Galapágos by Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve been a big fan of Vonnegut for a while. Galápagos is actually re-read, one I picked off the shelf because I wanted something easy to read that I’d enjoy.

[SPOILER ALERT: I think you can read this review and still enjoy the book – the plot isn’t crucial – but I will be talking about the major plot points, and the conclusion]. 

On re-reading, I think this isn’t actually my favourite Vonnegut.

It has some of his trademarks. There’s the wry, affectionate tone as he both identifies, and forgives, the failings of frail humans. There’s the easy tone he has as a writer, something that I think may have been quite hard to write. There’s the philosophical underpinning, as he thinks about what it means for humans to bumble through a material universe that doesn’t give a shit.

I think what was missing for me was the plot. There is one, in a sense. Galápagos tells the story of a group of humans, crashed on an island after a global virus wipes out the rest of humanity, who evolve over a million years into a very different – and he argues, better – version of humanity.

But the real hero in his story is evolution, and the real villain is the human brain. It’s an interesting approach; a reifying of all our thought processes: tracing back the horrible, thoughtlessly cruel human things do, and blaming it on the grey matter we carry around.

Vonnegut tells us explicitly who the villain is:

And why was such quiet desperation such a widespread malady back then, and especially among men? Yet again I trot onstage the only real villain in my story: the oversize human brain.

And the saviour? It’s evolution, which over a million years (I have no idea if that’s a realistic time-frame – my intuition is it’s on the short side) evolves humans into something very different.

When my tale began, it appeared that the earthling part of the clockwork of the universe was in terrible danger, since many of its parts, which is to say people, no longer fit in anywhere, and were damaging all the parts around them as well as themselves. I would have said back then that the damage was beyond repair. 

Not so!

Thanks to certain modifications in the design of human beings, I see no reason why the earthling part of the clockwork can’t go on ticking forever the way it is ticking now. 

***

If some supernatural beings, or flying-saucer people, those darlings of my father, brought humanity into harmony with itself and the rest of nature, I did not catch them doing it. I am prepared to swear under oath that the Law of Natural Selection did the repair job without outside assistance of any kind. 

I think it’s possible to try and poke holes – many of the things he highlights, where humans hurt one another, may occur in crueler fashion in species without our cognitive capacity. But that’s easily forgivable, I think, for the sake of a story.

But that’s the challenge, I think. The story itself follows a selection of characters, but in a basic sense, they’re peripheral. They take no significant action – at best it’s haphazard and the crucial consequences are unintended – and really, they’re representatives of the larger set of faults that Vonnegut has cast as his antagonist, the shortcomings of the human race.

The real protagonist is evolution – ‘the Law of Natural Selection’. There are three ways that Vonnegut highlights it, although I don’t think in the final reading they come together brilliantly.

The premise for the story is a nature cruise, touring the Galapagos Islands. This gives him a chance to wax rhapsodical about evolution, Darwin, and the Beagle, but it doesn’t drive the narrative strongly.

With his characters, he frequently interjects. Points out how a particular action or behaviour is the product of a brain, which has an evolutionary heritage. Perhaps he mentions one or two other evolutionarily driven traits, but they don’t spring to mind. While it has oracular value, it doesn’t make for a strong narrative.

Finally, he concludes with humans, living effectively as seals, on an island network a million years from now. It’s here that the writing feels most comfortable; but it also doesn’t make for much of a plot point to arrive there.

There is one other plotline, though, that I found fascinating. He tells the story through the eyes of the son of Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut’s sort-of alter-ego Kilgore Trout. It’s interesting to read Leon’s reflections on a father who he’s idolised, and then realised is largely a failure. It made me wonder whether it was Vonnegut criticising himself, or sympathising with his son, or something else entirely. One of the happiest moments in the book is when Leon breaks down in a doctor’s office. Not because he’s been offered asylum and escape from conscription as a Marine in Vietnam, but because he’s found someone who knows his Dad’s writing – a validation of all that smoking and tinkering at a keyboard.

I don’t think this is my favourite Vonnegut. I wouldn’t recommend starting with it, but it’s a decent read if you’ve enjoyed some of his other pieces.

Storied hope

There’s a nice reflection by TNC just up, on hope in writing. I think what he says makes a lot of sense. I think good art is deeply connected to the real world, and where we have false understandings, it creates hollow and shallow art.

Having said which, I think there’s something deep in the human psyche that needs a sense of agency. Not a sense that things will be better, I think, but that they can be. I think it can be hard to function without a sense that positive change is possible. But that’s just my intuitive sense; the full topic can wait for another day.

Rewatching Serenity

It was years ago that I first watched Serenity. I haven’t been back since, but as I’m running low on TV at the moment (although I’m open to suggestions), I thought it’d be fun to re-watch.

In particular, I wanted to do something that I think Robert McKee recommended, which is thinking about each scene, and how it moves the narrative forward – what each character is seeking from the scene, and what happens as a result.

This is where my title, ‘notepad jottings’, becomes a little more relevant – these are more my rough notes, a useful way of thinking a little bit about plot in a movie I enjoyed, rather than a polished review. But, I’m always interested in your thoughts.

[SPOILER ALERT: From here on out I’m talking plot points, through to the conclusion, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to come back after you have]. 

The opening is beautiful – just exceptionally done. It sets up several things at once; the broader conflict that exists between the Alliance and those who dream of something different, and one of the driving quests in this movie – River and Simon Tam to escape the Parliament’s ‘Operator’, who’s seeking to kill River because of the secrets she knows.

But it’s also a beautiful set of scenes because of how they bleed into each other, each one encapsulating the narrative that preceded it. It moves beautifully.

Once we open on what is sort of, the other opening, there’s instantly a challenge – the Serenity is trying to land. As that’s happening, Whedon introduces another conflict that’ll drive the first part of the plot – a conflict between Simon Tan and Mal. That, in turn, is a starting point for another challenge for the whole crew: stealing a payroll from a security firm. In turn, that’s upended (after a few slight challenges and successes), when Reavers arrive. Through it all, Whedon does a great job of introducing characters. Not in depth, as one review noted. Fans of the TV show will appreciate the characters in much more depth. For others, they’re likely to just be a supporting cast for Mal.

This idea of each challenge being either successfully or unsuccessfully resolved kicks the plot down the road. Simon punches Mal because he put River in danger, and decides to leave the ship. When he and River do, that kicks off the next challenge, as River is activated, and the Operative draws closer.

Some of the challenges are successfully resolved – they find Mr Universe the first time (a nice early hat-tip to a character with an ethos that’s reminiscent of Wikileaks, although the movie was released before the latter was established). Some aren’t. But in each case, the challenge creates a new one, something that the characters – particularly Mal, but the crew as a whole – have to respond to.

It’s also interesting how Whedon uses different narrative threads. The conflict between Mal and Simon is crucial in the first part, but then dies away as other conflicts come to the fore. But importantly, the different narrative threads feed each other – a response to a life threatening situation throws forward the interactions within the ship. In turn, their fights and decisions throw them into more danger.

A final thing that I thought was somewhat interesting, was the different levels of conflict. One idea that perhaps wasn’t as clear, or simple as it might have been, was the internal conflict – how big is the circle of people that Mal cares about? In turn, that plays out for a small group of people around him – the crew – but in the climax of the movie, it matters for the entire ‘verse.

The scene where River fights the Reavers is one I always find a little touching. There is so much emotion bound up in it, but so much beautiful cinematography as she transforms into this intense silhouette of pure kinesis, blood dripping off her axe.

A final thing I enjoyed about Serenity was the language. As Roger Ebert puts it, ‘Some of the dialogue sounds futuristic, some sounds 19th-century, and some sounds deliberately kooky’. But like the movie, it’s a lot of fun.

In Bruges

Aldous Huxley is reported to have said that ‘We participate in tragedy; at a comedy we only look’.

In Bruges is a beautiful, subtle film that is constantly dancing back and forth across the line between comedy and tragedy, and it makes for an excellent film.

It tells the story of two hitmen, hiding in Bruges after a hit gone wrong. The hitmen themselves are brilliantly lethal – the sense of death is very real – but also very human, taking out their contacts and brushing their teeth before they go to bed. As the narrative unfolds, Bruge is a very active backdrop, that shifts with perspective. For some it is a fairy tale, for others it is a nightmarish purgatory, where sins weigh down the living.

The storylines are subtly woven in this piece, and they come together beautifully. The dialogue is excellent as well, and in combination with the acting hilarious at points – but it blends seamlessly into the tragic at others.

Worth watching.

Tron

Tron: Legacy  was mildly entertaining. I’d put it in the ‘watch if you’re mildly sick on a couch’ category.

Having said which, the plot and movie felt at points nonsensical [SPOILER ALERT: From here on out I’m talking plot points, particularly the conclusion of the movie]. 

There was the point where a virtual plane in a simulated universe flew upwards, and then stalled. Really? In this hypothetical, imaginary universe where airplanes materialise out of … thin air, and run on invisible fuel, stalling is a real risk?

More importantly, how is it that a son loses his father for decades, is briefly re-united only to see his father taken forever in a tragic fight – then exits a simulated universe, five minutes later, and is enthusiastic about taking over a company, and doesn’t grieve at all for his father? That felt completely implausible to me.

Trashy TV, Part 3,752

I’ve been watching a lot of TV – perhaps too much. But for what it’s worth, if you’re after something mindless and fun, Penguins of Madagascar and Videogame High School (VGHS) might be for you.

Penguins of Madagascar is reasonably fluffy, but it has just enough by way of character and plot to hold together the animated equivalent of a series of explosions. Although the animated versions are more friendly – things don’t explode, they comically change shape. One other thing I found interesting was how the villain is constructed: rather than being a person who is intrinsically motivated to evil, there’s a clear backstory and resolution, something that makes the antagonist reasonably constructed.

Videogame High School is … an interesting piece. On the one hand I’m supportive of what looks like TV put together by a younger group of creators, perhaps with less funding than some of the major studios. As per the title, it tells the story of a group of students at a high school, who are studying video games.

It’s a fun concept to work with. Probably the main reason I watch it is for the battle scenes. The creators have done a commendable job of both refusing to use commercially available games, so they shoot actual real world footage, well interspersed with decent CGI. I think it works well.

There are backstories and plotlines for the key characters. In a good episode those serve to establish and motivate the battles; VGHS treats battles as something like tournaments in an Arthurian narrative; contestants meet and fight out their disagreements – they win prizes from each other, resolve conflicts (to some extent), and establish dominance. It’s … surprisingly reminiscent of the court of King Arthur in some ways.

So, if you’re after something fun that doesn’t take any brain power to watch, this could be a good option.