Vonnegut was in his early sixties and his career, still successful, drawing toward a kind of bitter summation when Galapagos (1985) was published. His early work with its unequivocal statement of absurdity and hopelessness was now almost four decades behind when he completed this meditation on Darwinism, fate and the essential irrelevance of the human condition.
Humanity has in the millions of years after inevitable holocaust and exile transmogrified into a race of not-quite-human seals on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands. Leon Trotsky Trout, the son of Vonnegut’s wretched familiar character Kilgore Trout, watches and broods over his no-longer-human descendants who have made natural selection a matter of debased survivalism.
Using a device common in his novels after Slaughterhouse-Five, the material is presented in the form of a transcript or memoir; Trout unhappily witnesses a sad outcome which may nonetheless represent the best of all human possibilities. Trout’s father Kilgore, in ghostly form, remains in communication, urging his son to cease observing and exit, but Leon will not take the opportunity, feeling linked to the pathetic, morphed shards of humanity who remain on the Islands. Whether the survival of the seals constitutes human survival, whether Kilgore and his son are imaginary fragments of evolutionary decay lurk as questions beneath a sequence of events which show Vonnegut trapped in the Age of Reagan.
Vonnegut is trying to see through (rather than to shape) his material; the theme of the novel represents a kind of apotheosis and never has Vonnegut’s ambiguous despair been more clearly revealed or more clearly made the engine of his narrative.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) is one of the most beloved American writers of the twentieth century. Vonnegut’s audience increased steadily since his first five pieces in the 1950s and grew from there. His 1968 novel Slaughterhouse-Five has become a canonic war novel with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to form the truest and darkest of what came from World War II.
Vonnegut began his career as a science fiction writer, and his early novels--Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan--were categorized as such even as they appealed to an audience far beyond the reach of the category. In the 1960s, Vonnegut became closely associated with the Baby Boomer generation, a writer on that side, so to speak.
Now that Vonnegut’s work has been studied as a large body of work, it has been more deeply understood and unified. There is a consistency to his satirical insight, humor and anger which makes his work so synergistic. It seems clear that the more of Vonnegut’s work you read, the more it resonates and the more you wish to read. Scholars believe that Vonnegut’s reputation (like Mark Twain’s) will grow steadily through the decades as his work continues to increase in relevance and new connections are formed, new insights made.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Author Kurt Vonnegut is considered by most to be one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. His books Slaughterhouse-Five (named after Vonnegut’s World War II POW experience) and Cat’s Cradle are considered among his top works. RosettaBooks offers here a complete range of Vonnegut’s work, including his first novel (Player Piano, 1952) for readers familiar with Vonnegut’s work as well as newcomers.
Topics: Island, Ecuador, Speculative Fiction, Black Humor, Adventurous, Dark, Funny, Futuristic, Evolution, Apocalypse, Dystopia, Animals, Ghosts, Humanism, Postmodern, and 20th Century
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I hadn't read this book since 2003 and this was my third time, after the last of the giant tortoises on Galapagos died so recently I felt I needed to have this re0visit with Vonnegut, who was much like the giant tortoise at the end I think..strange wonderful and one of a kind and when Vonnegut became extinct, it was just as much a loss to the world. A re-occurring theme in Galapagos (instead of the So it Goes saying that frequently invades the writing style of many of his others) is a yet similar sentiment when a human being dies that well this human being wasn't going to compose Beethoven's Ninth Symphony anyways. But Vonnegut did far greater things than Beethoven did for people like me. He was a philosopher who forever sensed the tragicomedy of the past, present, and future, and even more wondrous was able to share all his notions and ideas with the rest of the planet. Vonnegut gave us many gifts. They are gifts to enrich and pass along to others just as they are gifts to help increase our sense of insight into the world and to humanity.
Vonnegut, if you are a ghost who, like our storyteller of Galapagos, has chosen to exist for a million years before venturing into the blue afterlife tunnel, I hope you sense your value on this planet and how much you are missed by people like me.
Getting more specific to the novel, there is a clear sense of Vonnegut exploring ideas of evolution and possibilities of war and nuclear radiation factoring into all that...and, for most of the novel the ghost of the protagonist (who is also the son of Kilgore Trout, an often appearing character in some of Vonnegut's other novels), seems to think it's just fine that human beings evolved into furry seal like creatures with fins instead of hands, smaller brains, and much shorter lifespans (and therefore able to avoid all of the pain of so many genetic diseases such as Huntington's and also diseases of aging such as Alzheimer's.) Yet, it's obvious Vonnegut sees avoiding all this pain and agony also leads to the sacrifice of great art, music, and literature. It's just too bad humans typically prefer to build weapons to kill each other instead of all that, of course.
It's always a delight to see some reappearing characters like Kilgore Trout mentioned as well, even though he's not the center of the story by any means. In many ways, I've always thought one must re-read all of Vonnegut's novels again and again throughout life because they all make sense as one grand intersecting story in a way that enhances them. In other words, one cannot sense the same kind of greatness reading them singularly. They are all like great friends on Vonnegut's journey through life and understanding the adventures of all of his characters simultaneously seems key to fully comprehending Vonnegut's meaning and perhaps his own rich journey.
Truly, though this book takes place in 1986, Vonnegut's ideas about humans as they are having the capacity to act on destroying each other and what that would lead to as well as looking at the trends then now that still exist today such as food scarcity and extreme classism are very relevant. Take heed! Because, as Vonnegut talks about all of the easiness of humans evolving into smaller brained creatures who care more about their own survival than any other high concepts, he is simultaneously revisiting all of humanity's best words on all sorts of topics. It is so clear there is a loss to be had even if our big brains are diabolocal.
As in many Vonnegut novels, this will make you question, search, laugh, and cry quite a bit. It's written in more of a matter of fact kind of narrative-like it or not, this is how humans died and how others evolved but I believe Vonnegut was a deep feeling person and for as many times that he wrote the words "So it Goes" throughout his life, he was able to despair in humanity's pitfalls because he was able to sense them so deeply within his own life's experiences. I do believe Vonnegut also took joy in the idea of random luck, too, and the utter absurdity of luck sometimes. Thank goodness Vonnegut didn't perish in war. Thankfully, he led a very long life. He was no Beethoven...he was something better, something richer, something fully evolved.
pg. 25 "To the credit of humanity as it used to be: More and more people were saying that their brains were irresponsible, unreliably, hideously dangerous, wholly unrealistic,-were simply no damn good."
pg. 29 "If I may insert a personal note at this point: When I was alive, I often received advice from my own big brain which, in terms of m own survival, or the survival of the human race, for that matter, can be charitably described as questionable. Example: It had me join the United States Marines and go fight in Vietnam.
Thanks a lot, big brain."
pg. 98 "In the era of big brains, life stories could end up any which way. Look at mine."
pg. 129 "This was a particularly tragic flaw a million years ago, since the people who were best informed about the state of the planet, like *Andrew MacIntosh, for example, and rich and powerful enough to slow down all the waste and destruction going on, were by definition well fed.
So everything was always just fine as far as they were concerned.
For all the computers and measuring instruments and news gatherers and evaluators and memory banks and libraries and experts on this and that at their disposal, their deaf and blind bellies remained the final judges of how urgent this or that problem, such as the destruction of North America's and Europe's forests by acid rain, say might really be."
pg. 187 "His name was Guillermo Reyes, and he was able to survive at such an altitude because his suit and helmet were inflated with an artificial atmosphere. People use to be so marvelous, making impossible dreams they made come true."
pg. 233 "Human beings were so prolific back then that conventional explosions like that had few if any long term biological consequences. Even at the end of protracted wars, there still seemed to be plenty of people around. Babies were always so plentiful that serious efforts to reduce the population by means of violence were doomed to failure. They no more left permanent injuries except for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then did Bahia de Darwin as it slit and roiled the trackless sea.
It was humanity's ability to heal so quickly. by means of babies, which encouraged so many people to think of explosions as show business, as highly theatrical forms of self expression, and little more.
What humanity was about to lose, though, except for one tiny colony on Santa Roaslia, was what the trackless sea could never lose, so long as it was made of water: the ability to heal itself.
As far as humanity was concerned, all wounds were about to become very permanent. And high explosives weren't going to be a branch of show business anymore."
pg. 259 "Nothing ever happens here anymore that I haven't seen or heard so many times before. Nobody, surely, is going to write Beethoven's Ninth Symphony-or tell a lie, or start a Third World War.
Mother was right: Even in the darkest times, there really was still hope for humankind."
pg. 266 "That, in my opinion, was the most diabolical aspect of those old-time big brains: They would tell their owners, in effect, 'Here is a crazy thing we could actually do, probably, but we would never do it, of course. It's just there to think about.'
And then, as though in trances, the people would really do it-have slaves fight each other to the death in the Colosseum, or burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities, or to blue up whole cities, and on and on."
pg. 270 "And why was quiet desperation such a widespread malady back then, and especially among men? Yet again I trot onstage the only real villain in my story: the oversize human brain.
Nobody leads a life of quiet desperation nowadays. The mass of men was quietly desperate a million years ago because the infernal computers inside their skills were incapable of restraint or idleness; were forever demanding more challenging problems which life could not provide."
pg. 289 "This animal had its eyes on the ends of stalks, a design perfected by the Law of Natural Selection many, many millions of years ago. It was a flawless part in the clockwork of the universe. There was no defect in it which might yet need to be modified. One thing it surely did not need was a bigger brain.
What was it going to do with a bigger brain? Compose Beethoven's Ninth Symphony?
Or perhaps write these lines:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players/
They have their exists and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many
(William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
pg. 292 "Do people still know they are going to die sooner or later? No. Fortunately, in my humble opinion, they have forgotten that."
pg. 294-295 "But that Swede foud something to say which made me cry like a baby-at last, at last. He was as surprised as I was when I cried and cried.
Here is what he said: 'I notice your name is Trout. Is there any chance you are related to the wonderful science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout?'