Musings on Science Fiction and Vonnegut's Galapagos

Sorry for the pretentious title.

Last week, I finished reading Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut. Truthfully, it took me a pretty embarrassingly long amount of time to get through it. Partly because I made the lazy decision to spend the majority of my free time watching Netflix (I couldn't let the world watch Stranger Things without me!), but mostly because I never find his stories very compelling. I mean, his books aren't exactly page-turners. (For me, at least.)

But that definitely doesn't mean that I don't like his work. Actually, I like it a lot.

Obligatory book with a hot drink photo. Here I have a mango black tea, which I poured specifically for the purpose of taking this picture.

Obligatory book with a hot drink photo. Here I have a mango black tea, which I poured specifically for the purpose of taking this picture.

Because while I may not be totally invested Vonnegut's plots (I read Slaughterhouse Five a few years ago), I love the way he presents the world.

Science fiction is a particularly interesting genre. While there's a lot of variability to any genre of anything, there are usually a few common threads connecting work of the same genre. For one, most genres take place in the same universe governed by the same set of scientific laws. With science fiction, we throw all of that out the window and start from scratch: it might feature flying cars or people with superhuman abilities, or it might take place on another planet and feature another species entirely. The only rule of science fiction is that it’s imaginary. Oh, and that the story should "scientifically-based," but usually said "science" has absolutely no basis in reality.

On the science front, Galápagos sticks to the real stuff, using Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to explain the rise of small-brained, egg-laying, flipper-footed (and handed) humans a million years from now. But I'm no stickler for science in literature. I mean, I’m cool with a radioactive spider bite if that’s what gets the plot rolling.

Rather, what I really appreciate about Vonnegut's version of science fiction is that he uses it as a device to shed light on very real issues in the actual world. By using a narrator not of this earth or not of this time, he shows us our world through a kaleidoscope--where everything we hold as fact is called into question; where our reasoning, our actions, our rules are turned on their heads; where we see everything from an outsider’s perspective and get a glimpse of the sheer ridiculousness of our world.

For instance, in Galápagos, Vonnegut’s narrator (Leon Trout) tells a story about our earth in 1986 to humans a million (well, now it’d be 999,970) years in the future. Throughout the book, he references our big brains, the source of all the world’s problems. He blames our brains for the evils of the world, for famine, financial crises, and greed. And of course, he’s right.

I was also impressed by his references to environmental disasters. Though I’m not exactly sure what the environmental movement looked like in the 80s, it seemed that his awareness and concern was very much ahead of his time.

While I think that most good science fiction aims to expose the deficits of reality, Vonnegut's style is unique in that there's no denying his references to real world circumstances, and more poignantly, harmful shortsightedness.