Wednesday, 2 July 2014

‘The Godwhale’ – T.J. Bass (Gollancz)

I never seem to read as many SF Masterworks as I mean to. There’s a bookshelf, in my house, full of books where I’ve thought to myself ‘ooh SF Masterwork, I really need to give it a go’ and then promptly forgotten about it. At the rate my reading is going at the moment, I have enough books on this shelf to keep me going for the rest of the year and it is way past time that I started on the twisty turny (filled with obstacles) road to reading redemption. So here goes…
‘The Godwhale’ is a title that has always intrigued me as whales are a little god-like sometimes aren’t they? Both majestic and mysterious… It’s also a title that defeated me the last time I tried reading it, a few months ago, so it seemed like the appropriate place to try and make some kind of dent in my ‘SF Masterworks’ shelf. I made it through this time, but all the obstacles from before were there. Before we get into that though, have some blurb…

Rorqual Maru was a cyborg - part organic whale, part mechanised ship - and part god. She was a harvester - a vast plankton rake, now without a crop, abandoned by earth society when the seas died. So she selected an island for her grave, hoping to keep her carcass visible for salvage. Although her long ear heard nothing, she believed that man still lived in his hive. If he should ever return to the sea, she wanted to serve. She longed for the thrill of a human's bare feet touching the skin of her deck. She missed the hearty hails, the sweat and the laughter. She needed mankind. But all humans were long gone ... or were they?

I finally finished ‘The Godwhale’ yesterday and I’m really glad that I made the effort. It was a bit of a slog though and I have a horrible feeling that all the reasons it was a slog are the reasons the book is justifiably an ‘SF Masterwork’… What does that say about me and my reading? These days I’m very much reading for pleasure and ‘The Godwhale’ doesn’t quite deliver on that score. It’s not a book that you can while away a lunch break but it is a book that will really get you thinking about the direction our world could conceivably head in. I loved the way that Bass did this by the way, showing the reader how the world changes (over thousands of years) in between Larry Dever’s waking up from medically induced comas. It’s a great way to cram a lot of change into a small number of pages and we get to share Larry’s shock as the world changes through his eyes; a very effective narrative approach that throws the reader right into the middle of things and leaves them trying to make sense of it all.

And what a world it is! A starkly realised world of ‘Nebishes’ living underground and having their entire lives regulated by social lottery and AI. A world where, on the surface, half-starved tribes of humans risk death to steal from the jealously guarded vegetable gardens as the oceans no longer support life. Bass has clearly put some real thought into how the damage we are doing to our world right now will affect us in the far future and it is all so plausibly done with the creation of a society that literally has nowhere else to go but under the ground where space is at a premium and humanity adapts accordingly.

Life will find a way though and it’s this that gives ‘The Godwhale’ a note of hope that leaves the reader optimistic for the future rather than reaching for something alcoholic. The re-emergence of Rorqual Maru and the arrival of Larry Dever throw a well ordered, if dying on its feet, world into change and evolution that drives the plot forward to that optimistic end. Larry’s trying to make sense of the world forces change when others realise that he might have a good point with his questions. It’s not just what he does in the ‘present’ either, Larry’s actions echo down the ages with a pleasing hint of things just coming together. Rorqual Maru trying to do the job she had been created for forces change in the dynamics of both the Nebish and Benthic people as they suddenly have to deal with a new presence in their lives, the ‘Godwhale’ (something that is beyond their control and understanding).

The resulting plot is both ecological commentary and a cautionary look at how the demands of the far future could ultimately shape us. It’s also a testament to the strength and determination of humanity to overcome these obstacles and forge forwards (the Benthics more so than the Nebish, it has to be said). It’s stirring stuff, in its own understated way, or it would be if Bass didn’t smother it with an overabundance of maths and medical terminology. This isn’t the best way to make a high concept tale accessible to the casual reader (hence my going on about it being a slog) although I understand that it actually backs up the concepts at the same time (hence my believing that ‘The Godwhale’ is a Masterwork, it simply has all the ingredients to be so).

It felt like a tough one to call then but it’s clear that ‘The Godwhale’ is perfectly justified to sit in the ‘SF Masterworks’ collection. It’s so good in fact that I’m going to have to search out a copy of ‘Half Past Human’ (a prequel) and read more about this world. If nothing else, that kind of reaction makes the ‘Masterwork’ title very apt. 'The Godwhale' isn't a light read, by any means, but one that is worth sticking with.

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