Sunday, February 8, 2015

Review of Galapagos Regained by James Morrow

Megan at From Couch to Moon recently reviewed Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants.  In the discussion that followed it was noted that satire may be a lost form of speculative fiction.  The most recent title I could think of was John Sladek’s wonderful Tik-Tok, but that was published in 1983.  (I’m aware Pratchett is writing satire, Making Money is brilliant in this regard, but it’s satire amongst a wide variety of humor—slapstick, situational, wordplay, etc.)  I’m happy to say I’ve discovered who is still writing not only satire, but exquisitely pointed satire. 

Possibly the last of his breed, James Morrow is going about the the mode with all the spirit of those before him—Tenn, Sheckley, Malzberg, Pohl, and Sladek among them—but with an attention to detail perhaps not yet seen.  Galapagos Regained (2015, St. Martin’s Press), Morrow’s most recent title, is not only a wonderful addition to literature, but likewise in the early running for best books of 2015 given the focus, execution, and ultimately, the quality.  Possessing Gaiman’s charm, Vonnegut’s wit, and a sense of esoteric erudition of Morrow’s own, it comes highly recommended.

Sidetracking into the novel, Charles Darwin is undoubtedly best known for his work Origin of the Species. It has been called a lot of things, which I won’t even attempt to rehash here, but suffice to say it is a book that changed, and is changing, fundamental ways the West views existence—society, culture, religion, philosophy the perspectives among them.  Significantly fewer people are aware, however, of Darwin’s previous work The Voyage of the Beagle.  Laying down much of the field work for Origin, it is an account of the lands and seas, people and cultures, flora and fauna Darwin encountered on a round-the-world trip he took 1831-1836 gathering research material.  The lion’s share of the trip spent in South America, a good chunk of that time was spent on the Galapagos Islands, a place where key elements of his theorizing on the origins of mankind derived from.  Morrow incorporates the islands in his plot, but instead of taking Chuck as his main character, sets a young woman hell-bent on earning the £10,000 prize of the Percy Bysshe Shelley Society for proving or disproving the existence of god center stage.

Galapagis Regained is the story Chloe Bathurst.  An out of work thespian, she gains employment on the estate of one Charles Darwin, tending his vivarium of rare lizards, birds, and tortoises.  Her father deep in debt and brother a card shark with dull teeth, Chloe becomes desperate to get her family back on a good path, and in a flash of inspiration decides to submit a manuscript on the transmutation of animals she has stolen from a drawer in Darwin’s desk to the Shelley Society who are offering the huge prize for the person can settle the age old question.  Putting her acting skills to use, she doesn’t win the contest but at least succeeds in convincing the Shelley committee to fund a voyage to Galapagos, and there to find the tree of life that will prove “her” theory.  A group of Christian extremists, when hearing of her plight, resolve to arrive ahead of her on the islands and kill all the animals.  Adventure, it’s safe to say, ensues, and it is most insightfully humorous.

Written in a most cutting, playful tone, I gave up quoting Galapagos Regained; the entire novel is quotable.  A smile continually kept playing at the corner of the lips (literally), the book possesses a sustained sophistication of wit and humor oh so rare to see these days in literature; Morrow is a man in complete control of his craft, in the lines and between them.

Not all style, Galapagos Regained is likewise full of substance—brimming, in fact.  The light-hearted tone wonderfully disguising a density of information, Morrow did his research.  From the jungle rebellions to Medieval Christian theosophy, Mendel’s work with plants to the philosophy of Schopenhauer, Peruvian slave history to the fauna of Galapagos itself, when one scrapes away the tongue-in-cheek presentation to see the actual content, there can be no disappointment.  Some of the characters may be found smoking hashish in a time-traveling hookah bar—Mendel andTeilhard among them—but there is no mistaking the underlying intent.

In the end, Galapagos Regained is a delightfully irreverent, discriminately penned, laugh-out-loud clever, wholly picaresque adventure that has Christian theism square in its cross-hairs, Darwin’s theory of evolution the loaded gun.  Drawing on interests as wide as Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to the poetry of Omar Khayyám, the style is pure enjoyment word to word, its substance as thought-provoking, idea to idea. Morrow on point from the first sentence, he satirizes Christianity as perhaps no one else writing currently can, at least that I know.  

*And do ignore the review on Strange Horizons. It was written by a person who, even if they do not like satire, does not possess the tools to recognize satire. For example, the criticism of the style of language.  Overblown prose is one of the key points making the novel such strong satire...  But I digress. I just expect more from Strange Horizons...


  1. I, too, thought -- and still think -- this was one of the best novels of 2015. But then James Morrow has been one of my favorite authors since the mid-90s and has never disappointed me so far. I strongly urge you to read his other novels and short stories (Bible Stories for Adults), especially The Last Witchfinder and the trilogy of Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon and The Eternal Footman.

    I really enjoy your reviews. They're insightful and well-written. Your review of Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt put that book to the top of my to-read pile, after spending more than a decade of neglect on my shelf (an earlier novel of his failed to convince me). And as an aside to other posts of yours I've recently browsed through: I had the sbolute same reaction as you to Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land; Dancing with Bears does not collect Swanwick's Darger & Surplus stories (three of those are collected in The Dog Said Bow Wow), but it is the first novel featuring the two con-artists (a second, Chasing the Phoenix, was just published in August and is to be recommended); and concerning Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun: I think it is misleading to label it as hard to read. On a pure language level it is very easy to read, and it is possible to enjoy the book superficially on account of the fantastical world described, without delving into the subtexts. It is not even necessary to know all the antiquated words Wolfe employs to describe the far-future setting; one can mostly intuit their rough meaning from context (and the Internet helps finding out more when interested). But of course the real pleasure in reading Wolfe is paying attention to the details, puzzling things out, rereading, ... I would always recommend his early novels to anyone interested in Wolfe -- starting with Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace (his best novel) and Book of the New Sun, rather than Wizard Knight. Have you read his Book of the Short Sun?

    A great blog you keep going here ... I'll keep reading.

    1. Thanks, Klaas for revealing yourself!! :) Glad you enjoy the blog.

      The word 'hard' is a hard word to put across. I would have to go back and read my review of New Sun, but I hope that I used the word 'hard' in the context of sub-textual comprehension, as absolutely Wolfe is crystal clear on the surface. I still recall the scene wherein big Severian and little Severian are standing on the colossus and little Severian touches its hand and vaporizes, puff, gone, just like that. What does it mean?!?!? :) With Wolfe, little Severian and his death obviously have meaning, but getting at that meaning is hard. I hope that was the meaning I was getting at.

      Interesting you should put forth essentially the chronology of Wolfe's oeuvre as the best place to start. I found Fifth Head extremely rewarding upon re-read - 're-read' being the key word. The Wizard Knight I enjoyed and understood on first read, which is why I posited it as a potential gateway to Wolfe. It's obviously playing sub-textual games, but they are comparatively light. That being said, as so many of his books are deceptively dense, perhaps Fifth Head in fact is the most representative, and therefore the best place to start... Interesting point.

      I have read Short Sun. A review should be coming sometime soon. I found it the most abstract of the Solar Cycle, but by the same token, the most rewarding. I loved it (what I understood; re-read in order), and I hope my review will convey as much.

      Thanks again for commenting!

    2. Hi Jesse,
      odd that we discuss Wolfe in the comments on a Morrow review -- I like it! Not only do you have to search for deeper meanings in Wolfe's works -- now you have to look for discussions of his work in places one would not expect to.
      Short Sun is a very tough one to figure out -- even on first rereading. Mainly because one has to keep so many different chronological narrative threads from tangling, and find the moment when "something" happens to Horn and Silk takes over. I really enjoy this about Wolfe, that you can read an entertaining story to notice there is something more, something deeper going on. And if you are willing to find out you can come back ... and still discover something new everytime. The last time I reread New Sun and Peace I could have started them over again upon finishing.
      I haven't reread The Wizard Knight yet, and it's been more than ten years since I first read them, but I know there were some things I couldn't figure out. For example, what is the significance of Able seeing his brother -- to whom he writes the whole "letter" that makes up the novel -- at the campfire in the end?

      Incidentally, from your reviews The Dragon Griaule sounds intriguing and will be one of the next books for me to get. Likewise, the fantasy novel based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (I wrote it down somewhere but don't recall either the author or titel right now). I liked your review of I am Legend, even though, like the other commentator I personally disagree, as I count it among the best novels. But then I practically grew up on 70s SF movies like The Omega Man and Soylent Green and was keen on finding their source texts. And there's no accounting for taste, or whatever the saying is.

    3. Wolfe can be discussed anywhere!

      Indeed Short Sun is the most convoluted of the three series. In Green's Jungles was particularly troublesome for me, but once I got a little way into Return to the Whorl, I started to see a hazy light on the horizon. There are still many things I'm uncertain of, but a few of my ideas I will include in my review. I never took Horn to become Silk in any physical sense, but I do certainly see him coming to take a similar apostle/teacher/seer role...

      I took the ending you mention of The Wizard Knight to be a "return to reality," like Dorothy waking up in Kansas. 99.9% of the novel(s) takes place in a fantasy land, except for a few paragraphs at the beginning, and the letter at the end. These two points were like bookends for my brain to locate the story, the letter likewise being a 'passing on' to the next person. As always with Wolfe, I could be dead wrong.

      The Dragon Griaule is something that faded with time. The first few stories are great, and slowly Shepard shifts to normalcy. It is worthwhile nonetheless. The Three Kingdoms-esque book you're thinking of is The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. And yes, my contentious review of I Am Legend. :) It seems I'm in a minority. Matheson writes a burning, driven story that effectively combines some familiar genre tropes. I just wasn't sure the story goes any deeper than that... I'm open to being shown what I missed. :)