It’s time again for what we might call “non-genre” fantasy history… stuff. This time, in particular, it’s Herman Melville’s classic American novel, Moby-Dick. Yes, the one about the whales. Yes, the one everyone thinks they have to read, and never do. Yes, the one with the homosexual undertones. Yes, jeez, you know which book I’m talking about, just read this, dammit!
OK. First, I wrote a damn biography of Herman Melville (in this book, actually), and you should know some of the stuff he did. He did sail on several ships, two of which were whaling vessels. One was a military ship. He sailed on so many because he kept jumping ship every port when he got sick of whaling (which was a four-six year affair with about as much luck involved as going out fishing – a lot). He was put in jail once, in Haiti I think, for jumping ship, but the jail was a roof with corner pillars. That is, no walls. He walked off after a week or two. This was after he was accommodated / captured by purportedly cannibal natives and escaped. These stories all went into his first two books, which are partly autobiographical.
Then shit got weird with his third book, Mardi, which was a romance, but started as though it was another in the line of adventure at sea books that had made him famous.
But Moby-Dick. What about that book? You’ll run into a lot of people who think I shouldn’t be writing about it here. I’ve had arguments with people who insist it’s a realistic novel; the most obvious objection is that whales as big as Moby Dick don’t exist, but they’ll claim that Melville must have seen a kind of whale while out at sea that marine biologists have only recently seen that still isn’t as big as Moby Dick. A: that still doesn’t explain anything and B: if he’d seen something like that, believe you me, he would have fucking mentioned it. He made his living off telling people about weird shit that happened to him while he was at sea, it would have come up.
But there’s more to Moby-Dick to make it a romance, or a fantasy. The most important being that the whale is God.
I don’t mean he stands for God, or that he’s a symbol for God. I mean, in some weird-ass way, similar to Jack Kirby’s writing, the whale is also simultaneously God somehow. And you remember the plot of Moby-Dick? Yeah, Ahab wants to kill the white whale.
So you’re telling me this novel is about a crazy person who wants to kill God?
That’s Herman Melville for you…
OK, here’s what happens. First there’s a chapter of quotations about whales. Then we meet the narrator of the novel, Ishmael (apparently not his real name), who’s cold and out of work. He goes to an inn and meets Queequeg, who gets him a job on the ship he’s gonna work on. Queequeg is the best. He’s a native of some fucking place, working as a harpooner, who is really tall, strong, crazy, and he has a hatchet that’s a pipe.
Let me say that one again: he has a pipe that is also a hatchet. He can smoke it and then kill someone with it.
He also has a statue that’s his god, that he carved himself. Eventually he tells his god to go fuck himself, lies down in his coffin, and waits to die. He does not do so. Also, he may or may not be gay for Ishmael. They meet for the first time in bed, and Queequeg takes Ishmael on as his bride for the rest of the novel.
Also, there’s plenty more homosexual stuff in the novel, but I’ll leave you to find it. Hint: whale oil is slippery.
Ahab is a crazy son of a bitch, and he has hired a weirdo magician native motherfucker who guarantees he’ll help Ahab catch Moby Dick. He prophecies the future, and actually pretty much gets it right (another point for the novel being anything but realistic). They kill a bunch of whales, Ahab gets angry, and then he starts to find other captains who have run into the white whale. So they hunt it down.
Meanwhile, there’s a kid who nearly dies who sees visions of God running the world like that pedal on the bottom of an old sewing machine while he’s abandoned in the middle of the ocean for a day or two. After that Ahab kind of adopts him.
Ahab realizes, near the end, that he’s a crazy asshole who’s destroying his family and his crew, but then he sees the whale and decides he’ll have it, damn it! There’s a lot of talk about telling he who made things to go fuck himself, recalling stuff at the beginning about how the world is like a house, and God is the builder who forgot to finish it, plug up the holes where the wind comes in, or provide any comfort for those inside. So it makes sense, really, that Ahab wants to kill the asshole.
Things, uh, go poorly, as you might imagine. Ishmael is the only one to survive, I believe.
Well now. Why should you read this book? First, because likely you feel like you should, but think it’s gonna be really boring. Nope. This book is insane. And also awesome.
But more importantly, it’s affected a lot of SF/fantasy. Delany’s Nova is pretty much an SF Moby-Dick. The Book of the New Sun borrows from it, including the part about meeting someone important in bed when the main character’s tired, and the strange voice of the narrator itself. But the idea of a voyage being the thing wherein a character and the reader can learn all they need to learn about the world, its spirits, and themselves, that’s Moby-Dick all over, as well as a hell of a lot of fantasy and SF out there. Moby-Dick is a crazed version of the fantastic voyage which is the basis of a lot of fantastic fiction. You owe it to yourself to give it a try.