By Adarsh Bindal. Originally published at Adarsh Bindal.
Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse-Five, claims that time is relative. He claims that everything exists in different states across time. He does this narrating through the perspective of Billy Pilgrim, who is a soldier in the Second World War. Billy Pilgrim is captured by the Germans, and as his capture takes place, his first instance of bending time happens, and he sees and experiences his whole life in one sweep. Later, Billy is being shipped in a crowded German POW rail car. Once he arrives at the camp, he suffers a breakdown and gets a shot of morphine, which induces another round of time tripping. Billy and his fellow POWs move on to Dresden, which is a pristine city untouched by the war. One night, Dresden is carpet bombed by the Allies using incendiary “fire-bombs”, which obliterate the city and suck all the oxygen out of the air, which kills every living thing, but Billy and his fellow POWs are able to survive by shacking up in an airtight meat locker. To skip forward in the plot, Billy is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who explain to him the relativity of time, and with their help, Billy realizes that he exists throughout every time point of his life, and not just in what they perceive as “the present”. Through this realization, Billy makes a recording of the exact time and place and manner of his death, and the book ends on a positive note, with Billy saying that though he will experience the “violent hum” of human death, he will never truly die. He will just continue existing at a point in time where he is still alive.
It is at this point, that I take issue with Vonnegut’s idea of time. For me, Vonnegut ruins what could have been a perfectly good premise for hopeless optimism. Vonnegut’s idea of the perception time is more or less a happy one. What I gather from Slaughterhouse Five, is that Vonnegut claims that time is not flowing, rather it is stagnant and it is a human-made illusion that time flows. He claims that people can jump around and relive happy periods of their lives, as time is only what you perceive it to be.
A more interesting depiction of time, according to me, is in Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story called “A Sound of Thunder.” For those of you unfamiliar with this literary brilliancy, it is a short story which talks about a company called Time Safari Inc, which in the year 2055 allows people to go back in time to hunt exotic animals, especially dinosaurs. One of the main characters of this story, Eckels, goes back in time to kill a T-rex, where his guide explains to him that in order to prevent changes in the past altering the future, they make sure to leave no trace of their being in the past, and only kill animals that have been scouted before hand and are due to die within minutes of being hunted. Hunters who do not respect these rules are heftily fined. Eckels in his enthusiasm agrees to their conditions, but freezes up when the monstrous T-rex actually appears. Confusion ensues, and his guide Travis has to kill the T-rex for him. It seems like all is right and they haven’t disturbed the past, even though Travis is furious at Eckels and threatens to kill him. When they return to the year 2055, where to their horror they realize that people talk and behave differently, and there are horrible implications of the political changes, which implies in turn that they messed up and made some mistake in the past. Eckels inspects his boots, and notices a tiny butterfly that he accidentally crushed which set in motion a series of small changes that amplified exponentially. Travis is enraged and raises his gun at Eckels, and the novel ends with the titular “sound of thunder” which implies that he killed Eckels. It makes an interesting side note that Ray Bradbury wrote about the Butterfly effect before the term the Butterfly effect was even coined.
To me, Bradbury’s perception of time seems a lot less naïve and a lot more realistic than Vonnegut’s ridiculously happy-go-lucky, optimistic viewpoint. Bradbury insinuates that time lost is in fact, time lost, and mistakes made in the past cannot simply be ignored by going back to a state of existence that occurred before the mistake happened. Conclusively, I would have to agree with Bradbury on this topic: Mistakes can, with time, amplify, and the only way to correct them is by CORRECTING them, not skipping back to a more convenient time.