From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Galápagos is the eleventh novel written by American author Kurt Vonnegut. The novel questions the merit of the human brain from an evolutionary perspective. The title is both a reference to the islands on which part of the story plays out, and a tribute to Charles Darwin on whose theory Vonnegut relies to reach his own conclusions. It was first published in 1985 by Delacorte Press.
Galápagos is the story of a small band of mismatched humans who are shipwrecked on the fictional island of Santa Rosalia in the Galápagos Islands after a global financial crisis cripples the world's economy. Shortly thereafter, a disease renders all humans on Earth infertile, with the exception of the people on Santa Rosalia, making them the last specimens of humankind. Over the next million years, their descendants, the only fertile humans left on the planet, eventually evolve into a furry species resembling seals: though possibly still able to walk upright (it is not explicitly mentioned, but it is stated that they occasionally catch land animals), they have a snout with teeth adapted for catching fish, a streamlined skull and flipper-like hands with rudimentary fingers (described as "nubbins").
The story's narrator is a spirit who has been watching over humans for the last million years. This particular ghost is the immortal spirit of Leon Trotsky Trout, son of Vonnegut's recurring character Kilgore Trout. Leon, a Vietnam War veteran who is affected by the massacres in Vietnam,. He goes AWOL and settles in Sweden, where he works as a shipbuilder and dies during the construction of the ship, the Bahía de Darwin. This ship is used for the "Nature Cruise of the Century". Planned as a celebrity cruise, it was in limbo due to the economic downturn, and due to a chain of unconnected events the ship ended up in allowing humans to reach and survive in the Galápagos.
Kilgore Trout—deceased—makes four appearances in the novel, urging his son to enter the "blue tunnel" that leads to the afterlife. When Leon refuses for the fourth time, Kilgore pledges that he, and the blue tunnel, will not return for one million years, which leaves Leon to observe the slow process of evolution that transforms the humans into aquatic mammals. The process begins when a Japanese woman on the island, the granddaughter of a Hiroshima survivor, gives birth to a fur-covered daughter.
Trout maintains that all the sorrows of humankind were caused by "the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain". Fortunately, natural selection eliminates this problem, since the humans best fitted to Santa Rosalia were those who could swim best, which required a streamlined head, which in turn required a smaller brain.
- Leon Trout, Dead narrator and son of Kilgore Trout
- Hernando Cruz, first mate of the Bahía de Darwin
- Mary Hepburn, an American widow who teaches at Ilium High School
- Roy Hepburn, Mary's husband who died in 1985 from a brain tumor
- Akiko Hiroguchi, the daughter of Hisako that will be born with fur covering her entire body
- Hisako Hiroguchi, a teacher of ikebana and Zenji's pregnant wife
- Zenji Hiroguchi, a Japanese computer genius who invented the voice translator Gokubi and its successor Mandarax
- Bobby King, publicity man and organizer of the "Nature Cruise of the Century"
- Andrew MacIntosh, an American financier and adventurer of great inherited wealth
- Selena MacIntosh, Andrew's blind daughter, eighteen years old
- Jesús Ortiz, a talented Inca waiter who looks up to wealthy and powerful people
- Adolf von Kleist, captain of Bahía de Darwin who doesn't really know how to steer the ship
- Siegfried von Kleist, brother of Adolf and carrier of Huntington's chorea who temporarily takes care of the reception at hotel El Dorado
- James Wait, a 35-year old American swindler
- Pvt. Geraldo Delgado, an Ecuadorian soldier
A large part of Galápagos takes place in Ecuador in 1986, one year after it was published. It was the author's intention for readers to view this story as one possible outcome of the events that took place in the eighties. Two of the main drivers of the story share many similarities with real-life events.
A first is the outbreak of a financial crisis. When the protagonists arrive in Ecuador for "Nature Cruise of the Century", the country is in a dire state because of a crash in the value of the Ecuadorian sucre. Basic goods such as food, shelter and clothing have become very expensive and rare because of this. The eventual food shortage that arises forces the protagonists to flee the country and eventually end up on Santa Rosalia. The beginning of the eighties was the stage for a similar event in the form of the Latin American debt crisis. The international capital markets lost faith in the ability of certain developing nations to pay back the foreign debt they had accumulated. A flight of capital followed and caused exchange rates to depreciate. The whole region was plunged into an economic recession that severely diminished the purchasing power of its inhabitants. Vonnegut blames the human brain for the existence of financial crisis and its devastating consequences throughout the book. A second important element in the book is the birth of a bacterium that makes women infertile. It quickly spreads across the globe and eventually leads to the extinction of humanity except for the people stranded on Santa Rosalia. It is likely that the AIDS virus served as an inspiration for this fictional pandemic. AIDS quickly became a pandemic during the eighties and grabbed headlines everywhere as more and more people became infected.
The main storyline is told chronologically, but the author frequently mentions the outcome of future events (referring to 1985 as being one million years in the past). The most obvious example of this is the inclusion of an asterisk in front of a character's name if he or she will die before sunset. Vonnegut often employs this technique in his books, including his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
The novel contains a large amount of quotations from famous authors. They are related to the story itself and are functionally inserted through Mandarax, a fictional voice translator that is also able to provide quotations from literature and history. The following authors are quoted (in order of their appearance in the book): Anne Frank, Alfred Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, John Masefield, William Cullen Bryant, Ambrose Bierce, Lord Byron, Noble Claggett, John Greenleaf Whittier, Benjamin Franklin, John Heywood, Cesare Bonesana Beccaria, Bertolt Brecht, Saint John, Charles Dickens, Isaac Watts, William Shakespeare, Plato, Robert Browning, Jean de La Fontaine, François Rabelais, Patrick R. Chalmers, Michel de Montaigne, Joseph Conrad, George William Curtis, Samuel Butler, T. S. Eliot, A. E. Housman, Oscar Hammerstein II, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles E. Carryl, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Carlyle, Edward Lear, Henry David Thoreau, Sophocles, Robert Frost, and Charles Darwin.