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Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte: $16.95; 295 pp.)

September 29, 1985|Gregory Benford | Benford is a professor of physics at UC Irvine whose latest novel is "Artifact" (TOR).

"The courtship dance of the blue-footed boobies, which Mrs. Onassis suddenly wanted to see so much in person, has not changed one iota in a million years. Neither have these birds learned to be afraid of anything. Neither have they shown the slightest inclination to give up on aviation and become submarines.

As for the meaning of the courtship dance of the blue-footed boobies: The birds are huge molecules with bright blue feet and have no choice in the matter. By their very nature, they have to dance exactly like that."

Kurt Vonnegut began his career writing science fiction, and much of his best work, such as the novels "Slaughterhouse Five" and "The Sirens of Titan," used science fictional notions. "Galapagos" continues his strategy of framing tales of ordinary people with the distancing devices of science fiction.

In "Slaughterhouse Five," he deployed aliens who saw all moments as co-existing, the entire history of the universe as determined. This allowed a remove from the pain of human lives, without lessening Vonnegut's clear, stoic vision. Similarly, in this novel, the narrator lives a million years, and recounts from that perspective the last days of civilization, in 1986.

Collapse comes as a small band of tourists gathers for "the Nature Cruise of the Century" to the Galapagos Islands. It is a roguish lot, pushed along by varying measures of despair and idle curiosity. A Rube Goldberg apocalypse descends: An economic crisis provokes riots and starvation, and wars kindle. Meanwhile, a new disease attacks human ovaries, eventually ending human reproduction among all except the cruise party.

Why the collapse? " . . . Throughout all their self-imposed agony, there had been absolutely nobody at the top who understood how things really worked, what it was all about, what was really going on." The cruise ship slips free of land just as violence overwhelms everything, and the inept captain eventually grounds them on a small island in the Galapagos group. There they eat the limited diet, get bored, and fumble into a future marked by evolution away from the present human form.

Giving away this much of the plot is no crime to the reader, for Vonnegut does that right away himself. His narrator, "the son of a big-brained science fiction writer, whose name was Kilgore Trout," casually undermines any shred of narrative suspense by occasionally skipping forward a million years to describe how various characters ended up, or influenced human evolution.

For evolution is the whole point--thus the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin found isolated case histories of species and their adaptation. The "Nature Cruise of the Century," designed for celebrities, becomes not a forum for studying evolution, but the fulcrum upon which it turns. Nature's selective hand, given a million years, shapes the motley band into a sea-dwelling race, animals: "Killer whales and sharks keep the human population nice and manageable, and nobody starves."

The ghost-narrator's father, Kilgore Trout, was Vonnegut's tip of the hat to the late Theodore Sturgeon. Trout appeared in several Vonnegut novels as author of absurd stories, so it is perhaps appropriate (and intended) that here Vonnegut's solution for human problems is to revert back to unthinking animals. Indeed, "why was quiet desperation such a widespread malady back then, and especially among men? Yet again I trot on stage the only real villain in my story: the oversize human brain."

This is, of course, a direct refutation of science fiction's central view--that intelligence will shape the future. The author's shuttling back and forth over a million-year perspective uses science fiction's dimensions to negate its assumptions. Unfortunately, the debate gets no deeper than that classic sophomoric cliche, the conflict between Brain and Spirit.

Vonnegut's come-as-you-are sentences keep the issues deliberately shallow. His past verbal tics--"So it goes" from "Slaughterhouse Five," "Hi ho" from "Slapstick"--irritated some readers, but intrigued many. John Updike termed them a new way of stacking pain. Here, though, the authorial shrugs work less well. Vonnegut puts an asterisk before the names of those about to die, and punctuates the narrative with famous quotations delivered up by a lap computer. Neither device stacks pain, or anything else.

There are flashes of the old Vonnegut wit, as when he describes the troubles of our big-brained selves:

"That cumbersome computer could hold so many contradictory opinions on so many different subjects 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."

Unfortunately, the lap computer device often yields not sardonic wit, but pig irony. Describing how a war rocket finds a radar and mates with its target, the chapter concludes, ". . . 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd." Again and again the ghost-narrator muses, "Little did he know!" and similar deep thoughts.

There are some amusements along the way and oddments of information. The vampire fishes of the islands bring, amid the novel's general air of comic exhaustion, a delightful hilarity of the weirdly, factually correct. Some details throw occasional warming light as the cast of dullards and knaves ritually fulfills its destiny of evolutionary oblivion. With so much narrative backing and filling, though, it is difficult to care.

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