Friday, May 31, 2013

Phillip José Farmer Chases the Abyss

Phillip José Farmer’s The Wind Whales of Ishmael is simultaneously a bold extension of an American classic novel, a nostalgic reminder for English majors of “that book” that haunts every American Literature survey class, and a rather traditional semi-Messianic hero tale. Farmer’s strength here is his weaving of detailed descriptions of complex machinery, both lovely and terrifying, into an essentially familiar tale of new worlds, conflicts, and survival vested in a man and woman of divergent backgrounds finding one another. Though not purely fantasy, Farmer’s deft ear for the fantastic in Melville’s Moby-Dick and the lurking menace of carnivorous vegetation in his visions echo many touchstones of fantasy, rather like a  Miyazaki film.

The comparisons to Miyazaki are most evident in the way the narrator, Ishmael, relays his perceptions and understanding of the strange, new “sea of air” he discovers in the opening of the book, set immediately after the final scene in Moby-Dick. Layering rich details and extended explanations into what could be readily presented as airships and parachutes, for example, Farmer intrigues his readers with a defamiliarized world, as disorienting for them as for Ishmael. Carrying Melville’s style of near didactic investigation into this work allows Farmer to play with the reputation Moby-Dick lends to his borrowed characters, in effect fondly critiquing the American classic, while building the necessary background to his coming plot.

And the plot does come, though the first third of the novel really is consumed by the task of exposition and narration than pure action. Here the wonders of undiscovered technology mask the underlying, traditional theme of the story proper. While Ishmael’s initial contact with the native virgin priestess, and his love interest, Namalee, gives a hint at the events to follow, the narrative is dominated by the vivid descriptions of air-whaling and the great purple beast, the destroyer of cities and people which is the analog to the white whale – though rather less mysterious in Farmer’s text. Ishmael’s role as innocent outsider and exotic expert are familiar to fantasy readers, and the general outlines of what will come in the story conform to the outsider-cum-hero ideal.

High adventure and high stakes, fitting for a sea-borne adventure or, in this case, an air-ship carried hunt, form the book’s core for the last third. As the chase for the purple monster brings together the warring cities of natives, thrusts Ishmael into leadership as the Grand Admiral, and brings Ishmael’s inventive knowledge from his whaling past to the fore as he creates new weaponry and tactics to defeat the monster, the intense descriptions yield to a crisp and engaging pace. All of these events create a compelling force, driving the readers on to an end that feels perhaps too familiar after all the alternate possibilities. Another film analogy comes to mind, Cameron’s Avatar, which also presents a rich and luminous world that overall outshines the plot and ending. Farmer’s many fans will find much to delight in with The Wind Whales of Ishmael, and everyone who appreciates well-crafted and intriguing presentations of technology will be well rewarded.

By Lindsay Craig

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