Monday, September 9, 2013

A Bleak Utopia

by Kurt Vonnegut
Published by Random House Publishing Group
3 Out of 5 Stars

As a fan of sarcasm, cynicism, pessimism, and nihilism (yup, I'm fun at parties), as well as an absurdist plot, I'm a smitten-kitten when it comes to Vonnegut. However, I'm not in love with Galapagos. In deep like? Yes, but, for me, the gold standard when it comes to Vonnegut is Cat's Cradle, followed by Mother Night. I did, however, like Galapagos better than Slaughterhouse-Five.

Galapagos is set one million years after 1986, when the world as we know it ended and, through a series of fluke events, one man and several women are stranded on the island of Santa Rosalia in the Galapagos. The end of civilization was brought about by mankind's "big brains" (although not necessarily by man himself, as man is fundamentally good--just led astray by his inability to control his thoughts and his imagination), along with the help of a bacteria that leaves all the women of the world sterile. However, on the secluded island of Santa Rosalia, the female castaways still young enough to produce are spared and, with an unwilling sire and a little help from a high school biology teacher, they are all impregnated. Thus, life continues to flourish on Santa Rosalia. Not only that, but after millions of years, mankind has evolved so that they have smaller brains, flippers for hands, and a lifespan of 30 years (at which point we're easy prey for sharks and killer whales). Welcome to utopia! With our Darwinian advancements, we no longer have the ability to lie, cheat, steal, etc. We also lack the capacity for simple thought or creativity of any kind. (Admittedly, it's a shit utopia, as far as utopias go, and I myself would gladly just swim out to meet the sharks.)

If you think I've just divulged several plot spoilers, I haven't. You learn all this at the beginning and the rest of the novel circles itself like a dog chasing its tail as these events are told over and over again, but new details are added with each retelling. This structure could become repetitive for some readers, but didn't really bother me. As with most Vonnegut works, fragmented and nonlinear narrative is to be expected, as is the theme of "people are dumb asses." However, there is hope in this cautionary tale--if we learn to rein in our big brains, then maybe we'll be spared the evolutionary chain of events that lead to the utopian existence of lounging around on a beach somewhere, clapping our flippers together while chewing seaweed cud and hoping for some seal-like lovin' before the sharks come for us. And I think that's a lesson we can all learn from, don't you?

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