Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a decidedly non-heroic man who has become "unstuck in time." He travels back and forth in time, visiting his birth, death, all the moments in between repeatedly and out of order. The novel is framed by Chapters One and Ten, in which Vonnegut himself talks about the difficulties of writing the novel and the effects of Dresden on his own life. In between, Billy Pilgrim's life is given to us out of order and in small fragments. For the sake of clarity, this short summary will put Billy's life in chronological order, although in the novel every chapter spans events over the course of many years.
Billy is born in 1922 in Ilium, New York. He grows into a weak and awkward young man, studying briefly at the Ilium School of Optometry briefly before he is drafted. After minimal training, he sent to Europe right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. He is captured behind German lines; before his capture is the first time he gets unstuck in time.
Billy and the other American POWs are temporarily shipped to a camp full of dying Russians and a few pampered British officers. The Americans then are moved to Dresden, a beautiful German city that has no major industries and no significant military presence. No one expects Dresden to be bombed. But in the span of one night in February of 1945, Dresden is bombed until almost nothing is left. 130,000 people die. Billy and the other POWs wait out the bombing in a meat cellar. The next day at noon, the come out and find a landscape that looks like the surface of the moon. With no food or water, the POWs and four guards trek out to the suburbs. The American prisoners stay in an innkeepers stable for a while, but soon the authorities round up POWs to excavate the city for bodies. When that work is over, Billy and the other men return to the stable to wait out the rest of the war. In May, Russians take the area and Billy is repatriated.
He goes back to Ilium to finish optometry school. After getting engaged to the daughter of the school's owner, Billy has a mental breakdown and is committed to a veteran's hospital. There, he is introduced to the science fiction of Kilgore Trout by a fellow patient. After he is release, he marries Valencia as planned. Her father is wealthy, and with a little help from him, Billy grows rich. Billy and Valencia have two children.
On the night of his daughter's wedding, Billy (as he claims) is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians exist in the fourth dimension, and consquently they have a completely different view of time. For them, all moments happen simultaneously and always. They take him to their world and put him in a zoo, where he mates with an actress called Montana Wildhack. Using a time warp, they return him to a earth almost immediately after the moment that he left, so no one notices that he has been missing for months. He says nothing about the events until he suffers head injuries in a plane crash. His wife dies almost immediately afterward. After he goes home, he runs off to New York and goes on a radio talk show to talk about his alien abduction experiences and the Tralfamadorian concept of time. His daughter Barbara, just twenty-one years old, suddenly motherless and with a father who appears to be mentally unbalanced, takes care of Billy but feels a great deal of resentment and frustration.
Billy claims to know how he will die. In 1976, after the U.S. is split into petty nations and Chicago is hydrogen-bombed "by angry chinamen," Billy is killed by a high-powered laser gun.