Carrying on with a foreign woman

John Sutherland

  • Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
    Cape, 269 pp, £9.50, October 1985, ISBN 0 224 02847 2
  • A Family Madness by Thomas Keneally
    Hodder, 315 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 340 38449 2
  • A Storm from Paradise by Stuart Hood
    Carcanet, 188 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 85635 582 8
  • Samarkand by John Murray
    Aidan Ellis, 255 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 85628 151 4
  • The Sicilian by Mario Puzo
    Bantam, 410 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 593 01001 9
  • Putting the boot in by Dan Kavanagh
    Cape, 192 pp, £8.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 224 02332 2

Kurt Vonnegut’s new novel finds him on old ground. All his hallmarks are prominently here: the cute narrative manner belying an apocalyptic message (the end of the world is once again nigh); the little ‘so it goes’ tics of style (here an asterisk placed before the names of characters about to die); comic-scientific periphrasis (marriage is ‘biologically significant copulation’). It’s as if, having labelled himself a boring old fart, as he did in the prologue to Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut has now decided to play the part for all it’s worth. Fortunately, the old fart’s bag of tricks still amuses. But I think I would have liked this novel more had it been the first of the author’s that I’d read.

The narrator of Galapagos is Leon Trotsky Trout, son of our old friend Kilgore, the SF writer who has wonderful ideas for novels but can’t write worth a damn. (I’ve seen it said that Trout is based on Theodore Sturgeon; the fishy joke is nice, but it seems more likely to me that Vonnegut jokes at his own roots in hack Science Fiction.) Leon has odd narrative qualifications. His mind, like Billy Pilgrim’s in Slaughterhouse-Five, has been damaged beyond repair by war. Leon volunteered for the US Marines, fought in Vietnam, took part in a My Lai-type operation in which 59 villagers were killed, deserted to Sweden, became a ship-worker, was decapitated by a falling sheet of metal (lost his big brain, as the novel would put it), became a ghost haunting the boat which is to be mankind’s second ark, and now – a million years from next November – is writing the last story ‘on air’. Hi ho.

Boiled down, Trout Jr’s Genesis II goes like this. In 1986, mankind is extinguished by world-wide economic collapse, war and epidemic sterility. The only survivors are a random handful aboard a luxury liner off Ecuador. These comprise a megalomaniac German captain (the new Noah), six female Kanka-bono Indians, a confidence man, an elderly widowed biology teacher, an industrial tycoon’s blind daughter, a Japanese computer genius and his pregnant wife whose mutant offspring – thanks to Hiroshima – is covered with fine fur. They have with them the entire store of human knowledge packed into a miniature computer, Mandarax. And much good it does them.

By a series of accidents, this motleyest of crews is marooned on the Galapagos, where Darwin made his conclusive observations about natural selection. The biology teacher digitally transfers the captain’s semen from her uterus to the Indian girls’ wombs. The resulting offspring mate with the furry Japanese, and humankind is launched on a new genetic route. Like the flightless cormorant which in the Galapagos exchanged wings for fins, humanity surrenders its ‘big brain’, the better to catch fish. And, over the million years covered by the novel, our species evolves into a furry, unintelligent, finned amphibian:

It was the best fisherfolk who survived in the greatest numbers in the watery environment of the Galapagos Archipelago. Those with hands and feet most like flippers were the best swimmers. Prognathous jaws were better at catching and holding fish than hands could ever be. And any fisherperson, spending more and more time underwater, could surely catch more fish if he or she were more streamlined, more bulletlike – had a smaller skull.

Galapagos has two premises. One is that though we won’t admit it, we are living in World War Three; the other that mankind’s great enemy is his ‘big brain’. According to Vonnegut, this organ – as absurdly overdeveloped as the elk’s antlers – is ‘simply no damn good’. As Trout wryly explains,

I often received advice from my own big brain which, in terms of my own survival, or the survival of the human race, for that matter, can be charitably described as questionable. Example: It had me join the United States Marines and go fight in Vietnam.

  Thanks a lot, big brain.

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[*] Carcanet, 144 pp., £8.95 and £3.95, 26 September 1985, 0 85635 542 9.