Saturday, 18 August 2001

Kurt Vonnegut: Galapagos (1985)

Edition: Flamingo, 1994
Review number: 913

It would, I think, be fair to describe just about all of Vonnegut's writing as cynical about human achievement and particularly about twentieth century Western civilization. Galapagos is his most misanthropic novel, with nothing positive to say about "big brained" humanity.

The narrator of Galapagos is a ghost, of a son of Vonnegut's fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout. He tells the story of a calamity which strikes humanity in 1986, which eventually leads to the extinction of all the human race except those descended from a small group shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalia, most northerly of the Galapagos. (What happens to the several thousand people who live on the islands today he doesn't say.) Over the next million years, their descendants evolve into seal-like creatures with much smaller brains, greatly increasing the general level of happiness.

Vonnegut undermines his main point by spending almost all of the narrative describing the events leading up to the shipwreck and the main characters from the first generation of the island's inhabitants. Virtually nothing is said about their descendants, which is of course because they are much less individual and so less interesting. Describing the first generation also allows the narrator to make many caustic comments from his perspective, looking back from a million years later.

While occasionally very funny, the novel novel spends rather too much time trying to hammer home the main point that people would be happier - if less interesting - if they had much smaller brains. Galapagos ends up being enjoyable but not as thought provoking as Vonnegut's best work.

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