Sunday, November 5, 2017

Consideration of Works Past: The Godwhale

First a heads up on happy information.

Recall earlier this year my story, The Sweet Warm Earth, was published in F&SF. It was picked up by The Best American Mystery Stories.

Well, it’s out. Here it is.

Okay, now that shameless self promotion is out of the way, let’s talk about The Godwhale.

TG was published in 1974 by T. J. Bass. Bass is one of those extremely interesting writers of which there’s not a lot of material to read. There were a number of these in the sixties and seventies. Bass’ isfdb page has two novels, a novella or two and perhaps four short stories. I read TG back when it was first published and read its prequel, Half PastHuman. I haven’t read HPH since so I can’t comment on it. Not that it matters. TG stands on its own.

TG begins a few hundred years in the future where there is a population issue but it is largely managed. The book follows the life of Larry Dever, a human that gets caught in an accident where the lower half of his body from the navel on down is amputated. He is put into suspension which introduces him to some intervening cultural periods, setting the stage to where he ultimately ends up. As he stays in suspension his genes become more and more valuable, being more ancient and primitive. In effect, he becomes a “wild type” human—a rich genetic source for future domestic crops (like humans) that have lost variability over time.

Dever ends up several thousand years in the future where there is nothing but the Hive, a continent spanning city-state containing a trillion human beings who term themselves Nebishes. Nebishes have been selected for this existence. They are small. Their calorie requirements are low. They have four toes. The Nebish city state is completely consumed with its own survival without regard to the cost to the rest of the world. Anyone who does not contribute or fails at his role may forfeit their right to active life and end up in suspension or demoted.

Bass has an interesting style. Reading him almost feels as if you’re reading dispassionate journalism. This happens. That happens. This person feels this. Truly horrible events are described without heat. It is the events that he relates that have a tinge of horror but the author doesn’t let the language be the vehicle. Not to say his prose is not compelling. It is.

There’s a lovely scene where Dever is resuscitated into the Nebish world in which, as a cripple, he cannot belong. But their ethics are strong where other humans are concerned. He cannot belong but they cannot kill him. Instead, they give him a painless poison in place of food. A citizen follows him around telling him how he has ruined her day. How miserable she is seeing him and he should just take the poison and die. Later, she is traumatized when Dever assaults her, takes her food and escapes.

The Godwhale of the title does not show up for some time. This is the plankton rake the Rorqual Maru. She is a whale that has been repurposed into a floating harvest factory. The Hive has left the entire outside world barren so she has no plankton to harvest. She sends her compatriot, a small unit named Iron Trilobite, to seek people for her to serve again. Instead, Trilobite becomes incorporated into the Hive. Where he eventually meets Larry Dever.

There are a few primitive people (the Benthics) that are stealing the sterile fruits of the Hive gardens. They survive by living in the sea.

Bass brings Dever, the Benthics, Iron Trilobite and the Rorqual Maru together deftly and they mysteriously bring about a reseeding of the oceans. Which, of course, puts them in conflict with the Hive for the same resources. This conflict occupies most of the book.

Bass was very interested in the nature of utilitarianism and over-population. One recurring theme in both of his books is the devaluation of human beings. While Bass never really states this issue in economic terms, in effect he proposes that as the number of humans increases to the point of resource contention, the individual value of human beings goes down.

While he never uses these terms, the Hive model is essentially a zero sum game system and the Benthics a non-zero sum game system. But this is not political ideology—the Hive is bound by its eternal struggle to match needs and resources. Once it’s made that decision, the zero sum game is the only game in town. The Benthics have scarcity but it’s driven by enabling barriers to the resources, not the limits of the resources themselves. Once the ocean is reseeded, the two methodologies square off and the Hive is the worse for it.

I want to be clear here. TG is not an ideological book. It’s a book with a strong plot and compelling characters that acts out aspects of ideologies because of logical necessity, not because of the invisible hand of the author. It really is an example of SF at its best: good characterization, an interesting world and circumstances that force the characters, and the reader, to grapple with complex ideas.

That said, there are some significant differences between the point of view of 1974 and the point of view of 2017. This is a good book but it is a book that is over forty years old. Two generations make a difference. Some might be feel a little squeamish on women’s roles in the book. Women are not trivialized as when presented under the auspices of Evil Heinlein. (As opposed to Good Heinlein.)

Like Cordwainer Smith, The Godwhale and other T. J. Bass work occupy their own little niche. I just wish there was more of it.

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