“Galapagos” by Kurt Vonnegut (1985)

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“The thing was: One million years ago, back in A.D. 1986, Guayaquil was the chief seaport of the little South American democracy of Ecuador, whose capital was Quito, high in the Andes Mountains.”

Earlier this year, I made my way via book to the remote Falkland Islands. This time, I’ve schlepped across South America and disembarked on the Galapagos islands the other side. With Kurt Vonnegut as my guide, I should’ve realised that this was going to be odd, but it’s been a while since I’ve read him, and I’d forgotten just quite how strange he is.

Narrated by a ghost (who happens to be the son of Vonnegut’s recurring science fiction author Kilgore Trout), Galapagos spans the eons, taking in both the year 1986 when the economy crumbled and the world as we know it ended, and a million years later – the book’s present – where the only surviving humans live on the Galapagos Islands and have evolved to suit their new habitat. The new humans are descended from the tourists aboard the “Nature Cruise of the Century”, a planned tour to the islands that Darwin made famous that never quite lived up to expectations.

While the ship was originally planning to have such illustrious passengers as Jackie Onassis and Rudolf Nureyev, in the end there were just eleven people on board, including the captain, a retired schoolteacher, a con artist, a pregnant Japanese woman, a blind woman reliant on her father, and the last six members of the Ecuadorian Kanka-Bono tribe. The only other thing that survived the end of the world was Mandarax, a tiny marvel of electronics that can translate almost any language, recite thousands of literary quotes, and diagnose over a thousand diseases. As the humans evolve and adapt to their new way of life, the old ways of humanity with their society of big brains quickly fades into history, and the question is raised – are things better for it?

Vonnegut is of course one of the most wonderful writers of the last century, but as mad as a box of mushrooms. He’s on good form here, with a slightly daft premise that manages to bring up all the big topics regarding humanity and our dangerous brains. The non-linear structure works well and with the narrator existing a million years beyond most of the action, it allows him to give us the salient facts in the order he sees fit. When a character is due to die soon, they gain an asterisk before their name. At first this is sign-posted, but eventually it just happens without mention and you realise that another one is on their way out in the next few chapters.

Some of the activity is naturally far-fetched, such as the methods of artificial insemination used on the island, the speed of evolution (although arguably it is sped up thanks to nuclear fallout), the appearance of ghosts and the “blue tunnel” that leads to the afterlife, and the sheer number of rare and unusual illnesses contained inside the few survivors, but because it’s Vonnegut it still works. While he’s somewhat vague about what exactly happens to humanity in its isolation – aside from revealing that our descendants have small brains, flippers and fur – he spends a lot of time pointing out the insanity of our modern world and the damage our big brains have done to the planet and to one another. Vonnegut goes to far to state that all the problems of humanity were caused by “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain”. When natural selection decides that a slim, streamlined head is more use than an oversized cranium, the brain begins to shrink and humanity returns to the water.

Vonnegut also makes a big deal about the inter-connectivity of things. The smallest things have the biggest impacts on the future, with the narrator pointing out that had something trivial not happened, then the fate of the human race would have probably been entirely different. These can be anything from someone have a specific gene, or a mentally unstable soldier breaking into a particular shop. Everything is linked – so it goes.

An interesting and somewhat creepy look at an unlikely – but nevertheless potential – future of the planet.

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“After Man” by Dougal Dixon (1981)

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“During the period immediately before and during the Age of Man the principal large-scale grazers and browsers were the ungulates, the hoofed mammals.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for prehistoric creatures. The dinosaurs are amazingly interesting, the evolution of birds and mammals is fascinating, and it’s always cool to see all the weird twists and turns nature took to get us to where we are today. A lot of people seem to treat what exists now as the end point, apparently under the illusion that evolution stops here, and what we have will carry on for the rest of time. Dougal Dixon is not one of those people.

In his breathtaking book After Man, he envisions a world fifty million years after our own, where humanity has died out, taking with it most of the large mammals and familiar creatures of the time. In this new world, where tectonic plates have shifted the continents into unrecognisable forms, animals have done much the same. Gone are the animals we know, but they’ve been replaced by a variety of newcomers, each descended from something we’re used to.

Rabbits have evolved and diversified into the rabbucks; deer-like creatures that now inhabit every major biome. They’ve been followed throughout by the predator rats, who have taken on the roles of the great carnivores of our age. Elsewhere, squirrels have become long and slender, some bats have entirely atrophied their eyes in favour of more impressive sonar, and the large herbivores have been replaced by the genus of gigantelopes, elephantine antelope-descendants with unusual and complex horned structures on their heads.

In the seas, the whales and dolphins are long gone, but fully aquatic and enormous descendants of penguins now fill those roles. Baboon relatives now stalk the plains of, what was, Africa, hunting and scavenging for meat. Rainforest pigs have developed trunks, one of the last cats, the striger, swings from tree branches like our gibbons, when a species of ant evolved to make its nests underwater, the anteater went aquatic and followed them. As usual, on isolated islands, evolution has particularly gone insane, in particular on the islands of Batavia, recently risen from the seas due to volcanic activity and now populated by bats who have evolved to fill every niche, from coastal waters and high branches, and also produced the terrifying night stalker, a one and a half metre tall predator with a curious arrangement of limbs.

The book is nothing, however, without the incredible intricate illustrations, that show the future animals in action, as well as in some more technical, scientific positions. Like all good nature works, we get to see them as real beings, not just stock images. Of course, these aren’t real animals. Not yet, at least. While we cannot predict with any certainty what creatures will survive us and how they will be further shaped, all of Dixon’s suggestions are based on a solid scientific grounding and while it’s not probable any of them will occur, it’s not impossible. He used this knowledge again in the wonderful TV series The Future is Wild, which took a similar premise of future evolution and is well worth a watch if you can find it.

All in all, a fascinating, fun and thought-provoking experiment in evolution.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Humanzee” by Susan Gates (1998)

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humanzee“The fleas had finished feeding.”

I really like chimpanzees. They are, after all, our hairier, more aggressive cousins who are better at climbing and picking things up with their feet. There’s little debate now that we share a common ancestor, but the exact moment at which we diverged will always remain out of sight. Is it possible for a chimp-human hybrid to exist now? Whatever else, it would raise a lot of uncomfortable questions. In this book, we meet a being that might be just that.

Humanzee is the story of Nemo, his parents and humanzee Chingwe who run the Whirligig Theatre Company, a travelling troupe that specialises in Victorian-style circus acts, primarily including a flea circus. Chingwe was rescued by the family several years before from a man who was keeping him locked up at a freak show, because while Chingwe seems to be an ape, there is also something definitely human about his appearance and habits.

Chingwe must be protected from the wider world as scientists, such as Dr Deklar, head scientist at the Primate Rehabilitation Centre, believe he may be a missing link (despite the fact that any missing link between us and chimps would be around three million years old) and want to study him. After another turn out on tour, the family return home to find that their water source, Hope Spring, has dried up. (Oh yeah, this is an alternate 1990s where global warming has reached a point that water is now more valuable than diamonds.) On his quest to find out what happened to the water, Nemo finds Martha and her devoutly religious family, who are none to pleased about the idea of proof that humans came from apes. Nemo and Martha have to keep Chingwe safe from everyone around them.

Confused yet? I was. The book opens with the characters in costume at their circus, giving the impression that it’s set years ago, only to then have a mobile phone ring during the show. And then suddenly it turns out this is a dry world where no one has any water. And there just happens to be a humanzee in the mix as well. There’s a lot going on here, and Gates almost struggles to try and keep it altogether. Truth be told, the book seems to be more about the water shortage than it does about the humanzee.

Obviously I’m way too old to be considered the target audience for this book (it’s been sitting on my shelf for a very long time), but it’s still rather poor. It might work as a half-decent introduction for pre-teens about evolution, grief, religious fanaticism, and how to write annoying protagonists (my loathing for child narrators is well-documented on this blog; Nemo is as irritating as His Dark Materials’ Lyra), but as a story it’s hardly great. Billed as a “thriller”, it doesn’t thrill.

Granted, towards the end there are some decisions made by the author that seem almost brave, and shake up the notion of the “happily ever after”, but this just leaves a whole host of questions unanswered, primarily, “What exactly is Chingwe?” Is it better that we never find out, or does it detract from the final piece?

I almost didn’t even bother reviewing this book, but that isn’t fair. Present it to a twelve-year-old and they might take great joy in it, but I’m happy to have it done with. If, however, you’re now going, “But a book about a chimp-human is exactly what I wanted right now”, then read Next by Michael Crichton. And beware the books that sit on your shelves for years: there’s probably a reason for that.

If you need something a bit more adult, then ditch the chimps and Christians and try reading about cannibalism and Celtic mythology in my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus.

“The Seven Daughters Of Eve” by Bryan Sykes (2001)

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daughters

Double check that family tree

“Where do I come from?”

Although I’ll read pretty much anything, I generally find myself exploring the world in practically the modern day. A few decades back, a few decades forward, but I generally come back to the early 21st century time and time again. As such, it’s nice to go somewhere completely different occasionally. Forty five thousand years into the past seems far enough.

But this is not a novel. This is a disguised textbook which puts forward the theory (and all the assorted evidence) that 95% of Europeans can trace their ancestry back in a single maternal line to one of seven women who lived some time around the last Ice Age. Sykes gives them the names Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine and Jasmine, and the odds are, if you’re reading this in Europe, one of them is your great-great-great-great…-great-great-grandmother.

Like all good non-fiction though, this doesn’t merely focus on throwing numbers and facts at you. Sure, a basic grasp of genetics is a nice foothold to get going (I at least knew that mitochondrial DNA existed, even if not being exactly sure of what it did), but Sykes writes well and is telling you the story of how he came to make his discovery.

The story spans the globe, from the hunt for the remains of the last royals of Russia, to the tiny Cook Islands in the South Pacific where the secrets of Polynesia’s conquest may be found. Sykes looks at the best preserved human bodies from ancient history, like the Ice Man and Cheddar Man. He really can drag you into his world as you become excited in the way our DNA is passed down from generation to generation, forming an unbroken line not just from the dawn of humanity, but from the dawn of time itself.

The important DNA passes down via the mother, which is why the book is about Eve (the ancestor of all living humans) and her daughters, so any women alive today are the result of an unbroken line of mothers having daughters. If a woman has no children, or only has sons, then her lineage dies out. These family trees could be a lot easier to track if we’d known this back in the day, as our family trees are done up to fit a patriarchial society, with surnames being passed down via the male line, even if the secrets of our past are not.

Towards the end, Sykes takes an interesting decision to imagine the lives of these seven women, the seven women who formed Europe. Each gets a short chapter about what their lives may have been like. Obviously, we have no evidence at all of what the individuals were like, but we can guess using what we know from archaeology. Ursula, for example, lived forty-five thousand years ago and probably travelled with a small band of humans, hunting large animals. At the other end, ten thousand years ago, the most recent clan mother, Jasmine, may well have been one of the first farmers. It’s all speculation, and I know that some reviewers at the time scoffed at this part of the book, dismissing it entirely. I, however, find it quite an interesting addition.

As Sykes says himself, oftentimes we think of the people in the past as completely detatched from us. We talk of the Cro-Magnons and even more modern, the Romans and the Tudors, as if they were a different species to us. However, for us to be here right now, one of our ancestors had to be present for the events of those times. And that’s pretty amazing.

This book reveals just how tiny the chance of your existence was. That you’re here at all is a miracle.