Review: The Wind Whales of Ishmael
Review: ‘The Wind Whales of Ishmael’ by Phillip José Farmer
We at Geek Smash have covered the works of Phillip José Farmer before, and I’m happy to see that Titan Books are making good on their goal of reintroducing Farmer’s lesser-known works to a readership that should, by all rights, devour them.
“The Wind Whales of Ishmael” is a science fiction sequel to “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.” Yes, that “Moby-Dick.” And yes, he’s that Ishmael. Let it never be said that Farmer never had the guts to take one of the most central and recognizable works of literature in the English language and write a sequel to it. And in the double-plus side, “The Wind Whales of Ishmael” is a lot more readable and approachable than Herman Melville’s novel ever struck me.
The novel begins where “Moby-Dick” left off. The “Pequod” has sunk and its crew is dead, with the exception of “Call Me” Ishmael. He’s rescued by the “Rachel” and sets off for some more adventure. At this point the narrative of “Moby-Dick” ends and the sequel begins. While keeping watch one evening, a strange storm kicks up. After some tossing and turning, Ishmael and the ship end up transported to the far, far future. The ship is destroyed, and alone Ishmael wanders through this bizarre world with a giant red sun, dried-up oceans, crazy animals that are barely analogous to anything familiar, and a humanity that has reverted to tribalism with a strange but all-too-awesome twist: airships. Ishmael joins up with some of these tribal folk to join them hunting the wind whales and begins making changes to their society in hopes of saving humanity once and for all.
While this isn’t Farmer’s greatest work, it’s certainly a good one. His imagination certainly ran wild on this one, coming up with all sorts of craziness to populate the world of Earth a billion years in the future. It’s not as deep or philosophical as something like “Riverworld,” but in terms of high adventure, it’s pure fun.
I was worried at first that I would miss a lot of the book since I’d never actually read “Moby-Dick” all the way through, but it turned out that that fear was unfounded. Melville’s book is ingrained in the American psyche so deeply that most of the references to Ahab or Queequeg will be readily recognized, even if the reader is not directly familiar with the work. Farmer relied more on cultural osmosis than Melville scholarship to set up his plot.
Titan’s new reprint also features two new essays that do an excellent job of introducing Farmer and the book to the reader. Even old fans will learn new details and ways of thinking about the work by reading them. Such essays seem to be part-and-parcel with Titan’s efforts to revive the works of Phillip José Farmer, bringing new essays to each of the books they reprint. “Wind Whales” begins with an essay on Farmer as a “gateway author,” meaning that reading his works has a way of bringing the reader not only into other works of science fiction, but also into the great literary canon of bygone eras. Farmer’s love of both literature and pulp is evident in almost everything he writes, and it’s difficult not to be inspired to follow and learn more about the influences he plays with so fondly and closely.
For the story alone, “The Wind Whales of Ishmael” is well worth picking up. It’s a quick read, and an exciting one, well suited for an afternoon on the porch. The essays are an exceptional bit of bonus material, and I thank Titan for including them. This might not be the book that changes your outlook on life like some of Farmer’s more lofty works, but you definitely won’t want to put it down. And you might even feel compelled to seek out some Herman Melville after you’re done, just to see what all the fuss is about.