The Wind Whales of Ishmael, by Philip Jose Farmer - excerpt

I discovered the work of Philip José Farmer when I was 12 or 13 years old. (I just reordered Image of the Beast to see if it's as bizarre and entertaining as I thought it was when I read it at age 15 or so.) He remains one of my favorite science fiction authors. I'm happy to report that his novel The Wind Whales of Ishmael has been reprinted and is available today. The publisher, Titan Books, provided an excerpt, which you can read after the jump.

Ishmael, lone survivor of the doomed whaling ship Pequod, falls through a rift in time and space to a future Earth—an Earth of blood-sucking vegetation and a blood-red sun, of barren canyons where once the Pacific Ocean roared. Here too there are whales to hunt—but whales that soar through a dark blue sky....

Hugo Award-winner Philip José Farmer has spun a fascinating tale of whaling ships and seamen of the sky in a bizarre future world where there are no seas to sail and no safe harbor to call home....

One man survived.

The great white whale with its strange passenger, and the strangled monomaniac its trailer, had dived deeply. The whaling ship was on its last, its vertical, voyage. Even the hand with the hammer and the hawk with its wing nailed to the mast were gone to the deeps, and the ocean had smoothed out the tracks of man with all the dexterity of billions of years of practice. The one man thrown from the boat swam about, knowing that he would soon go down to join his fellows.

And then the black bubble, the last gasp of the sinking ship, burst. Out of the bubble the coffin-canoe of Queequeg soared, like a porpoise diving into the sky, and fell back, rolled, steadied, and then bobbed gently. The porpoise had become a black bottle containing a message of hope.

Buoyed up by that coffin, he floated for a day and a night on a soft and dirge-like sea. On the second day, the devious-cruising Rachel, in her retracing search after her missing children, found another orphan.

Captain Gardiner thought Ishmael's story the strangest he had ever heard, and he had heard many. But he had agonizing business to press and little time to wonder. And so the Rachel sailed on her crazy path, looking for the whaling boat containing the captain's little son. The day passed, and the night rushed over the sea, and lanterns were lighted. The full moon arose and turned the smooth waters to patches of sable and sparkle.

The coffin-buoy of Queequeg had been raised to the deck, and there Captain Gardiner had walked around it, eyeing it queerly, examining from time to time the strange carvings on its lid while Ishmael told his story.

"Aye, I wonder what the heathen savage wrote when he fashioned these," the captain muttered. "Curious that an unlettered wild man should make these letters. A prayer to one of his Baal-like gods? A letter to some being he thinks dwells in the otherworld? Or perhaps these form words which, if uttered, would open the gateway to some clime or time that we Christians would find very uncomfortable indeed."

Ishmael remembered these speculations. In after times he wondered if the captain, with his last remark, had not struck deep into the lungs of the truth. Were the twisted carvings which began to slide and melt if looked at too intently the outlines of a key that could turn the tumblers of time?

But Ishmael did not have much time to think. Captain Gardiner, in consideration of the strain through which he had gone, allowed him to sleep for the rest of the day and half of the night. Then he was awakened and sent aloft to the head of t'gallant mast to watch and so earn his keep. With the lantern blazing at his back, he scanned the sea which, having lost all movement, lay like quicksilver around the Rachel. The wind was dead and so boats had been put out ahead of the Rachel to pull her along, and the only sound was the splashing of the oars as the men strained and an occasional grunt from a sweating sailor. The air seemed as heavy as the sea, and indeed it had assumed a silvery and heavy shroud. The moon was full, drifting through a cloudless sky as if through a sluggish stream. Suddenly the hairs on the back of Ishmael's neck, so accustomed these last few days to this reaction, stood on end. The tips of the yardarms ahead and below seemed to be haunted with the ghosts of fire. And each of the three-pointed lightning rods seemed to burn. He turned and looked behind him, and the tips of the yardarms spouted phantom flames.

"St. Elmo's fire!" a cry arose.

Ishmael remembered that other ship and wondered if this, too, were doomed. Had he been saved only to be killed shortly thereafter?

The men in the boats quit rowing when they saw the giant candles of the elemental fire, but the officers in the bows of their boats urged them back to their work.

Captain Gardiner shouted up, "Ishmael, my man, do you see any sign of the lost boat?"

"Nay, Captain Gardiner!" Ishmael shouted back down to him, it seeming to him that his breath made the nearest taper waver as if it were a candle of genuine fire. "Nay, I can see nothing-as yet!"

But a moment later he started and gripped the narrow railing before him. Something to the starboard had moved. It was long and black, and for a moment he thought that it surely must be the boat, perhaps half a mile away. But he did not cry out, wanting to make sure and so not gladden the captain only to destroy his happiness. Thirty seconds later, the black object lengthened out, cutting the mercury-colored sea with furrows of a lighter silver. Now it looked like a sea serpent, and it was so long and slender that he thought it must be that beast of which he had heard much and seen nothing. Or perhaps it was the tentacle of a kraken surfaced for some reason known only to itself.

But the black snaky thing suddenly disappeared. He rubbed his eyes and wondered if the exhaustion of the three days' chase of the white whale and the ramming and sinking of the ship and a day and a night and half a day of floating on top of a coffin had made him forever after subject to disorders of the brain.

Another lookout cried out then, "A sea snake!"

Other cries arose, even from the men in the towing boats, who were not able to see nearly as far as the men on the masts.

From every quarter, long thin black things writhed and spun and slid over the black-and-silver waters. They seemed destined to drive their lancelike heads into the sides of the hull of the Rachel, and then to evaporate. At first there were only a dozen; then there were two dozen and soon there were several hundred.

"What are they?" Captain Gardiner shouted.

"I do not know, Captain, but I don't particularly care for them!" the second mate shouted back.

"Are they interfering with your rowing?" the captain said.

"Only to the extent that the men cannot keep their mind on their work!"

"They may do what they wish with their minds!" Captain Gardiner bellowed. "But their backs belong to me! Bend to your oars, men! Whatever those things are, they cannot hurt you any more than the corposants!"

"Aye, aye, sir!" the second mate called back, though not cheerily. "All right, men, you heard the captain! Dig in your blades and pull! Pay no attention to those mirages! Ah, that is what they are, mirages of the sea! Phantoms, reflections of things that don't exist! Or, if they do, so far away they can't hurt you!"

The dip of the oars and the grunting of the men was heard again over the still waters and still air. But now the serpentine "mirages" began to circle, as if they were trying to catch up with their own tails and swallow them. Around and around they went, cutting deeper and brighter furrows in the sea, or seeming to do so. And the corposants, the St. Elmo's fire, on the tips of the yardarms and the trines of the lightning rods, seemed to burn more fiercely. They were no longer phantoms but living creatures whose breath was hot.

Ishmael moved away from them, pressing his legs and stomach against the hard railing and looking straight ahead, not wanting to look directly at either of the flames which flanked him.

There was a shriek from below, and a man ran into a hatch as a flame twice as tall as a man, and bifurcated, capered after him.

At the same time, the forward tips of the long black circling objects in the sea spouted St. Elmo's fire. They were like those snaky whales of prehistoric times, the fathers of the present-day round monsters, blowing out spouts of flaming brimstone.

Ishmael looked to left and right and saw that the tapers at each tip of the yardarm had split and that one of each pair was dancing along the yardarm toward him.

Ishmael grabbed the railing and closed his eyes tightly.

The captain shouted, "Lord have mercy on us! The sea has come alive, and the ship is burning!"

Ishmael dared not open his eyes but he also dared not remain in ignorance of what was happening. He saw that the ocean surface was a maze of whirling broken circles of black with a flaming jet at each end. The ship itself, at every point where any object projected upward more than several inches, was crowned with a flame which no longer danced but gyrated. Around and around the flames whirled. And the corposants which had been doing the minuet toward him had leaped while his eyes were closed and fused directly above his head. He could not see all of them, because they leaned when he bent his head to look at them and so most of their "body"-if they could be said to have a "body"-stayed out of reach of his eyes, But enough light shone from them so that he could see their outer surface, and he knew a moment later, on looking down at the officers and crew, that the corposants were gyrating on top of his head, a slender toe of fire almost touching the crown of his head.

The dark circling things on the ocean had joined and formed a writhing spiderweb. Illuminated by the thousands of coldly burning tapers at the corners where the snakes had joined, the sea looked like a cracked mirror.

Ishmael felt that the world was indeed cracking and that the pieces would fall on his head any moment.

It was a terrifying feeling, one that drove him to pray out loud, which even the events of the last three days on the Pequod had not made him do.

The flames went out.

The black web disappeared.

There was utter silence.

No man dared say a word or even sigh. Each feared that if he brought the attention of whatever force it was that crouched above them, he would bring something down that would be worse than death.

A wind blew in from the west, rippling the sea, fluttering the sails, then pushing them.

The Rachel heeled to starboard; the wind passed; the Rachel righted herself.

Silence again.

The silence and the agony of waiting were beaten out into a thin wire of apprehension.

What was coming?

Ishmael wondered if he had been spared from the horrible but quick doom of the men of the Pequod for something unimaginably dreadful. Something that God might imagine but would repress in His mind.

What followed could be recalled afterward only because he, Ishmael, could look back and reconstruct. So that he did not so much remember as imagine. At the time, he could not possibly have known what was happening. All was strangeness and horror.

With no more noise than of a ghost gliding over the ocean, the sea disappeared.

Night was replaced by day.

The Rachel was falling.

Ishmael was too terrified to cry out, or, if he did cry out, he was too stunned to hear himself.

Falling through air, the Rachel turned over quickly, the weight of the masts and sails revolving her to starboard because she had been leaning very slightly in that direction when the sea evaporated so quickly.

As if shot from a sling, Ishmael went out into the abyss and then was sinking through the whistling sea of atmosphere by the side of the ship. He waved his arms and kicked his feet as if he were trying to swim.

The moon was with them, though its companion, night, had deserted it. But the moon was enormous, fully three times as large, perhaps four times as large, as that he had known.

The sun was at its zenith. It was a sullenly red ball that had swelled fourfold.

The sky was a dark blue.

The air screamed past him and through him.

Below him-no, below the Rachel-was a strange craft sailing through the air.

He had no time to learn anything but its alienness and the sensation that it had been built by intelligence. He did see some human beings running about it, and then the tip of the mainmast of the Rachel crashed into it, and the rest of the ship followed, and the strange vessel of the air broke in two.

Perhaps a hundred feet below the two vessels, and below him, was what he had thought was the top of the mountain. It was a vast russet-streaked, mushroom-colored thing which was the plateau-land of the peak of a mountain that towered miles high.

He struck it, was hurt, and passed through a layer of something like thin flesh.

Again and again, he struck a layer and tore through it, each time feeling a jar that hurt but each time being slowed.

Then something ropy flashed by. He grabbed for it, missed, felt another ropy thing slide through his hands, burning them. He cried out, plunged on through layer after layer, struck something solid that exploded like a balloon, deafening him and filling his nose and burning his eyes with a choking and burning gas.

His hands closed on something he could not see.

He swung out, far out, almost losing his grip. He blinked his eyes to wash out the pain with tears. Then he swung back and, still swiftly, but not fatally, fell at the end of a pulpy root attached to a corpse-colored bladder which was flesh or plant or a mixture thereof.

He was still breaking through paper-thin skins. He understood, without thinking about it, that there were thousands of bladders of many sizes that must hold up the thing, whatever it was.

The last layer broke beneath his feet so reluctantly that he thought for a moment that he would have to kick through it. He feared to keep on falling, but he feared even more being stranded inside this fragile, treacherous being.

Then he went through the hole, the bladder which he was holding sticking for a moment before his weight pulled it through with a tearing of a skin layer. He was below a vast cloudlike mass of russet streaks and mushroom-pale tissue. Below him was the edge of a dark blue sea and a jungle. The Rachel had struck the sea and split into a hundred parts, which were lying on top of the sea as if it were made of a jelly. The parts of the airship had not yet fallen to the sea. In fact, one part, being carried by the wind further because, he supposed, it was lighter, would land somewhere in the jungle near the sea. The other would land about half a mile beyond the Rachel.

Before he had fallen another mile-or so he estimated, though he had no way of knowing for sure-he saw the first smash into and then be swallowed up by the jungle. It was as if the vegetation had crawled over it after it had crashed.

The second and smaller half struck the surface of the sea hard enough to split it into a dozen parts. Some rebounded and floated westward for a considerable distance before settling down again.

He wondered if he was falling swiftly enough to be smashed against the waters.

It was then that he saw that he was not alone in the sky.

So far away that he could determine only that it was human, but not its features or its sex, another figure, clinging to the ropy snout of a flesh-colored bladder, was also falling slowly.

Something indefinable made him think that the other survivor was not of the crew of the Rachel.

The other person was higher than he, which meant that he had fallen later than Ishmael. Or perhaps his bladder was larger than Ishmael's.

During one of his swings, for he was like a pendulum whose energy is decaying, he looked upward past the round of the balloon-bladder. Near the center of the vast mass were several huge holes torn by the bulks of the Rachel and the two parts of the airship. The holes that he and the other being had made were invisible.

A moment later he struck the surface of the ocean feet first. He went completely under and came up choking. The water stung his eyes strongly; what he swallowed seemed almost solid with salt.

The bladder had burst on impact, being carried into the water with him. The gas made him cough even more and his eyes felt as if a white-hot blade had been passed before them.

He found that he did not have to swim or make any special efforts to keep floating. This was a sea even deader than the Dead Sea of Palestine or the Great Salt Lake of Utah. He could lie on his back and look up at the great limburger-cheese-colored moon and the enormous red wheel of the sun and not have to move a muscle.

Yet, though thick with the minerals, the waters moved with a current. The current was not, however, with the wind but against it. And it was not a steady current. It was formed with the sluggish waves that wandered westward and did not seem to be of the nature of waves he knew. Though he was too numb with terror, past and present, to do much analyzing or speculating, he did feel that the waves were more those of the land than of the sea. That is, they were generated by earthquakes.

Then that strange thought passed, and he slept. Lifted up and lowered gently, moved slowly but irresistibly to the west, face up, arms crossed (though he did not know that until he awoke) he slept.

The Wind Whales of Ishmael


  1. While Image of the Beast stands up to the test of time, sadly, it’s successor, Blown, does not. Image of the Beast was fantastic when I read it when it first came out and I, unfortunately, never became aware of Blown until within the last five years or so. Blown pretty much ignores everything that happened in the first novel by saying, in essence, “It was all a dream.” or words to that effect and the story fails at that point.

    I was surprised to see Image referenced as I just finished re-re-re-re-reading it yet again yesterday! STILL a great read!

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