren't a major point and are just storytelling devices. Compare this with how the literary genre "magic realism" differs from mainstream "fantasy".

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    The protagonist (if that term even applies) Billy Pilgrim is not the narrator. The story is told from a 3rd person, sometimes 1st person, omniscient point of view. The narrator is, arguably, Vonnegut himself. I don't see how Billy Pilgrim's trustworthiness plays into it.
    – TGnat
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 20:58
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    The narrator is also arguably Pilgrim; certainly the narrator’s perspective and Pilgrim’s often seem to proceed in step together, even though Pilgrim is referred to in the 3rd person . It’s very nicely subtle and ambiguous.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 8:00
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    It is a semi-autobiographical novel, so you are both right from a certain point of view. Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 16:37
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The science-fiction elements must be real for the story to make sense. If we interpret them as just Pilgrim's delusions then we must consider his brain injury resulting from the plane crash as their point of origin, as he only started talking about the Tralfamadorians after it. However, he has a tape where he predicts the exact date of his death locked in a safe-deposit along with his will, which he recorded long before the crash. And to refute one of the points in the comment above; Pilgrim already knew about what happened to Montana Wildhack on Tralfamadore, before he went to New York and saw that movie. This event takes place after the crash so it can't be explained by him altering his memories, like in the other parallels.

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    You should probably include a link to the specific "comment" you alluded to within your answer, as there are currently multiple other answers and comments above your answer. Commented Jan 11 at 2:10

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