Incompatible Arrows, II: Kurt Vonnegut

By Sean Carroll | April 1, 2008 10:12 am

As Richard mentions in comments, another famous example of temporal reversal is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, comes unmoored in time, and finds himself experiencing wildly disconnected moments of his life in an unpredictable order. At one point he becomes unstuck in time and watches a movie played backwards. The movie shows the firebombing of Dresden, which Pilgrim had witnessed in person.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

In the Afterword to Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis credits a “famous paragraph” by Vonnegut in inspiring his work; it is generally thought that this is the paragraph, although others have suggested something from Mother Night.

Besides incompatible arrows of time, Slaughterhouse-Five explains the temporal viewpoint of the intelligent beings on the planet Tralfamadore, who can see all of time at a single glance:

The Tralfamadorans can look at all different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

The Tralfamadorans are “eternalists,” who buy into the block time view of the universe — that the past, present, and future are equally real. They are so convincing, indeed, that Slaughterhouse-Five is quoted by Scholarpedia as an illustration of the concept.

  • Blake Stacey

    Next up: Merlin, and the day he rented Memento.

  • Sean

    Now, you know perfectly well that Memento plays tricks with chronology, but all of its arrows are perfectly aligned.

  • John Merryman

    Edgar Allen Poe is attributed with describing space and “duration” as one and the same, the precursor of four dimensional spacetime. It is interesting that writers, who must develop series of events into a coherent narrative whole, should be the ones best at presenting the concept of time as an actual dimension. We instinctively treat time as a dimension. It’s called narrative, or history.
    How events should be so connected, for the transitions to be seamless, yet so distinct they don’t just all blur together, or that we see the future approaching and the past receding, is another question.

  • Adam

    Speaking of inconsistent chronologies, a seasonal application has been added to gmail:

  • Zwirko

    One of my most favourite SF stories is that of “The Time Lapsed Man” by Eric Brown, wherein the protagonist becomes temporally disconnected not from time itself (if that makes sense), but from his own senses. It’s quite a mild condition at first, but as more and more senses become time-lagged and by ever increasing lengths of time it progresses rapidly… to a sad ending.

    Since the arrow of time is still pointing in the right direction in this story I’m not sure if it qualifies.

  • John Merryman


    Here is a link to a story about the exact opposite effect;

    It is about a neuroscientist’s experience with a stroke on the left side of her brain, which disrupted the linear, analytic functions, while leaving her very aware of the immediacy of her situation.

    Sort of a real life Flowers for Algernon, but going the opposite direction.

  • Brett

    I’m surprised I didn’t immediately think of my favorite example of reversed time fiction, Himself in Anachron by Cordwainer Smith. It, a leftover from Paul Linebarger’s notebooks, was supposed to be in Last Dangerous Visions (which has time progression problems of its own), but didn’t appear until 1993. Rather than merely experiencing time backward, the protagonist really lives backward (and very, very slowly).

  • Pieter Kok

    Another great Vonnegut is Timequake, in which a period of time (I believe ten years) is repeated. Everybody is aware they are re-living the decade, but they can’t change anything. When normal time kicks in again, many people are so accustomed to the spectator role that total chaos ensues. Worth a read!

  • Dr.Stuart Savory

    You should be able to ‘get’ this short story of mine even if you cannot read German. See

    It’s about the moment when time’s arrow reverses direction.

  • Carl Brannen

    Modern physics supports various “science” fiction ideas: worm holes, time travel, quantum superposition of planet sized objects, multiple universes, cosmological strings, vacuum decay, event horizons, etc.

    These crazy ideas would be a heck of a lot easier to swallow if they (a) had any direct observational support, or (b) were derived from theories that unified all the forces.

    When you see crap come out of an incomplete theory, it’s a sign that your theory is crap. It’s not a sign that the world is a strange place. It’s a sign that there are many many different theories that are compatible with observations and you just happened to randomly choose one that is very likely wrong.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I imagine Groundhog Day will be coming up soon, in which the arrow of time is split into a multitude of arrowlets, all of which travel in parallel.

  • Michael T.

    How about a meandering arrow of time. One of my favorites is Alfred Besters, “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed”.

    From Wikipedia; “is an ingenious twist on the standard time-paradox story. A man discovers how to travel through time, and arrogantly decides to alter the present by journeying into the past and murdering prominent historical figures. He returns to the present, only to discover that nothing has changed … except that it has, but in an unexpected way.”

  • Amanda

    I hope all this presages another post on the arrow of time…..I’d particularly like to hear SC tell us about whether inflation really solves the Problems [flatness, horizon, etc].

  • Yvette

    I always thought Vonnegut was one of the best science fiction writers of time, between Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Galapagos alone. I hear though that he personally always hated being called a science fiction writer, as that’s what English departments liked to do to marginalize his impressive work (as sci-fi is not “respectable” of course).

  • Jesse M.

    Another fictional character who seems to naturally experience the eternalist perspective on time, seeing his entire worldline “all at once”, is “Dr. Manhattan” from Alan Moores’ famous revisionist superhero comic Watchmen.

  • per

    I would recommend Sirens of Titan.

  • Mike Schuler

    You can’t go backwards in time because: (1) The past doesn’t actually exist. It’s just a memory. (2) There’s no such thing as an “arrow of time.” (3) In order for time to “reverse direction,” it would have to have an original direction of motion to begin with, which it doesn’t. (4) Time doesn’t “move.” Only objects move. It may take a certain measure of time for an object to move a certain measure through space, but nothing “moves through time.”

  • Mike Schuler

    p.s. I discovered Vonnegut when I was a pre-teen back in the 60’s. He’s my favorite author and I was so thrilled when they made Slaughterhouse Five into a movie. I was telling my friends “We gotta see this movie,” but then my friends were greatly disapointed because they were expecting the sequel to the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

    Schlachthausen fünf,…Schlachthausen fünf,…Schlachthausen fünf,…

  • John Merryman


    You can’t go backwards in time because: (1) The past doesn’t actually exist. It’s just a memory. (2) There’s no such thing as an “arrow of time.” (3) In order for time to “reverse direction,” it would have to have an original direction of motion to begin with, which it doesn’t. (4) Time doesn’t “move.” Only objects move. It may take a certain measure of time for an object to move a certain measure through space, but nothing “moves through time.”

    That just doesn’t compute according to modern physics. All of time is supposed to be just one big metadimension, so trying to argue time is a consequence of motion rather than the basis for it will only get you ignored. It’s easier to ignore logic then admit systemic failure. Just ask Bush.

  • Mike Schuler

    I still say that the past does not exist in any way other than a memory. Perhaps modern physics entertains a harmony of illusion, if it seems otherwise. Physics has been wrong before. Time can still be the basis for motion, but in order go to the past, there would have to be some place to go, and there just isn’t.

  • jeff

    Whether your an eternalist or a presentist, you still have have the problem of explaining what “now” is. It can only be defined relative your own consciousness – there is no other standard. So what happens to time when you die?

  • Mike Schuler

    Would the universe exist if there was no living thing to perceive it? There can’t be a “now” because everything we perceive has already happened 3/4 of a second before we perceived it. Even the present is just a memory, and therefore does not actually exist in physical reality.

  • John Merryman


    The future doesn’t exist either. Reality is just motion, which is energy in space. Since energy is conserved, the past is erased as the present is deciding among future potentials. This means the series of events that is time actually goes from future potential to past circumstance. The energy really just stays as what is present. I’ve been making the argument that as a measure of motion, time has more in common with temperature, than space(which I do feel represents something more fundamental, as the void, the context to the content of energy). Some of this is laid out in the second comment to the “Incompatible Arrows I”post. Modern physics is obsessed with information, which is time as dimension. If time is simply a consequence of motion, than information is constantly being created and destroyed and the analytic mind doesn’t like to consider that aspect, because it puts massive constraints on what we can know. The mind prefers comfortable illusions over harsh realities.

  • jeff

    Even the present is just a memory, and therefore does not actually exist in physical reality

    Careful.. getting dangerously close to idealism here 😉

  • John Merryman

    Jeff, Mike,

    However you subjectively measure it, there is only what there is. Yes, we register events after they happen, just as we see the light from distant stars eons after it’s emitted. The present doesn’t exist as a point, because it would be meaningless to describe a measurement of motion as a point. That would be like a temperature of absolute zero; The complete absence of motion. Although most motion is at the speed of light and our brains process information as frames/thoughts, otherwise it would all blur together, so we do think as a series of points.

  • John Merryman

    But as with everything, our minds go from past to future thoughts, as these thoughts go from being in the future to being in the past.

  • jeff

    If the present does not actually exist, than neither does the past or the future. So.. whenever we see physics articles discussing what happened to the universe in the past, or what will happen to it in the future, it’s all relative to this fantasy of “now” that we’re having, and should not be taken seriously 😉

  • John R Ramsden

    Mike Schuler (#20) wrote:
    > I still say that the past does not exist in any way other than a memory.

    This is reminiscent of the well-known opening sentence from L P Hartley’s novel “The Go-Between” [ ].

    This evocative (if somewhat nostalgic and gloomy) novel was later made into a film, starring among others Julie Christie and Alan Bates .

    For the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with this opening, and not curious or energetic enough to click the Wikipedia link, it goes:

    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

  • Mike Schuler

    Time is Nature’s way of stopping everything from happening at once.

  • John Merryman


    That is a good description of the past, given how much we really don’t know or remember of it. When my daughter was a baby, I had several flashbacks of my little sister at that age. I was four at the time and I remembered that at that age I still remembered being a baby.

    Oftentimes it seems like life is a hall of mirrors and we see what we know, but occasionally something gets out of whack and everything is strange, then our instinct is to make it normal again. When this operates on the group level, it manifests as nationalism, religion, or other tribal clustering and the foreign is the other. Our minds like grooves, just sometimes they get too deep and become ruts.


    What exists is the energy. Past, present and future are configurations of this energy.

  • Kris Verburgh

    I read Slaughterhouse 5: a great book! I plan to read the complete Vonnegut saga.

  • Sam Cox

    jeff on Apr 2nd, 2008 at 11:20 am said,
    “…Just to elaborate a little on my last post: I once had a memorable experience that I’m sure many others have also had. I was anesthetized for several hours while my wisdom teeth were removed. The amazing thing was that those hours went by instantaneously for me. I was asked to count backwards from 100, and when I got to 97 the doctor said, “We’re done!” It was disorienting and hard to believe. A completely dreamless sleep. A sharp temporal discontinuity
    – like a robot being turned off and on again.

    When I recall that experience, I wonder if death might be like that – the ultimate temporal discontinuity. When you are dead, any finite amount of time will pass instantaneously. Twenty billion years or eight hundred googleplex years, it doesn’t matter. As far as we know, consciousness ends permanently at death, effectively erasing time and pulling the plug on the universe. As long as it’s finite, the universe will be over and gone as if it had never existed. A brief dream, and a dream without a dreamer has no chance of being remembered. On the other hand, if time extends infinitely into the future…”

    The only reason this experience made an impression on you was that time for the universe as observed and measured by others, and eventually and indisputably noted by you, had continued, while your “plug had been pulled”.

    You had enough perpective on what happened to be kind of shocked by becomming a mini-Rip Van Winkle. I was overseas for 10 solid years (and fully conscious!) but when I came back home to the USA had a very similar kind of (shocking) experience. Street corners didn’t even look the same. Buildings were gone. Other new buidings had been constructed. Even the mentality of the country had changed. I won’t even discuss the changes in technology. I still perfectly remembered the procedures for operating my business, but none of what I “knew” was appropriate any more…I had to re-learn everything.

    This business of consciousness is a very practical matter. Lets look at it another way. Your consciousness never really ceased at all. Time ceased, so now if anybody asks you whether there are places in the universe which are timeless, you can say yes…you know of a place by experience.

    I liked your saying that the universe seemed to cease to exist. That has an element of truth, but you were only able to make that observation because you had two different frames of reference (before and after) in which you had roughly the same level of consciousness to compare.

    In death there is no passage of time, nor “rest”. Consciousness, the collective consciouness of all living is as eternal as the universe. Your consciouness is no different. This is where the geometry of the universe becomes important. Einstein points to a marginally closed space time.

    If Einstein is right, and we sure have some powerful experimental verification of his concept!) after death you will not “awaken” with the full possession of your faculties so you can orient yourself and meditate on the nature of consciouness.

    Rather, you will gradually become, after death, aware of your own childhood, with no rememberence whatever of your precious existence. Gradually, you will become almost identical to what you are now, but that will seem to be your “only” life…just as much as your present one. In a sense, we live in an eternal present…there is only “now”. As Einstein noted: “Time is an illusion”.

    In fact this life, that one and the following ones IS your only life! You, like the universe itself, in an Einsteinian geometry have an eternal location in space and time…a UNIQUE location in space and time. When your invariant particulate coordinates come around in the momentum of General Relativity, there you are, forever. Only your scientific knowledge can help you establish a “memory” of the way the universe really is, and understand that from your 4D frame you are actually existing over and over again, forever.

    If you, and all of us didn’t eternally exist, we wouldn’t be here talking about it, because we, and the universe would have ceased to exist long ago.

  • Sam Cox


    Complete parentheses

    previous, not precious!

  • Sam Cox


    One additonal thought. In a real sense with regard to consciouness itself, there is no such thing as non-existence, because non-existence must be defined in terms of the existing. By itself non-existence cannot stand alone, it means nothing at all…it is, like all knowledge, a semantic construct of the consciious which relates only to the existing universe….


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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