Book Review: Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
In the future when humans have evolved to have much smaller brains and the ability to swim like penguins, a long-lasting ghost from the prior stage of human evolution tells us the tale of how it all went down. How overpopulation of the old-fashioned, big-brained humans, a very bad economy, and a series of unfortunate (fortunate?) events led to an odd group of humans being marooned in the Galapagos, surviving the worldwide fallout, and evolving into the smaller-brained, fish-eating, natural swimmers we have today.
I picked this up during a kindle sale for incredibly cheap purely for the author. I’d read three other Vonnegut works previously: Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five (read before my book blog), and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (review). I enjoyed the first two and felt meh about the last, so I was fairly confident I’d enjoy another Vonnegut book. So when one night my partner and I decided we wanted to read a book together (out loud to each other), we looked on my kindle, both glommed on to the name Vonnegut, and chose this as our first read together. So my reading experience was a mix of listening and reading out loud myself, which I am grateful for, because I honestly think Galapagos sounds even more absurdist aloud.
There is an incredibly unique writing style to this particular scifi book. So much so that my boyfriend and I wound up researching to find out if, perhaps, Vonnegut wrote this toward the end of his life when he was perchance senile. (It was not, although it was published in the 80s, unlike my three prior Vonnegut reads, which were published in the 60s). Then we wondered if maybe Vonnegut had Asperger’s, although we didn’t bother checking up on that. Why these wonderings? Well, Galapagos is a very odd book. The premise isn’t that odd for scifi — a projected future evolution of humans and telling how we got there. But the ultimate future is kind of hilariously odd (penguin-like humans). Mostly, though, the way the tale is told is odd and unique in a way that took time to grow on me.
Beyond the whole odd scenario, there’s the fact that if a character will be dead by the end of the chapter, an asterisk appears next to their name. And the names appear a lot. Vonnegut is incredibly fond of naming everyone and everything by their full name every time they appear. He also loves lists. (This is the part that had us wondering about Asperger’s). At first this is grating on the nerves, but with time it comes to feel like the vibe of the world you’re visiting when you open the book.
Similar to the lists and constant naming, there are philosophical asides. Some of these are worked smoothly into the story thanks to a handheld computer device (similar to a smartphone) that pulls up relevant quotes to read to the survivors. Other times, though, they are truly random asides that go so far off the path of the story you’re left wandering around in a cave in the woods instead of on the nice paved road. But then everything comes right back around to the story, and you can’t really be upset about spending some time listening to an old ghost ramble. For example:
What made marriage so difficult back then was yet again that instigator of so many other sorts of heartbreak: the oversize brain. That cumbersome computer could hold so many contradictory opinions on so many different subjects all at once, and switch from one opinion or subject to another one so quickly, that a discussion between a husband and wife under stress could end up like a fight between blindfolded people wearing roller skates. (page 67)
Off-topic? Yes. Quirky? Absolutely. Interesting and fun nonetheless? Totally.
The plot, in spite of being deeply meandering, does develop and actually tell a story. We learn how overpopulation caused disaster and then how a few humans managed to survive on the Galapagos Islands and evolve into the futuristic penguin-like folk. Along the way we have some fun side-trips like an Argentinian military man appearing on a talk show and trying to explain that Argentina really does have submarines, it’s just that once they go underwater they never show up again.
Although I did ultimately appreciate the absurdity and the quirkiness, I must admit that I think it was perhaps a bit overdone. At the very beginning of the book when the list-making and other elements like that were much more prevalent, I was more annoyed and might have stopped reading the book if it wasn’t for the fact that my boyfriend and I wanted to finish the first book we started reading together. It took until about 60% of the way in for the list-making to ease off a bit and the style of the book to really start to work for me. I could easily see a reader being totally lost by some of the more annoying elements of the book, and I wonder what the effect would be if the order was reversed. If the quirks built throughout the book instead of starting that way. Or even if they were just dialed back a bit. I think just that tiny bit of editing would have made me love the book.
Overall, this is a fun piece of absurdist scifi that examines evolution from an over-the-top hypothetical situation. Potential readers should be aware that this book is even more absurdist than Slaughterhouse-Five, so you must be willing to do some more intense suspending of disbelief and be willing to do some meandering and read some lists. If absurdist fiction is something you enjoy and meandering and lists won’t bother you, then this humorous examination of overpopulation, end-of-the-world, and future evolution might be right up your alley.
4 out of 5 stars