Saturday, March 01, 2008

LOST in Slaughterhouse Five

After watching Desmond unstuck in time in The Constant I decided to re-read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five which features a similarly unstuck protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. I'm going to list out things from the book that remind me of themes in LOST roughly in the order they occur in the book. Feel free to comment and theorize away.

  • The author of the book majored in Anthropology. Charlotte Lewis did too.
  • Aliens abduct Billy, take him to their planet and keep him in a zoo cage where he mates with another abducted Earth female. The cage is furnished much like the Swan with appliances and furniture from Sears and a working record player. Billy exercises each day to stay in shape; makes his meals; cleans his dishes. I don't know if he does it to "Make Your Own Kind Of Music."
  • Billy got to the alien planet through a time warp allowing him to spend years on the alien planet but only be gone from Earth a microsecond.
  • The aliens taught Billy that when a person dies he only appears to die because he's still alive in the past. The aliens view time, past, present and future, as always existing and permanent. They can focus in on a particular moment like we would focus in on one part of the Rocky Mountains. Time does not pass one moment to the next with moments disappearing forever once they are past. You can be dead in this moment, but fine in plenty of others, so they don't fret about death.
  • Billy first becomes unstuck in time while serving in the US Army in World War II.
  • Billy describes his death as a violet light and a hum.
  • As a child Billy's father tries to teach him to swim by throwing him in the pool leaving him to sink or swim. Kind of reminds me of Charlie.
  • At one point Billy shifts from WWII to the 195os where he's about to give a speech. He worries that he will sound like his WWII young kid self, but in fact he delivers his confident Toastmasters-type speech. So unlike Desmond Billy seems to act appropriately wherever he is and can adapt. He seems to have all his consciousnesses at all times.
  • But when Billy is moving around he does have to rely on visual cues such as his car to figure out when exactly he is. He does not instinctively know.
  • Every so often, for no apparent reason, Billy would find himself weeping.
  • Christmas 1944 passes unremarked for Billy and the author who find themselves as POWs in a railroad car at the time.
  • There's an Alice in Wonderland "Drink Me" bottle reference.
  • Billy's movements in time aren't always consistent. For example, being slightly unstuck in time he watches a movie backwards . He also knows in advance what time the aliens are coming for him, and willingly goes out to meet them. As the novel progresses he can clearly "remember" all the moments of his life from birth to death rather than being surprised that he's now in X year or Y place.
  • In the POW camp, Billy begins shrieking uncontrollably and is taking to the hospital, strapped down and given morphine. The shrieking was not time travel related, but it reminded me of Minkowski and his description of Brandon.
  • Within 4 years of starting this time traveling, Billy voluntarily commits himself to a mental hospital because he believes he is going crazy.
  • Billy begins to look for meaning by reading science fiction. No mention of Philip K. Dick though.
  • A fellow mental ward patient tells Billy that everything there is to know about life is in The Brothers Karamazov.
  • A fake book is referenced about people whose mental diseases couldn't be treated because the causes of the diseases were all in the 4th dimension and doctors didn't know couldn't see or even imagine them.
  • According to the aliens in order to get Earthling babies you need not only the normal mom and dad but you need homosexual males, women over 65, and babies who lived an hour or less after birth, plus 2 other types of people. Maybe that's what's wrong on the Island.
  • Even though the aliens know what will happen at all moments in time, including the end of the universe, they do nothing to change any of those moments. Those moments are the way they are structured.
  • The woman that Billy Pilgrim makes pregnant on the alien planet stays on the alien planet to raise the baby instead of going back to Earth.
Desmond and Billy Pilgrim are both unstuck in time, but there are stark differences in Billy and Desmond's time travel in The Constant. Billy never truly gets lost in time as Desmond seemed to and as seemed to lead to Minkowski and Eloise's deaths. Instead Slaughterhouse Five takes the position that moments in time are discreet events that your lifetime collective consciousness can move between. Billy doesn't need a constant to move seamlessly through time, though that may be in large part attributable to the lessons the aliens teach him about time and his subsequent nonchalant attitude.

In Slaughterhouse Five you cannot change these moments in time that you move through repeatedly. Billy knows when others are going to die, but does nothing to warn those people or stop them. Similarly the aliens know when and how the universe will be destroyed, but do nothing to prevent it. Death is therefore meaningless to Billy and the aliens and is summed up over and over with the phrase, "So it goes." Your moment of death is structured that way; you don't mess with it. A philosophy I'm sure would be Mrs. Hawking approved.

There is no traumatic event that triggers Billy's unstuckness in time. He wasn't exposed to radiation or electro-magnetism and thrust through some barrier. Instead he just started coming unstuck at a point in his life when he was tired, cold and frankly willing to die. Both Billy and Desmond were serving in their respective militaries when their unstuckness began. Other than that we're given no clue as to why Billy is unstuck or if there are others who are unstuck.

Another key difference is that Billy develops the ability to access every moment of his life from beginning to end as he's time-shifting. This ability seems to become stronger as the novel and presumably Billy's life progresses. Early on Billy seems nervous and uncertain as this happens, but later in the novel Billy can for the most part tell quickly and accurately where he is and what's going to happen next. And in the case of the alien abduction he even anticipates and plans for it. Desmond clearly hasn't developed this skill, but I wonder if Ben has.

Slaughterhouse Five is a unique blend of an anti-war book that examines critically the fate of child soldiers at the hands of removed commanders and the glamorization of war mixed with a unique form of the science fiction of time travel and aliens. Is this what's happening on the Island? To Ben? To Desmond? Definitely not in a one to one translation as is the case with every other reference the show makes to things literary, pop culture, and scientific. But is it worth taking a look at to figure out what might be going on in LOST? Absolutely.


Ange said...

Wow, just wow! You did an excellent job with this and it was just such a pleasure to read. I kept saying, "OH YEAH." at all the points you brought up. Plus, it's one of my favorite books ever ever. Thanks for this.

maven said...

Thanks, Memphish! I read this book soooo long ago. I can see where Darlton might have gotten some of the time traveling from. They're entitled to extreme dramatic license! LOL

memphish said...

I failed to mention another key similarity to LOST -- Billy is 1 of 2 survivors of a plane crash.

And another big difference is that for the most part Billy shifted around in time from place A to place B to place C sometimes even D before going back to A. Desmond in both 1996 and 2004 was bouncing chronologically back and forth between a few days in 1996 and 1 day in 2004.

memphish said...

And another thing. I like how in Slaughterhouse 5 Billy can only shift between places and times in his own life. In other words he can't pull a Bill and Ted and pay a call on Abraham Lincoln. Nor can he come to 2010 and back so that he can tell us what was actually happening all this time on LOST because he died before 2010.

Capcom said...

Thanks for putting this all together for us Memphish!

Well, all I have to say is...what's the point of traveling in time if you can't change and improve any parts of your life?! When I was watching Dez tripping back and forth, I was thinking about how anyone who's ever said, "If I only knew then what I knew now..." might not mind a few trips back to improve a few things. :-) I sure wouldn't mind.

memphish said...

Well the aliens would tell you Capcom that the point is to only focus in on and relive the pleasant moments of your life. Moments that you wouldn't want to change anyway. Billy seems unable to control where in time he goes, but it's implied that aliens have achieved that control. But even the moments you aren't focused on are still existing. I guess the aliens would say something like you have to take the good with the bad since those moments are structured that way. So it goes.

Capcom said...

And so it went. :-)

hatchling23 said...

The only part of this that I find disquieting is the references to the aliens. Somehow, I don't want to find out that the island is a big alien spaceship or a wormhole to Planet X.

I do agree about Ben perhaps having mastered some sort of control over his "flashes" for lack of a better word. Ben is always a step or two ahead and I think we are starting to understand why.

I have never read Slaughterhouse Five, but after your write up I think I will look for it at the library.

Lost 2010 said...

Aha! Slaughterhouse Five. I got it into my head that the book where the character comes unstuck in time was Catch 22. So I'm reading that instead at the moment, but I'll definitely put this one on my list next. It sounds interesting.

Lost 2010 said...
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