An American classic named by Modern Library as one of the top 20 best novels of all time, Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical, science fiction infused anti-war masterpiece that defies genre.
Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and POW who becomes “unstuck in time,” experiencing all known events of his chronology out of order and sometimes simultaneously. Traumatized by the bombing of Dresden, Pilgrim drifts through all events and history—sometimes deeply implicated, sometimes a witness—as he struggles to find purpose, order, or meaning to his own existence and to that of humanity.
Published on March 31, 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is the result of what Kurt Vonnegut described as a twenty-three-year struggle to write a book about what he had witnessed as an American prisoner of war. It combines historical fiction, science fiction, autobiography, and satire in an account of the life of Billy Pilgrim, a barber’s son turned draftee turned optometrist turned alien abductee. Billy experiences the destruction of Dresden as a POW, much like Vonnegut did. Unlike Vonnegut, he experiences time travel, or coming “unstuck in time.”
An instant bestseller, Slaughterhouse-Five made Kurt Vonnegut a cult hero in American literature, a reputation that only strengthened over time, despite the book being banned and censored by some libraries and schools for content and language. But it was precisely those elements of Vonnegut’s writing—the political edginess, the genre-bending inventiveness, the frank violence, the transgressive wit—that have inspired generations of readers not just to look differently at the world around them but to find the confidence to say something about it.
In 2019, The New Yorker wrote, “Vonnegut’s novel is about that, about the inevitability of human violence, and about what it does to the not particularly violent human beings who get caught up in it.” Slaughterhouse-Five remained on the New York Times bestseller list for a total of sixteen weeks. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award, and it was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo.