Chasing the White Whale

An outside observer, surveying the existing canon of the science fiction genre, might well be forgiven for asking, “What is it about sf writers and Moby-Dick?”  Melville’s classic sea story about Captain Ahab and the white whale has been the springboard for more than one science fiction novel — Samuel R. Delany’s Nova has echoes of it, and Philip Jose Farmer’s The Wind Whales of Ishmael is a direct homage, and just this past year China Miéville’s YA novel Railsea had the protagonist following a one-armed captain in a vengeance-hunt for a giant white burrowing mole-rat, or “mouldywarpe”, named Mocker-Jack.

Giant burrowing mole-rats aside, what are the attractions of Moby-Dick for writers working in the science-fictional mode?

Well, obviously, there’s the whole obsessive-vengeance-quest plot.  Vengeance may be morally dubious as all hell, but there’s no denying that as plot engines go, it’s a winner.  It comes with automatic interesting backstory, since the object of the vengeance-quest must have done something impressively dramatic to set the protagonist on his or her course of action (framed him for treason and stolen his girlfriend, killed his father and usurped the throne, shot up her wedding and killed her fiancé on her wedding day . . . that sort of thing.)  It pretty much insures that the protagonist isn’t going to be spending the book contemplating the landscape and doing nothing, and it has the promise of a violent and exciting payoff at the end.  And finally, if the writer is inclined that way, it has lots of scope for contemplating law and morality and justice and mercy and other chewy thematic issues.

Beyond all that, though, is the fact that the one of the key concerns in Moby-Dick is Captain Ahab’s desire to “strike through the mask” — to find out what, exactly, is the real nature of the white whale.  Is it a brute beast acting according to its nature, or is it an active and malevolent adversary?  Or is it merely the agent of some other, greater intelligence?  This desire to see beyond the surface of things, to find out the true nature of the universe, is also one of the key concerns of science fiction.

And this thematic similarity, I think, is a big part of what attracts science fiction writers to Moby-Dick.

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