How many of you have ever read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick? I don’t think it was required reading for many people my age, as lit classes in high school during the 1980′s were less concerned about the hefty volumes. So unless you’re older than 40 or so, you may not have read it before. Well, if you are a SF genre fan then you may want to go pick it up and give it a try. Im not saying that Melville was a genre writer, but this odd story about man vs. nature definately has something in it that will be of interest to genre readers. That is: The white whale! I think that the whale is a proto-SF beast, and even though may not have come at all from an SF tradition, Melville definately influenced those who came after him.
Think about it: Its a giant inhuman beast that displays intelligent thought and motivation when looked at closely, but still on the surface seems to act as an animal. It was animalistic, strange and powerful, and at the same time it acted with purpose, just like a pulp alien monster would. Just like an alien monster would Its definately more than just intelligence. The whale intends to do what it does, for an intelligent reason? That presumed intelligence creates mystery around it. That and the fact that its a non-human really do, in my opinion, make it the proto-type for SF monsters that came later. Like Godzilla. Godzilla differed in one critical way in that it was created in an atomic blast, and Moby Dick was just a whale in the ocean. But there is kind of an other-worldly oddness about them both, isn’t there?
Compare the whale and the shark from the movie version of JAWS. That story was really a man vs. nature story. In the end the shark bought it because it was an animal and couldn’t understand mans technology (it bit onto a container of gas, and the container was shot). The shark in that movie was just hunting to eat, and we the viewers were terrified by that, and the ferocity of its attacks. Now that may have been confused a little bit by the film makers who were trying to scare the pants off of the viewers, but the shark really didn’t become anything larger than its place in the food chain.
In Moby Dick it really was the captain vs. the whale, not nature itself. The whale’s status as an adversary was raised to that of a worthy opponent. Ahab hunted it because of vengeance, not for public safety. The whale took on the role of a villain in a way that the shark in Jaws never really did. And in the end the whale overcomes Ahab, despite his technological advantage. At the time that this was written I think that was to show the futility of Ahab’s purpose, and the consequences of giving up on the world. But I also think that later authors took that victory to heart and the concept morphed to become in additon to the costs of hubris, the victory of unknown technology over the unprepared (of course, only in the rare case when the hero lost to the alien/monster, which was almost always a temporary loss to be rectified by the end of the book).
Anyway, Melville was writing a long time before SF really got going. he wasn’t trying to make a SF beast, but it seems to me that he did influence those SF writers who came later. And for that reason, I keep a copy of that book in my SF collection.
Tags: book collecting