Book review: Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut

By Martin Vogel

When humans evolved into seals.

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galápagos is a Darwinian satire on the mess humankind causes for itself as a result of having evolved big brains. Set in the late 20th Century, it charts the breakdown of society and the near extinction of the human species — caused by a cocktail of hedonism, financial crisis and viruses. The twist is that the story is narrated from the vantage point of a million years hence, from which perspective the culture and behaviour of 20th Century humans seems inexplicable. The few surviving humans of the future — a small colony that settled on the Galápagos islands — have evolved a more stable equilibrium with their environment with small brains, minimal language and a simple life in which the only concern is when to dive into the ocean to catch fish.

The novel has a fragmented narrative but is brimming with ideas. Reading it in the wake of the financial crisis of the early 21st Century, it resonates more strongly possibly than it may have at the time of publication. Vonnegut evokes the rapidity with which society can break down when people no longer believe in the value of money: a catastrophe to which we came closer than most of us care to imagine.

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