Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1568
Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut is a satiric novel published in 1985. Its primary target is the “oversized human brain” and its role in natural selection. The novel is narrated by Leon Trotsky Trout, the deceased son of Vonnegut’s recurring character, Kilgore Trout. Leon, a ghost, speaks to the reader from a million years in the future, by which time humanity has evolved to become like seals. This evolutionary process can be traced back to the year 1986, on Santa Rosalia, a fictional addition to the Galápagos Islands.
The novel begins by introducing the Galápagos Islands, particularly the mystery of how these isolated islands came to have such a diverse population of animals. The narrator explains that the "big brains" of people a million years ago speculated that the animals might have traveled aboard natural rafts. Others suggested that the animals might have traveled across a land bridge that later disappeared, though there was no trace of such a bridge. The islands were clearly created by volcanic activity, so they could not once have been part of the landmass of South America. Were they put there by a divine creator? Or perhaps the animals were deposited there from Noah’s Ark? That last hypothesis is noteworthy since Galápagos is about another collection of isolated animals that survive the extinction of the rest of the earth. Before the end of the novel, Santa Rosalia will have become like a second Ark. Why not credit the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark with the transport of those animals to the Galápagos Islands?
The narrator explains that James Wait, like any other person in 1986, intends to travel to the islands from Guayaquil, Ecuador, aboard a boat. In fact, Wait will travel as part of the “Nature Cruise of the Century” aboard the Bahía de Darwin. Leon explains that the ship is named after Charles Darwin, the naturalist who famously traveled to the Galápagos Islands and who wrote On the Origin of Species. The theories that Darwin produced in his work would do
more to stabilize people’s volatile opinions of how to identify success or failure than any other tome…and the name of his book summed up its pitiless contents.
James Wait, incidentally, is a “fabulously well to do” con artist that marries women and then takes their fortunes. He views his way of life as one that tests his survival skills, though Leon describes him as a “monster.”
The Nature Cruise of the Century was originally to include celebrities like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Mick Jagger, but the final group was comparatively common. The passengers range from Mary Hepburn (an American teacher) to Hisako Hiroguchi (a Japanese teacher of ikeban, or flower arranging) to Adolph von Kleist (the captain of the ship in whose genes are the code for Huntington’s chorea). Zenji Hiroguchi, who is married to Hisako, has invented a device that translates language and stores information, which has itself evolved from the Gokubi to the Mandarax. (Vonnegut relies on this device to insert quotes from figures ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Benjamin Franklin throughout the novel.) It is a diverse passenger list, but a million years after 1986, all of humanity will have descended from members of this group.
The narrator outlines several catastrophes that are about to take place. Sadly, the world of 1986 is in the midst of a financial crisis. The value of paper money has been reevaluated. Now, many countries are facing serious economic problems, ones that are causing citizens to starve in countries that rely on international trade for food. Countries like Peru, Ecuador, and others have gone bankrupt, and the Bahía de Darwin is one of only two ships in Guayaquil’s harbor. Leon explains that
the seaport of Guayaquil was idle, and the people were beginning to starve to death. Business was business.
A million years later, the earth offers its population the same resources, but there is no financial crisis. The crisis, after all, is the consequence of "big brains." Of course, no one starves in Leon’s time.
Unfortunately, before the Nature Cruise of the Century can complete its journey, the ship is bombed by the Peruvian government. Leon takes the time to outline the process of the bombing. He introduces the pilot, Colonel Guillermo Reyes, and explains how Reyes realizes after releasing the bomb that he has “at last found something which was more fun than sexual intercourse.” Leon explains how the feelings of happiness and transcendence that Reyes feels are due to his big brain. Further, the release of the rocket is similar to a male’s sexual release, particularly since after the release, the consequences are someone else’s problem. Reyes’s thinking, Leon stresses, is not insanity but rather that people’s brains in 1986 are “too big and untruthful to be practical.” Not every passenger survives the bombing, which Leon foreshadows by putting an asterisk before the name of any character that will soon die. Leon explains that this punctuation will
[alert] readers to the fact that some characters will shortly face the ultimate Darwinian test of strength and wiliness.
James Wait does not survive the bombing, but Hisako and Adolph do. They make it to Santa Rosalia, where they meet the local Kanka-bono population, whose language is so rare that even the Mandarax cannot translate it. The survivors yearn to return to the rest of the world but are unable to. Leon explains that their isolation is actually for the best because the rest of the world has suffered not only from a financial crisis, but also a disease that renders humanity unable to procreate. This curious twist means that humanity will continue to evolve from the human genes that are carried by the survivors at Santa Rosalia. Although the survivors are common people, their genes are actually quite unusual. Hisako, for example, is descended from a family that was affected by radiation given off from the atomic bombing of Japan. Her daughter, Akiko, fathered by Zenji, is covered in fur.
Of all the men to take the Nature Cruise of the Century, only Adolph survives. Mary takes his semen and inputs it into other female survivors, including Akiko, without his permission. Adolph destroys the Mandarax in retaliation. However, in spite of Adolph’s anger, Akiko is one of the first mothers of the new world, and her children are covered in fur but do not suffer from Huntington’s chorea. Leon explains that after a million years have passed, humanity will not only be covered in fur but humanity’s hands will have been reduced in size to “nubbins.” However, the most important thing is that the average size of the human head will grow smaller, allowing it to take on a streamlined shape that allows for greater efficiency in swimming for fish. This streamlined head means that humanity’s oversized brain no longer plagues an otherwise innocent planet.
Ultimately, the Bahía de Darwin has become a wreck, or a ghost ship, which makes Leon the ghost of a ghost ship. He explains that he enrolled in the United States Marines and was sent to Vietnam in a war that had “no point.” He is a victim of the oversized human brain. However, Leon was not killed in Vietnam. He deserted, traveled to Sweden, and died while constructing the Bahía de Darwin. Although he has the power to materialize, he only observes the survivors at Santa Rosalia.
A million years ago, Leon's father, Kilgore Trout, urged his son to leave the survivors and to enter the “blue tunnel” that leads to the afterlife. Leon claims that his observations are helping him to learn what “life is really like.” Kilgore Trout disagrees, arguing that Leon has only collected information, which means that he may as well be the Mandarax. Kilgore argues that “the more you learn about people the more disgusted you’ll become” and that people are as “proud as Punch to have weapons in place, all set to go, at a moment’s notice, guaranteed to kill everything” and that “these animals have made such a botch of things that they can no longer imagine decent lives for their own grandchildren.” Kilgore finally explains that if his son does not come with him, he will leave Leon behind as a spirit for a million years.
However, Leon does stay. He explains that he stays behind because his father, Kilgore Trout, is a “repellent failure.” He was a science fiction writer, but his work was only published in the most shameful publications. If an angel had appeared, Leon would likely have entered the blue tunnel, but because it was his father, Leon turned away. Now, he realizes, he will jump into the tunnel because nothing interesting happens anymore. Although humanity's descendants, who are freed from the oversized human brain, no longer have wars and overpopulation and lies, one of the new people will never be able to write Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He has come to realize that his mother was right: “even in the darkest times there really was still hope for humankind.” On the other hand, he notes that
thanks to certain modifications in the design of human beings, I see no reason why the earthling part of the clockwork can’t go on ticking forever the way it is right now.