Moby Dick

or, Thoughts on the White Whale
20 Nov 2004
Damien Sullivan

Some impressions on re-reading Moby Dick.

Cryptonomicon is the Moby Dick of cryptography. To whit: a common concept in discussion of science fiction is the "infodump", where the narrative pauses for delivery to the reader of a large chunk of exposition of the author's made-up world. Sometimes, as with Tolkien or Anne McCaffrey, the information is stashed in a prologue or appendix; sometimes as with Cyteen there are interleaved sections purporting to be from educational tapes or some equivalent; sometimes the exposition is worked into the narrative as in Snow Crash or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The technique seems to be frowned upon by many, though I haven't seen better ideas floating around.

At any rate, it feels like half of Moby Dick is chapters which are infodumps on whaling. The world involved is not made up, but is a fantastic one nonetheless to most readers, and the book frequently pauses to expound on whales, whaling, and whalers. Melville even comments on "such narrative as I may happen to have", and I suspect the pure narrative passages would, if taken by themselves, form a much smaller book. Let me hasten to note that I'm not complaining; I am the sort of person to read and enjoy Tolkien's prologues, appendices, and subsequent What I Found in my Father's Drawers even as a child. Or, for that matter, Moby Dick itself at a tender age. But the comparison between a literary classic and science fiction's bane amuses me.

After all, Melville claimed Jonah and St. George for the profession of whalemen, so why should he not be drafted into another honorable yet maligned profession himself?

It does occur to me as I write that Elspeth's Huxley's Red Strangers described the alien world of a pre-European African village, just as Richard Dawkins promised it would, and I don't recall infodumps there. Re-reading is called for. Perhaps people object to the length, as opposed to little tidbits interwoved into the narrative at a finer grain -- without, of course, devolving into Gareth Wilson's "As you know, Bob, we're both androids, and we have to recharge every four hours or we'll die."

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. The book has been fun. The book has been immersive; when I get interrupted, as in the waiting room of the dentist's office, or when I come up for air, whales and waves still swim in my head, making contact with other people seem strange. The book has not been addictive of the variety where I read the book in a single sitting; ignoring the length, I think such addition comes more with denser and faster narrative. Infodumps, while interesting, take some digesting.

There have been some unexpected passages. Chapter 51, "The Spirit-Spout": "It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude, on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow." And Chapter 53, "The Gam": Because, in the case of pirates, say, I should like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on." One epileptic attack of alliteration, and a couple of sentences which are, if not puns, then akin to puns. Both just really surprised me when I encountered them.

But perhaps I need to read more carefully. This page has:

"...head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you
 never violate the Pythagorean maxim)..."
 -- I put this in because it's not just a fart joke in a major work of's a REALLY erudite fart joke. 
You know? She's right. And it went right past me.

There's no fair sport in making fun of the fishy science of someone writing before Darwin, or in arguing with the theology of a pious author. I note a couple of typos at least in my edition: Stubb is once referred to as a third mate, and when Ishmael recounts the Town-Ho's story in Lima, he describes the ship as being in the Pacific, not many day's eastward sail from the inn. One does not reach the Pacific by sailing east from Peru.

The Sermon to the Sharks was great. "Belubed fellow-critters..."

I read this book when I was eight because my parents had me watch a movie version on TV one summer day. I don't remember much now, but I apparently liked it a lot. I do remember a couple of scenes. The one where Ahab swears the harpooneers to him and his quest, and grasps the three crossed harpoons, while the gold coin gets nailed to the mast; and then the almost final scene, of the Pequod sinking into a whirlpool while the White Whale swims around it. At 8, I thought the whale was causing the whirlpool and sucking the ship down by swimming fast. That seems silly now, although I then wonder how close up the whale model was... there aren't any tame sperm whales that I know, and perhaps the shot was of some bathtub-scale ship and whale (think white soap) being spun around the ship, which might cause a whirlpool. Probably still not enough to suck anything down, at those speeds. And finally there was Ishmael clinging to the coffin while the Rachel bore down on him.

Chapter 104: We get somewhat Lovecraftian horror at the longetivity of the whale species, long predating and presumably outlasting the human race. Chapter 105: We get a (rather flawed) argument that whales couldn't go extinct through human hunting. Chapter 107: A close look at the ship's carpenter, and his versatility.

Back to me.