Night came to the garden of giraffes, and Billy Pilgrim slept without dreaming for a while, and then he traveled in time. He woke up with his head under a blanket in a ward for nonviolent mental patients in a veterans' hospital near Lake Placid, New York. It was springtime in 1948, three years after the end of the war.
Billy uncovered his head. The windows of the the ward were open. Birds were twittering outside. "Poo-tee-weet?" one asked him. The sun was high. There were twenty-nine other patients assigned to the ward, but they were all outdoors now, enjoying the day. They were free to come and go as they pleased, to go home, even, if they like--and so was Billy Pilgrim. They had come here voluntarily, alarmed by the outside world.
Billy had committed himself in the middle of his final year at the Ilium School of Optometry. Nobody suspected that he was going crazy. Everybody else thought he looked fine and was acting fine. Now he was in the hospital. The doctors agreed. He was going crazy.
They didn't think it had anything to do with the war. They were sure Billy was going to pieces because his father had thrown him into the deep end of the Y.M.C.A. swimming pool when he was a little boy, and had then taken him to the rim of the Grand Canyon.
The man assigned to the bed next to Billy's was a former infantry captain named Eliot Rosewater. Rosewater was sick and tired of being drunk all the time.
It was Rosewater who introduced Billy to science fiction, and in particular to the writings of Kilgore Trout. Rosewater had a tremendous collection of science-fiction paperbacks under his bed. He had brought them to the hospital in a steamer trunk. Those beloved, frumpish books gave off a smell that permeated the ward--like flannel pajamas that hadn't been changed for a month, or like Irish stew.
Kilgore Trout became Billy's favorite living author, and science fiction became the only sort of tales he could read.
Rosewater was twice as smart as Billy, but he and Billy were dealing with similar crises in similar ways. They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war. Rosewater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old foreman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes.
So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.
Of course, science fiction is a huge part of Slaughterhouse. Billy is unstuck in time through the entire novel. He travels on a flying saucer, lives in a zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore. Now, the question is whether the science fiction aspects of the book are just the results of Billy's unstable mind, or are they real? Is Billy a time and flying saucer traveler? Does Tralfamadore exist out in the far reaches of the universe, beyond stars and time, or in the inner reaches of Billy's brain?
I prefer to accept Vonnegut's science fiction as the truth of the novel. I want to believe in the collapse of time and the presence of alien life on the planet Earth. Of course, I grew up watching sci-fi movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. I loved sci-fi before Star Wars. Grew up watching reruns of the original Star Trek. I wanted a tribble for a pet.
I think my attraction to the genre is very much the same as Billy Pilgrim's. I love the idea of reinventing myself and the universe. Science fiction is all about possibility for something better. Or something worse. It all depends on what aliens have taken over the planet, and whether those aliens eat human beings, breed them as slaves, or find them "fascinating," to quote Spock.
I want to believe in a better future (hard to do in Trumpland right now). I want to reinvent myself into a better me. Richer. Smarter. Thinner. More successful. All I need to do is come up with a way to teleport myself across the universe or meet a kind Tralfamdorian who likes my jokes.
Of course, Vonnegut uses science fiction as a way of dealing with, as he says above, "the greatest massacre in European history." Reality is too painful, too horrific. So, Vonnegut changes reality and time, gives himself an escape hatch on a flying saucer. It's through this alternate reality that Vonnegut is able to come to terms with all that he witnessed in Dresden. Kilgore Trout and the bird that sings "Poo-tee-weet?" fill in the gaps, ask the questions, provide the music in a world that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to Vonnegut.
That is what, I think, science fiction is all about, whether it be dystopian or pulp. The Day of the Triffids or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's about making sense out of senselessness, hope out of ashes.
Saint Marty is thankful tonight for martians and Jedi knights.