Book Review – The Wind Whales of Ishmael

WindWhalesOfIshmael_finalOnce more, the good people at Titan Books graciously offer their wares for us to review, and once more I find myself reading something I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own.  I love this sort of thing, because it’s exactly this situation that encourages me to expand my horizons.  This time, there’s a setup to this that I’d like to explain, because half the journey of any book is what the reader takes with him, and in my case, my head is a bag of cats more often than not.

This time around, we got the offer, and I felt my eye twitching immediately.  Loyal readers (do we actually have any of those?) might know by now that my eye twitches every time I encounter a reboot, reimagining, reworking, or otherwise potentially lazy setup wherein a writer cribs some classic material in the attempt to make it his own.  The more classic the source material, the more my eye twitches.  It’s not pretty, and most of the time I just put up my hand, proclaim I have better uses of my already strained time, and walk away.  Most of the time.  This book deals with Moby Dick.  Yes, that Moby Dick, the decidedly not-sci-fi-nor-fantasy-classic that scholars quote like Shakespeare and most students cringe at being forced to read in high school.  All respect to Herman Melville here, and apologies to those who love this work… I appreciate the idea behind the story, and I think the idea to be timeless in every respect of the word.  That said, the classic novel is a beating to slog through.  It really is.  You know what I’m talking about even if you’ve never read it, it’s that kind of a beating.  I can actually say I finished it… at the rapid pace of one page per day over a year as a bet with money involved, eventually plowing through the audiobook to finish it out (which really works better if you find one with a performance behind it).  In short, the novel makes a good movie, but it’s a lousy read.  ‘Nuff about Melville.  The point is, the voices in my head are screaming, reminding me of the trauma of reading Moby Dick.  I don’t want to go there, and they beg of me not to.  I’m already insane enough, they cry!  Well, that’s usually when I look deeper, despite my better judgment.  And so I do.

This time around, the book in question is written by P.J. Farmer, whom I know to be a renowned science fiction writer, and whom I know to be nothing if not completely squirrelly and out of left field when it comes to his ideas.  This book seems to match his modus operandi in so far that it’s just… odd.  So with this in mind, the offer for this book is sitting in my inbox, and I read that it’s the SEQUEL to Moby Dick, set in the far flung future where Earth might as well be an alien world.  The eye twitching gives way to curiosity.  You know the curiosity you get when you find a movie in the bargain bin and you know you’ve never heard of it, but you recognize the cast list from other b-movies and wonder why they keep showing up in this sort of thing when they’re clearly more talented than this?  It’s that kind of curiosity.  That sounds really bad, doesn’t it?  But I think anyone reading an article on a sci-fi site will know that feeling well and appreciate the possibilities of discovery this situation can bring.  And besides that, I’m curious as to why a publisher like Titan, whom I’ve grown to respect in the quality of materials they send us, would actually spend money to reprint a book like this.  It’s a high risk, to say the least, but clearly they’ve seen something more, and now I want to know what’s actually in those pages.  I had to know!  And so I said yes, I would happily review this book!  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?  But did I make a good call here?

From the publisher:

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 through a dark blue sky….
Hugo Award-winner Philip José Farmer has spun a fascinating tale of whaling ships and seamen of the sky in a bizarre future world where there are no seas to sail and no safe harbor to call home….

I’m just going to come right out and say it.  This book is all kinds of wrong in every conceivable way that the creators of most recreational drugs never considered.  But it is also highly imaginative, and it’s surprisingly far better than I would have thought, pleasantly so.  At less than 200 pages, and given Farmer’s writing style, this is a fast read, perfect for a lazy evening or lunch breaks, and it conjures up all manner of things I really want to see in animated form now.  And that’s really what I take away from this most.  This is goofy, strange, and cracked on a level that betrays its 1971 point of origin, but it’s also adventurous in ways you just don’t see anymore.  Farmer took a gamble writing a story like this, but when a writer gets an idea in his head, it’s got to be extracted somehow, and there’s something about the spirit of the 60s and 70s that allowed sci-fi writers of the age to be far more unconventionally expressive.  Farmer is best known to me for his piecing together of the literary crossover-turned-monster-that-should-not-be, the Wold Newton Universe.  What a surprise… a search into this literary nightmare turns up both Moby Dick and The Wind Whales of Ishmael.  Of course it does.  How could it not with Farmer involved?  But it adds another layer for me because now, instead of seeing a boring and over-aggrandized literary classic, I see the characters of Moby Dick in the same light as other literary /pulp greats.  Ishmael has gone from harbinger of boredom to adventurer extraordinaire in the course of a week.  Who knew?  I wouldn’t be able to make that leap if this book was less than it is.  Isn’t it funny how science fiction can change our awareness of something like that, even after years of a predetermined mindset?

The book’s cover says this is a “grandmaster novel.”  I won’t go that far, but I will say that if you’ve got a little extra time on your hands and want to experience something out of your wheelhouse, this book is likely the “something different” that’ll scratch that itch.  It really has the same feel as one of those cult movies that never quite catches on except with a very specific audience long after it was yanked from the theater far too early.  And if you really want to screw with the minds of your co-workers, leave it out on your desk and let them ask you about it if they’re so inclined.  When you start trying to explain it to somebody, and you see their faces contort in unnatural ways (probably very similar to the way yours contorted when you first started reading this review), you’ll know you’ve become “that person,” and this story has done a number on you.  It’s that kind of thing that makes this book worth it.  Grin maniacally, have a laugh at their expense, and know that the next adventure awaits.  I can only imagine that’s what the original publishers of this book went through when Farmer pitched it to them, and I’d really like to know how it ever saw the light of day, but I’m glad it did.  And I’m grateful Titan brought it to my attention.

The Wind Whales of Ishmael is available now from Titan Books.