Galapagos Regained by James Morrow
Review by Bill Ectric
James Morrow writes with a great sense of fun and wonder. In Galapagos Regained, he regales us with a surreal 1850s adventure that is equal parts historical fiction, metaphysical treatise, and Pirates of the Caribbean spree. Fictional characters interact with actual historical figures, including Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Gregor Mendel, Rosalind Franklin, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Samuel Wilberforce. The fact that some of these notable individuals were not contemporaries is resolved by a time/space anomaly, localized in a Turkish hookah den, which apparently acts as a hub for historical figures to weave in and out through swirling clouds of cannabis smoke.
The novels’ conflict revolves around a debate between Biblical Creationists and Scientific Evolutionists. The Percy Bysshe Shelley Society pledges a £10,000 award to anyone who can either prove or disprove the existence of God. Two competing groups embark on expeditions – one to Mount Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark to confirm the Genesis flood; the other to Galapagos, hoping to discredit the Genesis creation story with evidence of evolution. Morrow is a scientific humanist and a critic of the Church, but his satire is not unkind. He seems to understand the mindset of people on either side of the argument. Almost everyone in this novel, atheist or Christian, mystic or scientist, fictional or historical, is vividly human. For the most part, they are capable of civilized debates and peaceful coexistence. I say “for the most part” because anytime money and power are at stake, blood will be shed, and this exploit is no exception.
Morrow chose to write this book in a style reminiscent of 19th century authors, without sacrificing ease of readability, which helps to set the mood and is often quite entertaining. Chapters have titles like “The Pigeon Priest Moves From His Parsonage to a Madhouse, Even as Our Heroine Arranges to Circumnavigate a Continent,” and “Recruited into an Unlikely Army, Our Heroine Ponders the Doctrine of Just War and Savors the Virtues of Hallucinogenic Snuff.” The combination of style and subject matter triggered my memory of an M. R. James short story, “Two Doctors,” written in 1919, in which a doctor asks a minister if he believes in the existence of satyrs, given that those mythical creatures are mentioned in some versions of the Bible. The minister replies, “I am not seldom called abroad pretty late; but I have no mind of meeting a satyr in our Islington lanes in all the years I have been here; and if you have had the better luck, I am sure the Royal Society would be glad to know of it.”
At least one character in Galapagos Regained observes that neither the existence of an ark nor evidence of evolution can ultimately prove or disprove God’s existence. It is the twists and turns of the quest that make the book such a pleasure to read. There are strange encounters, a hot air balloon, high chicanery, romantic interludes, philosophical enigmas, and even a couple of mind-flips that reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS. Galapagos Regained is the best book I’ve read so far in 2015.