1. Explain at least one idea about time offered by Slaughterhouse-Five. Compare that to the way time works in another piece of fiction (book, movie, etc.) or within a particular philosophical, scientific, or religious system. What do you learn from the comparison?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five details the experiences of Billy Pilgrim, a man “unstuck in time,” continuously traveling back and forth through time, experiencing his life in non-chronological order. While the topic itself is unique, time-travel is used heavily throughout popular culture, appearing everywhere from movies, such as Back To The Future, to TV shows, like LOST and Doctor Who. Despite its occurrences in all of these forms of media, time travel is never the same, with each appearance having its own set of rules and features. The four occasions above follow at least one of the following rules: 1. The person, themself, travels through time (Marty McFly in B.T.T.F., The Doctor in Doctor Who, The main characters in LOST), 2. The person’s consciousness travels through time (Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, Desmond Hume in LOST), 3. Time can be rewritten (B.T.T.F., Doctor Who, LOST), and 4. Time is immutable (Slaughterhouse-Five, LOST (contains both)). Kurt Vonnegut’s usage of Billy’s consciousness traveling and having an unchangeable timeline creates a future that is set in stone, creating a non-paradoxical world, unlike the other above-mentioned usages.
When introducing a world where time travel both exists and can affect the timeline, problems and paradoxes present themselves. In Back To The Future, Marty McFly travels back to 1955, a time where he had never existed prior, and meets his mom who begins to fall in love with him, thus disrupting the timeline. While this is a fantastic plot for a Sci-Fi Comedy movie, it creates an unexplainable, circular paradox: If Marty travels back in time and disrupts the meeting of his parents, he will never be born, which means there will be no Marty to travel back in time to disrupt the meeting of his parents.
Doctor Who prevents paradoxes by describing certain time periods as “fixed points in time.” Some moments in time can be changed if they don’t affect the future greatly, such as the death of an insignificant character. Fixed points, however, include the death of The Doctor, or the destruction of the universe. The Doctor simply cannot travel back in time and change those, as the universe would create a paradox far worse than the occurrence.
LOST explains it as “course correction” and that “Whatever happened, happened.” Despite the efforts of all of the main characters when they travel back in time, they cannot change the timeline, and were always destined to reach the island. The only character that can change his or her own timeline is Desmond Hume, for reasons unknown, other than him being “special.” Rather than time traveling as a person, Desmond’s consciousness moves in time. His mind goes to where his body already exists, allowing him to experience events over, rather than for the first time. Desmond’s ability, however, only allows him to change how something happens, rather than something occurring in general. He decides to buy the ring for his girlfriend after not doing so originally, but his girlfriend still leaves him due to the universe “course correcting” itself.
Slaughterhouse-Five prevents the above problems by creating time traveling more as a “life flashing before your eyes” experience for Billy, rather than actually traveling through time and space. Billy can only react to his life as if he were watching a movie of it; he has no power to affect what happens in the slightest sense. Billy’s time traveling is akin to Desmond’s in the sense that it is his consciousness doing the traveling, and not his body; in essence, he never travels to a time where he didn’t exist. This also creates a paradox-free world where he never has to worry about running into himself in a location, as he is inside of the sole body that existed at the time. No incidents occur in this world that can occur in the worlds of Back To The Future, Doctor Who, or LOST.
In his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut cleverly creates a world where the protagonist can drift freely in a non-chronological world without suffering the paradoxical consequences that come with most time-traveling stories.