The Godwhale (1974) Book Review and Analysis
by T.J. Bass
With these old school sci-fis you never know if you’re going to get something super campy or a novel with a bit more substance (which is part of why I love the time period so much). I clearly bought this one due to the awesome (albeit rather silly) cover, but what I wasn’t expecting was a hard sci-fi heavily focused on technological advancements in the medical field, specifically cloning, augmentation, and genetic mutation.
The main plot takes place about 2000 years from now. It’s rather convoluted and there is so much techno-babble that pertinent events were glossed over. To get you started, Larry is bisected in an accident. Instead of living his life with sweet robot legs in a rather utopian society, he decides to be cybernetically frozen until they can remake him “whole” (he’s concerned about his penis. Valid concern, but it seems like quite the risk). He wakes up twice - the first time is a few hundred years later but they still haven’t been able to fix his damage, then he wakes again in the dystopian/semi-post-apocalyptic future (where the bulk of the novel is set). The story sticks within about 100 years of this time, though it does this annoying thing where all of a sudden it’s ten years later without warning. Despite the title and back cover talking mainly about the whale (named Rorqual), I’m still unsure what the whale even is - some sort of machine we created to re-harvest the seas after they’re dead?
As you can tell, I wasn’t that into this book. I thought it was before its time in terms of medical science postulating, but, quite frankly, the characterization and plot leave much to be desired.
We are given quite a few characters, but just when we get to know and understand or like them, they are thrown from the story only to emerge as minor characters later on. As such, you don’t care about any of them. Ok, Larry is the most interesting, because we follow him the most, but he’s more of a way to tie the story together than someone with a definitive story arc.
It also didn’t help for me that women were treated as periphery characters or simply “breeders” in this book, with absolutely no agency or relevance to the plot. In fact, one of the more equal societies is dismantled by patriarchy without any sort of pushback thematically or by the characters. Frustrating.
The novel is clearly more interested in its argument about ecological collapse (valid) and genetic/bodily manipulation (hyperbolic) than giving us characters to care about and a story. As such, I grew exceedingly bored and came away with nothing of value from this novel.
I was going to round up to a 3 from a 2.5, but instead, I’m rounding down to a 2 / 5 Rorquals.
I can’t imagine what the first novel was about, nor do I care to find out.
Analysis - Here be Spoilers!
Ecology and Genetic Manipulation
The novel is interested in these concepts above all else. As someone who cares deeply for the environment and is definitely of the opinion that our greatest ecological threat is ourselves (I sign a lot of petitions about animal welfare and pollution, and try my hardest to live with sustainability in mind), this aspect of the novel was great.
Yet, because the concepts are highlighted far more than the story and the characters, it felt very didactic to me. Likewise, eco-apocalypse is a very common theme in sci-fi/speculative fiction, and while I thought the two societies he created were interesting, as well as how the spaceship from Larry’s first awakening was the one that re-pollinated the world, I didn’t care much about the people in the novel.
Novels with a message a lot more effective, in my eyes, if we’re shown how the devastation affects people.
The novel also approaches themes common to the time period - or should I say fears. Genetics have been around for a long time, but in the 70s it appeared that things like cloning and cybernetics were a plausibility. As such, this novel focuses on this a lot.
Personally, I’m not against any of this stuff. Eugenics is something different, of course, based in racism, but it doesn’t make sense to me not to try and clone organs or mess with cells in-vitro, especially to ward off diseases. Yet, the future that Bass suggests is one where we’ve forsaken morality for science? You know the movie, "The Island"? It’s basically that - Larry wakes up in World 2 and is told they’ve made a clone of him for parts. This concept, while not new, is interesting. It’s immoral to create a living, sentient being for parts, but this concept, and how World 2 got to that state, is not explored in any depth. Larry has reservations about it, but no one else in the time period does, which is strange to me. I wish the author had shown or explained why or how these clones are allowed to be created, raised, and then murdered?
Same with giving Arnold what is essentially the "Lysene contingency" from Jurassic Park. If he doesn’t get enough amino acids, he dies. He’s a turd of a person, but the ethics surrounding the society’s ability to do this to a person is not explored. Sure, it shows that they are an immoral society, but because Arnold is such an asshole, we don't really care.
Disability is treated as something to be “fixed” in this novel, not something characters learn to accept. Larry’s entire premise in the novel is that his accident has rendered him without a lower half. And while he receives some awesome robot legs in his original time, his lack of ability to have sex is the major concern of his. I get it - that would be difficult, especially for a twenty-year-old, but there is no discussion in the novel of any attempt of his to attend therapy about this loss or whether he can find self-worth in other forms of intimacy.
If his character arc followed a path that dealt with overcoming or dealing with this problem it would be interesting. Instead, we’re given a very small scene with a female robot called Rusty who offers him a form of sexual release via the “Centaur” legs he obtains. This would have been interesting to expand upon as well, but all we get are two scenes that have no relevance to the plot of his arc.
Women are treated abysmally in this novel.
It’s unfortunate because there are instances that seem rather progressive. There are female warriors. The women in the Benthic society are declared the “sexual aggressors” (which in and of itself is a problematic way to approach sex, but I can see where he was going with it), but of the five named female characters, most have almost no page time and are relegated to wives and mothers. The only exception to this is Wandee, a woman in STEM, though even she gets relegated to a mother archetype in that she spends most of the novel caring for two men rather than living her own story. There is another woman, Rusty, who is in two very short scenes and while she identifies as female, she’s an AI in a box, and her purpose in the story is to have some sort of virtual AI sex with Larry.
There is one particularly frustrating moment where Arnold rapes White Belly during a battle (side note: no one else seems to find this abhorrent. In fact, they find it an amusing side effect of psychological conditioning he’s been given). Afterwards, due to his “genetic imprinting”/conditing (which, quite frankly, makes no sense given he’s an intelligent being and not some attack dog), he decides she is his property and chases her down. After meeting with her again, she declares she hates him, upon which he sets about to impregnate as many of her fellow Benthic women as possible. Then, all of sudden, he has a harem of women to bare him children and bring in him food. Including White Belly. This is what I mean about a lack of character development in this novel. White Belly, simply because she has a child with her attacker, decides to go and live with him as one of his breeder women? This a) makes no sense given her declaration that she hates him b) is never explained, in terms of her apparent change of heart c) relegates her to nothing more than a part of Arnold’s character arc.
Frankly, this crap is everywhere in the novel and why I disliked it so much.