“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.

“Let’s Kill Uncle” by Rohan O’Grady (1964)

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uncle“Liar! Liar! Liar!”

There seems to be a fashion at the moment for publishing houses to be rooting around in forgotten books of the last century, dusting them off and republishing them. I don’t have any complaints with this. The British Library is focusing on crime novels, but Bloomsbury seem to have cast the net a little wider. I knew nothing of Rohan O’Grady (real name: June O’Grady Skinner) but I was intrigued by the title and blurb, so dived into this novel from the sixties.

Barnaby Gaunt has been sent to a remote island of Canada for his summer holidays, but his Uncle hasn’t arrived yet, so he’ll have to stay with Mr and Mrs Brooks in the meantime. Also spending her summer holidays on the island is young Christie McNab and, being the only two children on the island, they are forced to become friends and play together. While things start off a little rocky, the eventual harmony is shattered when Barnaby learns that his Uncle will soon be there. Everyone thinks he should be happy about this, but no one knows the truth – Barnaby is the heir to a ten million dollar fortune, and his Uncle is trying to kill him.

The island’s Mountie, Sergeant Coulter, tries to be fair to the children and forgive their misdeeds, but he doesn’t believe Barnaby for a minute when the young boy confides in him his fears. Barnaby and Christie, therefore, decide to take matters into their own hands. They must kill Uncle before it’s too late.

Despite the premise’s promise of being about two children plotting to kill a relative, this only forms half the tale. The rest is taken up by the thoughts and feelings of the Mountie, Sergeant Coulter. He is a native of the island and the only one from there who went to war and didn’t do the decent, brave thing of dying in battle. He is kind and fair, and has a complex relationship with the children, of whom he is very fond, but also can’t wait to see them leave. Despite the kindness he shows to humans, he is far less patient with the island’s lone cougar, One-Ear, and ruthlessly plots to kill the beast.

As I often find with children in novels, Barnaby and Christie are fairly irritating, but you can see that they mean well. Barnaby has many issues to deal with regarding his Uncle, and these become clearer as the book goes on. At first they seem irredeemable, but like Coulter I came to have a certain grudging like of them by the end. The oddest character of all, though, is Uncle himself. He doesn’t make an appearance until quite late in the narrative, and while we know he’s out to kill Barnaby – and there’s no question that it isn’t the imaginary ramblings of a small child – he is almost cartoonishly villainous, a sociopath of the highest order. He seems to have stepped into this book from one that was somewhat lighter. Because don’t be fooled by the childishness suggestion given by the title – this is rather a dark novel.

A review on the cover says that the book is ahead of its time, and I can see that in a couple of ways. It reads a little like something Lemony Snicket would produce, with the same set-up of children in a small community of adults, none of whom believe the danger they are in. Uncle reminded me throughout of Count Olaf. It also makes an oblique reference to sexual abuse towards children, as Uncle is noted a few times to have a fondness for little girls, and there’s a mention that he’s made many of them disappear in the past. When he muses on the fact that Christie is too wise to be fooled into following him in exchange for candy, it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine. The mix of the naivety of the children and the horrors like this jar occasionally, but it’s rather a good book nonetheless.

What strikes me most about the book is the sense of loneliness and stagnation hanging over everything. With no young men or children left on the island, the place is slowly dying, and everyone is hurting and has lost someone. It’s always quite a moment when you find a line in fiction that reveals such a truth about you that you have to stop reading for a moment and contemplate things. I leave you with a quotation from the book that particularly struck me.

He couldn’t stand it and walked down to the beach, feeling as though the main stream of humanity had passed him by and that he would stand on beaches, forsaken and forgotten, for the rest of eternity.

“Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

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WTF?!

WTF?!

“The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.”

Every now and again, you find a book that makes you think, “What the hell?” It could be because it’s so good or clever. Perhaps it stirs up those feelings because you can’t believe it ever got published. And then there are those books that make you think that simply because they’re on another scale of weirdness, confusion and sheer insanity. This brings me to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first of the Southern Reach trilogy.

The story opens with four women entering the quarantined Area X as members of the twelfth expedition. The last eleven have … not gone so well. One ended with everyone committing suicide, another with the survivors all dying of cancer not long after their return. We aren’t given any names, but the four explorers are known by their titles: the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist and, our narrator, the biologist. They make notes in their journals about what they find in Area X, and have been instructed to explore the landscape with particular emphasis given in their training to a lighthouse on a nearby shore.

But there is more than just a lighthouse here. There’s a tunnel for one thing, although the biologist is insistent that it is a tower, despite none of it being above ground. There’s something loud and angry living in the reeds, and there are suspicions that, within hours of the expedition starting, the biologist has been compromised, and not everything they were told during their training is strictly true. For a start, this tunnel (or tower) isn’t on any of their maps, and inside it are words written in a type of living fungus. The four women must try to work out what exactly happened to Area X and the people who have come here before them … if they survive that long.

I’ve been struggling throughout this book to work out what the best word to sum it up is and it’s only upon finishing that I’ve got it: “creepy”. It’s not billed as a horror, but the whole thing is driven by suspense and an urge to turn the page in the hopes that one of the endless questions will soon be answered. Few of them are, so if you’re the sort of reader who likes to understand things, keep away from this book. It is the first in a trilogy though, so perhaps answers are coming, but I somehow doubt it. Paragraphs are long and descriptive, both of the wilderness of Area X and of the feelings that the biologist is wrestling with. We find out a little about her life before signing up for the expedition, but not much. Still, what we know of her is far in excess of what we know of the other three women.

There is very little dialogue in the book; the women are not friends and do not seem to like to talk about their private lives. Maybe this is why they were chosen, or maybe they are under instructions not to. Can they even be sure they’ve all been given the same instructions before setting out? The book contains an endless stream of unanswered questions, and every time you think you’re about to get an answer, you may find another six or seven questions come along with it.

I’ll probably return to Area X for the sequels, Authority and Acceptance because I did enjoy it a lot, but before reading a brief synopsis of the next book, I would have had no idea where this was going, as it ends with a very definite finish. Like I say, if you don’t like being left hanging, then don’t read this, but if you like something that just feels a little bit too strange for comfort, dive in.