Slaughterhouse-Five is a postmodern novel that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, the war novel, and the semi-autobiographical novel. Postmodernist literature, developed in the middle of the 20th century, is characterized by highly fragmented narratives, an ironic tone, and skepticism toward social progress and objective morality. All of these elements are visible in Slaughterhouse-Five , which, like the Tralfamadorian novel, aims to have “no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.” Another element of the postmodern novel is metafiction. Metafiction is any work of fiction that continuously draws attention to the fact that it is a product of the author’s imagination. Examples of this can be seen throughout all of Chapter 1, in which the author, Kurt Vonnegut, talks about his struggle to write his “famous Dresden book,” which is Slaughterhouse-Five itself. Postmodern writing also frequently combines a variety of different genres. Thus, part of what makes Slaughterhouse-Five postmodern is the fact that it can be classified within different genres.
On a first reading, Slaughterhouse-Five is perhaps most easily identifiable as a science fiction novel. After all, the protagonist Billy Pilgrim claims to be a time traveler who was abducted by aliens and taken to a zoo on their planet. However, unlike the traditional science fiction novel, Slaughterhouse-Five lacks both a strong plotline and a clear villain. In Chapter 1, the narrator recalls the words of his father: “‘You know—you never wrote a story with a villain in it.’” Billy’s story is no exception. What’s more, the novel does not make any serious attempt to build a realistic alternate world for the reader. The Tralfamadorians, whom Billy describes as “two-feet high and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends,” seem more ridiculous than realistic. Yet, as is common to the genre, the novel does rely on science fiction elements to explore big religious and political themes, such as fate, the afterlife, capitalism, and class.
The science fiction narrative does not feel fully realized in part because the other narratives, of World War II and of Vonnegut’s autobiography, are more central to the story. Billy’s narrative is bookended with two autobiographical chapters in which Vonnegut appears to speak directly about his life and his attempt to write Slaughterhouse-Five . Because of Chapter 1, where Vonnegut states that he survived the bombing of Dresden in a meat locker, one can infer that Billy’s war experiences are at least semi-autobiographical. Vonnegut also says on the first page, “The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” In this way, the novel is also semi-historical. Vonnegut provides facts and figures as well as an apparently true account of his experience of the bombing of Dresden, an historic event with few surviving witnesses. Thus, Slaughterhouse-Five is also a work of historical fiction, a genre that places its characters in historical situations and settings.
Finally, Slaughterhouse-Five is a war novel. However, one of its goals is to upset the conventions of that genre. A war novel is traditionally a story with a tense plotline that involves a few dramatic battle scenes from which a hero emerges. But there are no villains in Vonnegut’s novel, either behind German lines or back at home in the United States, and there are no heroes either. There are no winners and no losers, and there is no beginning and no end to the war, which is, for the time traveler Billy, constantly happening. Vonnegut wants to show just how terrible, cruel, and absurd war really is. He has no interest in recreating suspenseful and dramatic narratives of battle to romanticize war. Thus, the novel can be seen as a dismantling of the conventions of the war novel genre and ultimately emerging as an anti-war novel.