Slaughterhouse-Five at 50: Readalikes for Vonnegut Fans

Often when you're young, it's the books you discover on your own rather than the ones you're assigned in school that turn you into a lifelong reader. For me, one of those books was Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. It made a deep impression on me. To this day, I'll be walking along somewhere and suddenly I'll think of the line: "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." 

Slaughterhouse-five, Or, The Children's Crusade is about a man who (like Vonnegut) participated in the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II. Since then, he's been put in an alien zoo and now experiences his story in a chronology that's all out of order. The novel combined the science fiction elements I loved as a kid with the smarts of books I was required to read for school, along with a subversive sense of humor that, up to that point in my life, I'd never encountered in fiction. 

Reader, it blew my mind. So to pay tribute on the 50th anniversary of its publication, here are some reading suggestions for fans of the classic novel.

Vonnegut includes aliens in several of his books (especially his Tralfamadorians) and uses them in an interesting way: not to show us how strange aliens would be, but to show us how strange we humans are. By making us imagine what creatures from another planet might make of us, he challenges us to broaden our perspective. If he'd lived to see it, I think Kurt Vonnegut might have liked the novel The Humans by Matt Haig, or at least been touched by the tribute. A member of an alien race (which Haig names Vonnadorians) takes over the body of a British mathematician to prevent what its kind see as primitive humanity from making a dangerous breakthrough, but gradually it comes to appreciate another side of humanity. 

In terms of anti-war novels that use subversive humor to capture the intensity of the experience and a sense of the absurdity experienced by the authors during World War II, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is another classic likely to please fans of Slaughterhouse-Five (and, I guess, fans of hyphenated book titles). The novel mainly follows a U.S. Army Air Forces captain named Yossarian and some other characters serving in World War II. The novel is a goldmine of satire and absurdity, and the title, which refers to bureaucratic rules that are self-contradictory and prevent any possible solution, entered our cultural lingo long ago.

A more recent work of fiction that describes the insanity and contradictions of war for a new generation is Redeployment by Phil Klay. In these short stories, Klay does for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a bit of what Vonnegut and Heller did for World War II. 

Having been a fan of Vonnegut in my youth, I've also found some similar appeal in the work of Philip K. Dick (including our current One Book, One Chicago title, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and George Saunders, especially in his funny, surreal, sci-fi-ish stories such as those in Tenth of December.

Want more? For fans of Slaughterhouse-Five, NoveList Plus, one of our Books & Reading Online Resources, also suggests Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad for its disturbing and unconventional, perspective-changing approach to history, and Chang-rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea for its dramatic futuristic perspective on human civilization. Novelist also recommends the works of Theodore Sturgeon (who partly inspired Vonnegut's character Kilgore Trout), Christopher Moore, Philip Jose Farmer and Rachel Cantor, among others. Also, check out the fun blog post (A Little More Than) 11 Books Vonnegut Might Have Read from the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis.

And check out our blogger Angie's Top Picks: Celebrating Kurt Vonnegut