Everyone has a favorite book from their childhood, and for me, that book was Slaughterhouse Five. Whenever I’d get bored of rereading my hundreds of secondhand copies of The Baby-sitters Club and Sweet Valley High books, I’d go trawling through my mom’s bookshelves, and somewhere around age nine I found a slender, battered copy of Slaughterhouse Five wedged between the doorstoppers of Cujo and It. I had no idea what I was in for, but it said “the children’s war” in the subtitle, so clearly it was For Me.
I was right, though not for the reasons I expected.
Billy Pilgrim’s journey in and out of time is everything I wanted in a genre novel—which is to say, every genre. Gritty World War II historical angst and political commentary. Time travel! Otherworldly science fiction, complete with aliens who keep human zoos and deploy catchy metaphors for complicated concepts like the fourth dimension. A 1970s domestic drama. The hack pulp writer self-insert, Kilgore Trout.
Vonnegut manages all this while dropping some of my favorite descriptions in literature: the firebombed remnants of the town of Dresden resemble the “surface of the moon”; Billy Pilgrim and his dirty poncho hobbling through the snowy Black Forest looks like a “filthy flamingo.” And then it’s all stitched together with weird and wonderful recurring themes: and so it goes.
Granted, I didn’t catch all (or even half) of this on the first read. Or the second. Probably not even the third, when I read it for a high school literature class that grouped it with Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. (I forget the class’s stated theme—dystopia doesn’t quite apply to Slaughterhouse Five—so draw your own dots.) All I knew was that I wanted to tell stories like that—stories that flowed up and down and refused to be boxed in.
Genre is a fickle thing. When we set narrow boundaries on stories, genre quickly becomes a trope—the grizzled fantasy war vet facing a grimdark, recognizably European world, for example—and that too can quickly become cliché. The science fiction and fantasy genre fortunately has a way of reinventing itself, which can be both delightful and vexing. Delightful in the sheer breadth of options, but vexing when the market gorges too much on one narrow segment of the genre that collapses onto itself. Young adult, another category I’m closely familiar with, is even guiltier of this—if you wanted brooding teen vampires in 2007, you were in all kinds of luck, but not so much in 2017. And all those dystopians we loved in the early 2010s now feel woefully inadequate to prepare us for the improbable premise and on-the-nose, caricaturish villains we find ourselves confronted with today.
My favorite stories are those like Slaughterhouse Five that mix genres—not necessarily into a fine puree, but a chunky, sometimes messy blend. The Cornetto Trilogy movies (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End) offer send-ups of zombie movies, action flicks, and apocalyptic dramas respectively while never neglecting comedy and interpersonal drama. The cultish Frog Fractions video games excel at subverting game genres as they flow from one into the next, if not always to flawless effect.
And then the other books that draw from the same well. I’m currently reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which is at once a gentle British family drama, a war epic, and a Groundhog Day-sian quest to kill Hitler. Tim Powers’s Conviction slices up the creeping, spiderwebbing brand of spywork to mix it with magic and mysticism. My first novel, Sekret, draws from a similar well: my Cold War-era Russian teens, forced against their will to spy for the KGB, are imbued with a variety of psychic powers that add a new dimension to the espionage thrills. And in The Witch Who Came In From the Cold, the digital serial I showrun at Serial Box, we blend spycraft with witchcraft to create new factions that transcend the Iron Curtain.
But the time travel—or “unstuck in time”—aspect of Slaughterhouse Five might be one of the most pervasive aspects of the novel’s contribution to science fiction and fantasy. Recently, the fourth dimension has become a major plot factor in science fiction, in everything from Interstellar and The Edge of Tomorrow to (spoiler alert) The Arrival. The Tralfamadorians describe humans’ conception of time as watching the world go by while strapped to a rail car, watching through a narrow straw, rather than seeing the whole scenery—the span of all time.
In these stories, the human is often overwhelmed with the truth of their life: they try to use that knowledge to change things, or to deliver warnings or information that will let others make a necessary change. Some argue that to know the future is boring; it’s why we avoid spoilers and love the plot twists we can’t see coming. Billy Pilgrim, though—not so much. Through Billy Pilgrim’s eyes, we’re along for that rail car ride, knowing how the sliced-up story ends, and yet enjoying its composition all the same.
Lindsay Smith is the lead writer on The Witch Who Came In From The Cold from Serial Box, which recently began its second season. She is also the author of the YA espionage thrillers Sekret, Skandal, and Dreamstrider, all from Macmillan Children’s. Her stories “Doppel” and “Kingmaker” have appeared on Tor.com. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and dog, where she writes on international issues in cyber security. Find her on Twitter @LindsaySmithDC.