From the back cover: “Ishmael, lone survivor of the doomed whaling ship Pequod, falls through a rift in time and space to a future Earth – an Earth of blood-sucking vegetation and a blood-red sun, of barren canyons where once the Pacific Ocean roared. Here too there are whales to hunt, but whales that soar kike airships through a too-dark sky.”
I haven’t read a whole lot of the late Philip Jose Farmer’s vast output. I’ve read through Riverworld twice, and I’m familiar with his Wold Newton alternate literary history. I’ve always heard that the World of Tiers was his high point, so I’ve been promising myself to read those in the near future. I’ve always taken him to be a high concept writer – I mean, it doesn’t get much bigger than resurrecting the entire human race along the banks of a world-spanning river, right? So when I picked up a copy of The Wind Whales of Ishmael, saw that it was the Ishmael from Melville’s Moby Dick, I had to read it. Had to.
Being a fan of Melville’s masterpiece, I couldn’t wait to see how Farmer would continue Ishmael’s story, let alone plop him into the middle of a science fiction story. I was honestly expecting to read a tale of the Wold Newton family. For those not familiar with the concept, it’s basically a linking of a vast array of literary characters (Tarzan, Doc Savage and Sherlock Holmes, just to name a few) to the meteor strike in Wold Newton, England in the late 1700’s. Even though it wasn’t a part of that universe, the story was a wild, exhilarating ride. It picks up right after Ishmael’s rescue by the Rachel at the end of Moby Dick. Five pages later – bam – Farmer has him a billion years or so in the future, trying to not only stay alive, but also to understand what’s going on around him.
As I was reading, and after I’d determined this wasn’t part of the Wold Newton universe, I kept trying to figure out why have Ishmael as a character. He could have created any other John Carter-style hero fit the bill. Brave guy from our world transported to a strange world, becomes a hero, saves the known world, marries the princess – how many times have you read that? I guess if you wanted to, the comparison between the setting here and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth are pretty evident. There’s no super-science or sorcery here, but the alien landscape and the ever-present bloated, red sun is. Farmer, however, is not copying anyone. His fading earth has regressed. Cities are isolated and rivals, and people “fish” the skies in boats that are not too unfamiliar to the protagonist’s time. Then it struck me, why Ishmael? John Carter types are doers. Ishmael is a scholar, a thinker, an observer. We see this future earth in some detail through his eyes, we speculate about its origins with him, and by the end, we will have pondered the follies of Captain Ahab battle with the white whale to identify the nature of mankind’s ultimate enemy.
Do you have to have read Melville to get it? Definitely not. The astute reader will understand Ishmael in the end. Does it help? Definitely. There are references to Queequeg and his coffin, Ahab, even Typee. That was just like icing on the cake for this reader. In the end, there’s even a Moby Dick equivalen. From start to finish, The Wind Whales of Ishmael is an exciting, fun read.
Titan Books is currently reissuing several of Farmer’s works, including some about the Wold Newton universe. The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (yes, it’s the guy from Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days) is available now. They are providing a great opportunity to get acquainted or reacquainted with one of the grand masters of science fiction.
(Full Disclosure: Titan Books provided Nerdbloggers with a preview copy of this novel. We received no payment or compensation for this review and find the act of writing paid reviews pretty scuzzy).