(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Galápagos, Kurt Vonnegut’s eleventh novel, is dedicated to Hillis L. Howie, an “amateur naturalist,” who took the future author and several of his friends “to the American Wild West/ from Indianapolis, Indiana,/ in the summer of 1938.” On one particular night, “Mr. Howie scared us half to death/ on purpose,/ screaming like a wildcat near our camp./ A real wildcat screamed back.” With its suggestion of man’s uneasy kinship with nature, a kinship that our unnatural ways can never wholly obscure, this scream sets the tone for the strange ecological tale that follows. Galápagos is an ironic story of Apocalypse and millennium, of the removal from the Earth of a big-brained, pathological evolutionary mistake, and of the inheritance of the Earth by a meek, small-brained creature who will never again “write Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony” but who will also never repeat the atrocities of the human past.

The apocalyptic disasters that precede mankind’s strange renewal include the collapse of the world monetary system, the outbreak of rioting and warfare in the Third World, and the spread of a plague that destroys the ova of human females. This latter catastrophe, which begins—appropriately enough—at a book fair, brings big-brained man to extinction everywhere but in the Galápagos Islands. There, where Charles Darwin learned so much about the forces that determine biological destiny, a remnant human population evolves traits that allow man to fit more harmoniously into his earthly environment. His arms are replaced by flippers, his body is covered with fur, and his troublesome brain shrinks to a more manageable size. This is not to say that humanity undergoes a complete transformation. Although his smaller brain and his clumsy flippers make it impossible for man to think through and carry out clever plans to exploit and murder his fellow creatures, he does retain his sense of humor:And people still laugh about as much as they ever did, despite their shrunken brains. If a bunch of them are lying around on a beach, and one of them farts, everybody else laughs and laughs, just as people would have done a million years ago.

For whatever the fact is worth, man is, after all, still man.

It quickly becomes clear that the coming of the Vonnegut millennium (or, more accurately, the millennium squared) has not produced a perfect world. Vonnegut’s millennial vision is Darwinian rather than biblical, and mankind’s return to something like Edenic unity with nature is merely the canceling of his unfair advantage over his ecological brethren. Instead of laying waste to the Earth, man becomes simply another participant in the terrifying struggle for survival. The humanity of the year 1,001,986 has no belief in a divine protector “always watching over [it]—God or a saint or a guardian angel or the stars or whatever.” On the contrary, people “learn very early what kind of a world this really is, and it is a rare adult indeed who hasn’t seen a careless sibling or parent eaten alive by a killer whale or shark.”

So it goes.

Although Galápagos includes considerable commentary on the distant human future, its primary focus is the series of events, beginning in 1986, which determines what that future will be. In the midst of the collapse of civilization as one now knows it, the luxury ship Bahía de Darwin is outfitted for what its unwittingly prophetic promoter calls “the Nature Cruise of the Century.” With a passenger list that originally boasts such names as Jacqueline Onassis, Mick Jagger, Henry Kissinger, and Walter Cronkite, the ship is scheduled to depart for the Galápagos Islands from Guayaquil, Ecuador, toward the end of 1986. As the disasters of that fateful year mount in severity, however, this list (an obvious expression of Vonnegut’s exasperation with celebrity worship) is shorn of its glamour, and the potential cruise participants who ultimately gather at the ironically named Hotel El Dorado include none of those who have warranted mention in Time magazine, Newsweek magazine, or The National Enquirer. Instead, the randomness of fate, as much a determinant of events here as elsewhere in Vonnegut’s work, decrees that a collection of humanity’s lesser members will chart the human future. Besides the ship’s incompetent captain, those who sail on the Bahía de Darwin, simultaneously a Noah’s Ark and a Ship of Fools, include a murderous con man (who dies during the erratic voyage), a high school biology teacher, a young blind woman, a pregnant teacher of flower arranging, six cannibals, and a ghost.

Perhaps as interesting as the characters who complete the voyage and disembark on the barren shores of Santa Rosalia, humanity’s new home, are three who die before that momentous event occurs: Zenji Hiroguchi, Andrew MacIntosh, and James Wait. Although nothing in Galápagos suggests that mankind is under the protection of a benevolent Providence (quite the contrary, in fact), the deaths of these three men do make one suspect that the author himself is manipulating human destiny in order to minimize the effect of certain reprehensible human traits on mankind’s imaginary future.

In keeping with a central theme of Galápagos, that the oversize human brain is an unreliable organ that is responsible for much of human brutality and suffering, Zenji Hiroguchi and Andrew MacIntosh are shot by Private Geraldo Delgado, a paranoid schizophrenic deserter from the Ecuadorian army who believes “that people envious of his dancing ability [are] attempting to destroy his brains with little radios. ” Exacerbating Delgado’s problems, and the problems of much of the human race, is the mass starvation in the Third World, which results from the...

(The entire section is 2386 words.)


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This evolutionary reversal is to occur, during the next million years or so, on and about Santa Rosalia in the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin made so many of the observations that led him to the theory of evolution. The genetic materials which will work this ambiguous miracle of salutary regression are to be provided by the inept captain and several bizarre passengers of the BAHIA DE DARWIN at the conclusion of the “Nature Cruise of the Century.” Departing from Guayaquil, Ecuador, just as the world’s economy collapses and just before a plague destroys mankind’s capacity to reproduce, the BAHIA DE DARWIN becomes a latter-day Noah’s Ark, but a Noah’s Ark without a supernatural sponsor.

As in other of Vonnegut’s novels, the absurdities of chance rather than the interventions of Providence are the determinants of human destiny, and the closest thing to the voice of God is the mechanical babbling of the portable super-computer Mandarax. Narrated by the ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son Leon, a disillusioned Vietnam veteran whose life would make appropriate material for a future Vonnegut novel, GALAPAGOS is a flawed but fascinating book whose plot often moves forward too slowly, whose characters are sometimes less vivid than Vonnegut has shown himself capable of creating, but whose dark satiric vision is multifaceted and memorable.

Those who read GALAPAGOS for its story may be disappointed; those who read it for its ideas should be pleased.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, August 1, 1985, p. 751.

Library Journal. CX, October 15, 1985, p. 104.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 29, 1985, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, October 6, 1985, p. 7.

Newsweek. CVI, October 21, 1985, p. 80.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, August 30, 1985, p. 413.

Time. CXXVI, October 21, 1985, p. 90.

Times Literary Supplement. November 8, 1985, p. 1267.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVI, November 6, 1985, p. 30.

Washington Post Book World. XV, September 22, 1985, p. 1.