Galápagos: Don’t feel sorry for any of these people

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsGalapagos by Kurt Vonnegut Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

Kilgore Trout, who appears in many of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, is a science fiction writer whose ideas and stories are interesting even though his plots and characters are dreadful. My favorite Kilgore Trout story is summarized in Breakfast of Champions. Here, Trout writes about extra-terrestrials that come to earth to prevent nuclear holocaust. Unfortunately, they rely on tap dancing and farts to communicate, so the confused humans immediately kill their furiously farting and tap dancing visitors. This depressing depiction of humanity is common in both Trout and Vonnegut’s writing.

Trout is Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional alter ego. Vonnegut acknowledges that Trout isn’t a very good writer, and consequently publishes all of Trout’s work in pornographic magazines. So Kurt Vonnegut must have been surprised when he realized that had become one of the most acclaimed satirists of the 20th century, even though his writing strongly recalls Kilgore Trout’s.

In fact, just minutes after reading Galápagos, I was already struggling to remember who was in the novel – let alone what they did. As per usual, the world happens to Vonnegut’s characters rather than vice versa and even their most heart-breaking loss is little more than another piece of evidence confirming Trout’s view that “the more you learn about people the more disgusted you’ll become.” Galápagos has any number of disgusting tragedies, ranging from the abusive relationships to a revaluation of national currencies that leads to starvation in Central America.

But don’t feel sorry for any of these people.

After all, Darwin’s great book The Origin of Species has done “more to stabilize people’s volatile opinions of how to identify success or failure than any other tome.” A sober understanding of these people as evolutionary failures is more accurate than an analysis tainted by feelings of compassion or pity. Vonnegut takes a moment to hammer home how incredibly mundane every death is in Galápagos by placing an * in front of the names of the characters that will soon die.

Before long, all but a few members of *humanity can be included on the list of casualties.

Galápagos is set in 1986, but our narrator is explaining these events to us from a million years in the future. By this time, the only representative of the human race, as we understand it, is a ghost that explains the evolutionary processes that he has observed. He explains that the last humans continued to evolve on the Galápagos Islands. Humanity is now a furry, seal-like species that survives by fishing. Thankfully, the brain cavity of the average human has been streamlined to facilitate fishing, so humanity has finally rid itself of its greatest handicap: the “oversize human brain.” Now, people live far shorter lives and they are not nearly so cruel, jealous, or destructive.

These are the survivors that live to see the future. These seal-like humans are the success stories.

Or are they?

Galápagos is a dystopian novel that explains how seals, more or less, come to realize all of humanity’s highest ideals. They are a utopian society, though nothing very interesting happens anymore.

Vonnegut often mocks his work through Kilgore Trout. However, his ability to organize a dystopian story around evolution rather than government control is impressive. I will not remember any of the characters in Galápagos, but Kilgore Trout’s alter ego is clearly a talented writer with a knack for writing interesting stories.

~Ryan Skardal

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut This year I read or reread my favorite Kurt Vonnegut books after a two-decade gap: The Sirens of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1961), Cat’s Cradle (1963), and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). In these works, his trademark cynicism and resignation towards humanity’s recurrent vanity and folly was mitigated by his gallows humor and simple, unadorned prose. It’s a formula that really transcends any period and keeps his books popular among successive generations of readers, particularly younger people who connect with his consistent debunking of societies’ pretensions and hypocrisies.

I debated whether to add Galápagos (1985) to the list, since it comes much later in his career and some of his later books seemed to lack the energy and focus of his early works. In the end, it’s such a short book and the audiobook is narrated by the excellent Jonathan Davis, so I gave it a go. As it turns out, Galápagos served as a concise summation of the ideas that infuse his earlier books.

Galápagos is the story of the “Nature Cruise of the Century” aboard the Bahía de Darwin, a cruise set to depart Ecuador for the Galapagos Islands with a roster of wealthy and prominent passengers including Jackie Onassis, Henry Kissinger, Mick Jagger, and other celebs. However, right before the cruise embarks, a global financial crisis destroys the value of emerging currencies, rendering the value of the Ecuadorian currency “less than a banana peel” and scuppering the trip. However, a number of passengers are already in Ecuador, and amid growing unrest and hunger in the local population, the captain still hopes to depart with hundreds of gourmet meals still onboard. As you can imagine, things don’t go well, and the boat finally runs aground on the island of Santa Rosalia in the Galapagos.

The novel is narrated by an omniscient voice that does not identify itself for most of the book, but does indicate it is viewing the events of 1985 from a million years in the future. The narrator tells us that in this far future, humankind has completely evolved (or devolved) into streamlined, beaked creatures living in the Galapagos Islands that live mainly on fish, iguanas, Blue-footed Boobies, etc. Their key development is that they have evolved much smaller brains to adapt to a simple existence, free of all the miseries and neuroses that afflicted mankind a million years ago. In fact, humans’ hands have become flippers designed for swimming, so they no longer can use tools and recreate civilization. It turns out that civilization was wiped out by a virus that consumed human eggs in the uterus, and the only survivors are descended from the passengers (and a few others) of the Bahía de Darwin.

Throughout the story, the narrator dryly describes the various dramas that each passenger has gone through in their lives, and how this random gathering of people unwittingly becomes the start of a new human race. As always, the selection of people is utterly random due to the absence of a divine being controlling events, so everyone is flawed in various ways, with no heroes or villains. In fact, the only villain in the story is the oversized brains of people that created such an absurd and unsustainable global society in the first place.

This theme is very much in keeping with what Vonnegut has written before, and he has always had great pathos and empathy for the plight of the poor, deluded, and neurotic human race, but I think in Galápagos he pulls the focus even farther back (a million years, in fact) to observe humans from a great distance, and his conclusion is that the self-inflicted misery of the human race can only be solved by shrinking and simplifying those oversized, useless brains of ours that prevent us from being satisfied with a simple, unencumbered existence.

In other words, after several decades of writing about the stupidity of modern society, Vonnegut has essentially said, “you know what, it’s pretty obvious that we are hopeless basket cases and would be better off as simple-minded creatures that live a peaceful existence fishing and fornicating and otherwise thinking about nothing at all.” That suggests to me that the balance of his cynicism and humanism finally had tipped towards fatalism and that humanity is incapable of fixing its own problems. How we as readers take this message is entirely up to us, but it’s certainly not a comforting thought.

~Stuart Starosta

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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