Retro review–Philip José Farmer’s steampunk sequel “The Wind Whales of Ishmael”

Wind Whales of Ishmael cover

Written in 1971 by notable sci-fi author Philip José Farmer, The Wind Whales of Ishmael is intended as a sequel to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  As to genre, it fits into modern steampunk, with its exploration of Earth’s future without reference to the scientific realities of the latter 20th century, and its sailing ships in the sky.  Wind Whales continues the story of Ishmael, the only survivor of Ahab’s failed whale hunt in Moby Dick, a story many literature students have struggled to get through because of its dauntingly long passages of a solitary life at sea.  Ishmael is rescued but by clinging to Quequeg’s canoe coffin he is plunged through some type of vortex, much like the Bermuda Triangle, into Earth’s distant future.  This future world is unrecognizable, and has a few similarities to the distant planet from Avatar.  Along with other of Farmer’s works, Wind Whales is being re-issued by Titan Books in a new library aimed at steampunk readers.  The new printing of The Wind Whales of Ishmael hits bookstores tomorrow, March 12, 2013, with a foreward by editor Michael Croteau and an afterward by Farmer’s nephew, author Danny Adams.

The oddity in Wind Whales is that it has very little in relation to theme, writing style, and characterization to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  So it could have been a standalone story, or a sequel to any number of classic works.  There is of course a future world of whaling and fighting “air sharks” which ties Ishmael to his past life where he threw away all else to enter a life at sea.  Yet the future world of far distant Earth is so different that Wind Whales may have more in relation to Frank Herbert’s Dune series with its giant worms.

WWofI PPB printing

Wind Whales suffers a bit by showing in detail too much of the minutia of Earth’s future world of strange tentacled beasts and giant cockroaches and not enough telling–giving context to this strange new world he is creating and why he thrust Ishmael into this world vs. any other world. The novel fits into the steampunk genre in relation to previous books reviewed here at, such a  novel by a contemporary of Farmer, Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air.  In theme its exploration of strange worlds is handled similarly to the character H.G. Wells’ exploration of a fauna-covered moon in Kevin J. Anderson’s Martian War.

What Wind Whales does successfully is reflect past world views of classic science fiction, like the space travel and exploration in the original 1902 sci-fi film by George Melies, A Trip to the Moon.  To the extent steampunk is about deriving the eye-opening adventure and optimism of Earth’s past creators and immersing modern readers into parallel worlds, Farmer created a solid steampunk work well before steampunk was established as a genre.

Wind Whales of Ishmael PPB printing

In its essence, Wind Whales also asks what it is like to be truly alone–in a way handled by many past sci-fi works in similar fashion.  When the astronaut Taylor plunges into a strange world of talking, intelligent apes in Planet of the Apes, his circumstance is very close to hopeless.  Yet he shows that mankind can forge ahead.  When H.G. Wells’ time traveler in his novella The Time Machine delves too far into the future and encounters the Morlocks, he, too, has encountered a humanity too different to grasp, and an environment too unreal to survive in.  Yet he survives, and becomes a leader of the future society much in the way Farmer’s Ishmael is able to rise above the strange and the chaotic.

The Wind Whales of Ishmael is available at a pre-order discount today from, and available in bookstores tomorrow.

C.J. Bunce

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