When we plan courses, our choices are deliberate, right? We conscientiously select texts and arrange them in meaningful ways to increase the odds of student engagement, and we envision particular learning outcomes based on the trajectories we spend months setting up.
Yet, despite all the planning and preparation, sometimes the most profound moments of learning are the result of plain old “dumb luck”—the chance compatibility between the literature we teach and the unanticipated circumstances of the world around us.
I frequently teach a gen ed American lit course that fulfills the following “Challenges in the 21st Century” learning objective: “Knowledge and understanding of the historical roots, contemporary manifestations, and potential future of important challenges students may encounter as they move into the world beyond the University.” Based on this objective, I designed the course around the theme of “survival,” flexibly defined. Here’s the course description from my syllabus:
“This course will explore the concept of “survival,” and its various contextual definitions, in relation to American identity. What does it really mean to “survive” in America as an individual, as a family, as a community, as a nation, or even as a species? What do we depend upon to survive at each of these levels? What obstacles emerge or stand in the way of our survival? We’ll ponder these multifaceted questions through critical analysis of course literature and films.”
I haven’t meddled with the course theme over the past few years because the it has consistently resonated with students. When I encourage students to think about “survival” in small scale or short-term ways in their daily lives, they usually identify immediately: How do you “survive” a long day at work? How do you “survive” an awkward family dinner? How do you “survive” a semester at college?
Why do I encourage students to think about the definition of “survival” so flexibly? Well, because most students haven’t actually dealt with “survival” in a major life-or-death way…until this semester. What it means to “survive” a semester at college isn’t the same as it what it meant when I taught the class last year.
When I originally selected the literature for the course, I wanted to represent a wide range of “survival” experiences, but I also had to keep in mind that this gen ed course is dominantly filled with non-English majors who may not enjoy reading. I’ve found a lot of non-majors are interested in Science Fiction or dystopian narratives, so I inserted Sci-Fi novels at the beginning, middle, and end of the course.
I start the course with Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) and end with Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990), but I’d like to focus on the middle text here since it’s the last novel my students finished this semester before our course completely converted to an online format as a result of COVID-19: Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos (1985).
For those who aren’t familiar with the novel, it’s classic Vonnegut weird! Galápagos is narrated by Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut’s infamous reoccurring character and Science Fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Leon recounts the events transpiring in 1986, including global financial crisis, a world war, his own death, as well as the near extinction of the human race, that consequently lead to what humans will be like one million years later—the present day from which the ghost of Leon speaks.
Leon spends the majority of the novel juxtaposing what humans were like in the 1980s in what he describes as the era of “big brains” versus what humans are like one million years later—a picture of humanity that runs counter to what most students envision when asked to imagine the future.
So, what do students envision the future will look like? Usually, responses will range drastically from WALL·E to The Terminator, but the underlying constant is a world characterized by ultra-technology. Students are surprised to find the opposite at work in Galápagos: a “tranquil” and “slow” future in which humans have devolved into furry seal-like creatures with flippers and tiny brains. Leon comments, “And all the people are so innocent and relaxed now, all because evolution took their hands away” (202), and “Killer whales and sharks keep the human population nice and manageable, and nobody starves” (129).
So, how did humans end up as seal creatures? There are two primary forces at work in the novel: poorly-devised human “survival schemes” and “dumb luck.”
As Leon explains, human “survival schemes” back in the 80s weren’t always so logical, thanks to humans’ impractically “big brains.” Here are some of his critiques:
“The financial crisis , which could never happen today, was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth-century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains….More and more people were saying that their brains were irresponsible, unreliable, hideously dangerous, wholly unrealistic—were simply no damn good” (25).
“So I have to say that human brains back then had become such copious and irresponsible generators of suggestions as to what might be done with life, that they made acting for the benefit of future generations seem one of many arbitrary games which might be played by narrow enthusiasts—like poker or polo or the bond market, or the writing of science-fiction novels” (81).
“Apologies for momentary brain failures were the staple of everybody’s conversations: ‘Whoops,’ ‘Excuse me,’ ‘I hope you’re not hurt,’ ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ ‘It happened so fast I didn’t have time to think,’ ‘I have insurance against this kind of thing,’ and ‘How can I ever forgive myself,’ and ‘I didn’t know it was loaded,’ and on an on” (180).
“Furthermore, human brains were too easily swayed by “mere opinions”: “Mere opinions, in fact, were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be” (16).
With “big” human brains constantly “malfunctioning,” Leon explains that humanity’s survival a million years into the future is a matter of sheer luck. A handful of people were in the right place at the right time, escaped on a cruise ship from Ecuador, ended up on the sustainable Galápagos island of Santa Rosalia, and managed to repopulate. Isolated, without technology, and with no hope of rescue, evolution took over from there.
But aside from the Santa Rosalia “survivors,” what happened to the rest of the human race? Leon explains, “Some new creature, invisible to the naked eye, was eating up all the eggs in human ovaries, starting at the annual Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany. Women at the fair were experiencing a slight fever, which came and went in a day or two, and sometimes blurry vision. After that…they couldn’t have babies anymore. Nor would any way be discovered for stopping the disease. It would spread practically everywhere” (176).
Leon later poignantly reflects, “Truth be told, the planet’s most victorious organisms have always been microscopic” (201).
The timeliness of the novel this semester certainly felt more uncanny than coincidental.
I always situate Galápagos at the midterm point of the semester because it’s a comedy. A lot of survival-themed literature can get pretty gloomy, so I want students to go into their midterms or spring breaks with uplifted spirits. As you can imagine, the novel’s humor didn’t “land” the way it normally does; however, precisely because of the COVID-19 circumstances, student engagement with the novel was at an all-time high.
One student even commented, “It’s like Vonnegut knew there would be a pandemic.”
And I think there’s something to this statement, right? Great authors are sort of like fortune-tellers or prophets. This is why it’s so important to hear them out and think carefully about they have to say. In the two weeks before our online conversion, I saw students use Vonnegut’s novel to work through and discuss their own panic, fear, anxiety, anger, and uncertainty about the pandemic and what their futures hold.
At one point, Leon summarizes the plot of The Era of Hopeful Monsters, a novel written by his father, Kilgore Trout: “It was about a planet where the humanoids ignored their most serious survival problems until the last possible moment. And then, with all the forests being killed and all the lakes being poisoned by acid rain, and all the groundwater made unpotable by industrial wastes and so on, the humanoids found themselves the parents of children with wings or antlers or fins, with a hundred eyes, with no eyes, with huge brains, with no brains, and on and on” (86).
In the past, students saw this exaggerated sci-fi “plot” as a warning about our potential future, but today that potential future has essentially arrived. While we’re not yet humanoid mutants, we have waited until “the last possible moment” to deal with our “serious survival problems.” What do we do next? How do we adapt? Is there hope?
If there is hope, it’s suggested near the end of Galápagos when Leon points readers to the novel’s epigraph, an Anne Frank quote (281):
“In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”
Now that my course is completely online, I’m moved not only by how my students have come together via our Blackboard discussion board to support each other but also by their drive to continue discussing our course literature despite the chaos.
Sometimes it takes a pandemic to help a class full of non-English majors understand how important literature is.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Galápagos. Random House, 2006.