Galapagos by Vonnegut, Kurt, 1985

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I think one of the reasons that most of the critics are reluctant to attach the "SF" badge to Kurt Vonnegut is because he absolutely refused to write anything that was outwardly optimistic. He also hated being described as a SF writer. But I digress. Many of his stories do have a strong pessimistic element followed sometimes by an optimistic ending, at least after a tortured interpretation. But many authors of his era were writing some pretty optimistic stuff. Still, I really cannot figure out what everyone's problem this is. Consider his wonderful 1986 novel, Galapagos. Itís about evolution and the end of the world, and even though itís also a ghost story. How could he not be SF? Four out of five stars.

Told out of time, Galapagos is the story of a group of castaways who wash up on the imaginary island of Santa Rosalia in the Galapagos after the supposed destruction of the world. Vonnegut is none too clear about what happened to the planet, but that is all part of the fun. The book is not short, though if he wanted to Vonnegut could have told the entire story in twenty pages. Again though, where is the fun in that? In Galapagos Vonnegut delights in jumping from time to time and telling multiple versions of the same story from different points of view. The characters are all interrelated in ways that none of them realize, and as hackneyed a literary idea as that is today, Vonnegut made it work pretty well. The book tells the story of an Ecuadorian businessman's plan to run "The Nature Cruise of the Century!" which sounded so delightful that people like Jackie Kennedy, David Bowie and Mick Jagger planned on attending. But a world-wide economic crisis ended the voyage before it ever started, and the only people who showed up were the no-names that that the cruise line forgot to call.

The book is narrated by the son of one of Vonnegut's ever-present players, Kilgore Trout. Leon Trotsky Trout was a marine in Vietnam who sought asylum from the U.S. Government in Sweden after massacring a village. He got a job in Malmo working on the Bahai de Darwin, the ship that was to be used on The Nature Cruise of the Century! While working on the ship Leon was decapitated, but when the Blue Tunnel to the Afterlife showed up for him, he decided to stay. The Blue Tunnel appeared for him a few more times, and the last time it appeared Kilgore tried to get him to come along. Leon felt that he had died before his time, and wanted to stay on Earth to see for himself if humanity was worth the trouble. The owner of the Blue Tunnel apparently became incensed that Leon would not enter it, and told him that it would come again for him in one million years. Leon stayed on Santa Rosalia with the 8 or so humans who survived the apocalypse as they devolve into a new species of man with flippers, streamlined heads and smaller brains. Though everyone agreed that the best thing that ever happened to mankind was the loss of fingers and the downsizing of the average brain, so the right term may be "evolve." In fact, the meta-message in this novel is certainly that the rest of the world, and probably our own race, would be better off if we just stopped doing everything that we are doing and become simpleton fishermen. Leon recounts at one point one of his father's novels, and realizes that perhaps Kilgore was not as useless an author as the rest of the world thought.

I am reminded of one of my fatherís novels, The Era of Hopeful Monsters. It was about a planet where the humanoids ignored their most serious survival problems until the last possible moment. And then, with all the forests being killed and all the lakes being poisoned by acid rain, and all the ground water made unpotable by industrial wastes and so on, the humanoids found themselves the parents of children with wings or antlers or fins, with a hundred eyes and with no eyes, with huge brains, with no brains, and on and on. These were Nature's experiments with creatures which might, as a matter of luck, be better planetary citizens than the humanoids. Most died, or had to be shot, or whatever, but a few were really quite promising, and they intermarried and had young like themselves.

I will now call my own lifetime a million years ago "the Era of Hopeful Monsters," with most of the monsters novel in personality rather than body type. And there are no such experiments, either with bodies or personalities, going on at the same time.

The story that Vonnegut presents is very detailed, and itís essentially about how humans do things in the interest of self preservation that hurt others unintentionally. Vonnegut also rails against people's gullibility, and suggests that the unlikely things that we come to believe also hurt society and others in it. His biggest hobgoblin though seems to be that mankind in general is just made up of a bunch of stupid monkeys who cannot help but get into trouble, just like some of the still lovable, hair-covered buffoons that you can find at the zoo, and who are basically different versions of us. But once we get less mentally complex, lose our opposable thumbs, we should be OK for the rest of the world to tolerate. The message is as dour as any other Vonnegut has given us before, though I appreciated the point of view of Leon, which was fresher and much more open that anything Vonnegut on his own would have given us in his own voice. This is definitely not one of Vonnegut's best SF books, though when it came out it signaled a return to the genre for Vonnegut after an absence of many years. Itís fun and gloomy at the same time, but itís a great read, the characterizations are hysterical and Vonnegut's style similar to none.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)


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