Rewritten after rereading in July 2012.
This darkly humorous satire starts with a world financial crisis in 1986 (hopefully that’s where the similarity with current times ends), leading to WW3 – though it’s not really about either: it’s fundamentally about adaptation.
A million years in the future, the only “humans” left on Earth are the descendants of a small but diverse group of survivors of a Galapagos islands cruise, and they are more like seals than 20th century humans. Most of the story is set between the run up to the cruise and the passengers’ first few years on the island, but it is certainly not a Robinson Crusoe type story; it is far more provocative than that, raising issues of fate/independence, the meaning and importance of intelligence and ultimately, what makes us human.
Like all good dystopias (if that's not an oxymoron), the individual steps to it don't really stretch credulity (few of them are very original), but the final destination is more startling - and even somewhat positive.
The story arc is fundamentally chronological, but with an enormous number of tiny jumps ahead: right from the start, Vonnegut sprinkles the story with so many snippets about what will happen to everyone, why and how, that you don’t know if there will be anything left by the time the main narrative catches up. He even prefixes the names of those about to die with an asterisk, at which point I went with the flow and stopped worrying about "spoilers" (on rereading, this aspect became pure comedy). The final chapter, which I would have deleted, fills in a few random gaps that didn’t really need filling.
The narrator is Leon Trout, a long-dead man who helped build the cruise ship. He reminded me a little of Snowman in "Oryx and Crake" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), so if you liked that, consider this. (Kilgore Trout, the father of Leon, is a recurring character in Vonnegut: a prolific but not very successful writer of sci fi. This book mentions his “The Era of Hopeful Monsters”, with a plot that echoes this.)
The book also has random quotes from Mandarax, a hand-held computer and translator that is a little like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They are either bizarrely obscure, like the Oracle at Delphi, or comically inappropriate.
The main premise is that humans have evolved badly, though the reasons for this are never explained, which is odd, given how much weight is given to subsequent natural selection in the story.
Most significantly, our “big brains” are the cause of all our troubles: they lie (so we don’t trust them or other people), we can’t switch them off, they confuse us with too much information, distract us from the important matters of life and death (though often causing death, e.g. by fighting or suicide), and ultimately cause global financial collapse because the value of so many assets is only maintained by belief in virtual money whizzing around. Accepting the idea that our big brains are a handicap is a bit of a challenge, which Vonnegut backs up with typical bathos by suggesting alcohol is just a way to relax with a (temporarily) smaller brain.
Our long, protected childhoods accustom us to the idea of an omniscient carer and hence account for belief in god, whilst wealth makes us blasé about our doom.
Full stomachs are part of the problem, too: a full belly puts people off-guard and all the powerful people are well-fed, so don’t worry about impending disaster.
Outsourcing our skills and knowledge by developing machines to take over many brain tasks reduces the need for big brains, and indeed, for people.
No wonder humans, in their twenty-first century form, are doomed – even at a comical level: a million years hence, “evolution hasn’t made teeth more durable. It has simply cut the average human lifespan down to about thirty years”!
By contrast, animals are happy to survive, feed and reproduce, and once stranded on an island, natural selection leads to humanity being reduced and enhanced to such basics, “everybody is exactly what he or she seems to be” and “everyone is so innocent and relaxed now". No more lies or deceit, and no hands to use for evil – it sounds positively Utopian.
In addition to the above, it also touches on the nature of intelligence, eugenics (voluntary and not), consent, disability, incest, contraception, mate selection, truth, marriage and alternatives to it, and all sorts of other things. You could make a whole PSHE curriculum from this!
Amongst all the big issues and ideas the book explicitly raises, there is one that is always assumed, but never questioned or defended: in what sense are the "humans" on Santa Rosalia in a million years’ time actually human (and by extension, what does it mean to BE human)? And if they are human, then surely we should call ourselves apes, or even fish.
And fish and fishing, literal and metaphorical, are recurring themes: many of the characters are "fishers of men", albeit not in a good way, and we’re reminded that “so much depends on fish”; even the narrator’s surname is Trout.
I would hesitate to impose a New Testament analogy on a secular novel by a secular writer, but there are many Biblical allusions: creation, flood, an ark, Adam and Eve, the danger of knowledge, the power of belief, the existence of God, David and Goliath, souls, redemption, and… fish.
Vonnegut toys with why we are as we are and clearly doesn't think it's brain size or capacity that makes us human (which is surely good, as otherwise, what would be the implication for those with learning difficulties and brain damage etc?), but he leaves the reader to decide what “human” means.
FATE AND PURPOSE
Throughout the book, Vonnegut keeps reminding us of the significance of random and apparently trivial events, whilst at the same time implying the apparent opposite: the inevitability of the outcome for humanity (the butterfly effect versus fate). There is a clear message that most people are irrelevant; we can't know who the few important ones are, but they're probably the ones we least expect. Trout admits his prolonged observation was pointless: he was addicted to the soap opera qualities of the story, but accumulated knowledge rather than understanding.
The world ends up a happier place, because of the power of natural selection, echoing the very upbeat quote from Anne Frank on the title page, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”
Yet, given his ideas about fate, is Vonnegut suggesting the book is pointless too (not that I would agree with that), is he actually trying to make a point (if so, what?) or just entertaining us? Mostly the latter, I think
If Leon Trout is reading this, or any other discussion of the book, he is doubtless chuckling at how seriously people are taking it. Mind you, as a pretentious late teen/early twentysomething, I would have had a field day of profundity!
Overall, not a long book, but one to savour, ponder, chuckle over and reread.
• “Mere opinions… were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be.”
• “It was all in people’s heads. People had simply changed their opinion of paper wealth.”
• Big brains make marriage hard because “That cumbersome computer could hold so many contradictory opinions” and switch between them so quickly “that a discussion between a husband and wife under stress could end up light a fight between blindfolded people wearing roller skates”.
• “Typical of the management of so many organisations one million years ago, with the nominal leader specialising in social balderdash, and with the supposed second in command burdened with the responsibility of understanding how things really worked.”