Book Talk: 'Ishmael' by Daniel Quinn - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Ishmael' by Daniel Quinn

Alexander Wallace explores the 1992 philosophical novel, Ishmael.
Humans have been concerned about the environment just about as long as we have been writing. We told ourselves myths about why the seasons changed, why the tides came in and out, and why the rivers flow. As humanity went through the industrial revolution, the sentiment became one about our own place in nature. Some intellectually daring sorts have asked if it’s even appropriate to think of humans as distinct from nature; after all, humans are not the only tool-using species on this planet.

One such person was Daniel Quinn, who referred to his ideas as ‘new tribalism,’ objecting to the notion that humans and the environment could be separated. I have discussed his work before; his novel After Dachau is one of the finest alternate history novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading (if you’re curious, don’t read a single word of the promotional material, as it spoils far too much). After that book, I thought, I naturally would move on to his most famous work, Ishmael.

The opening of the story is relatively simple; the narrator, who is never named, finds an advertisement in a newspaper that reads:
"Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person."
It is, I will admit, a somewhat silly sounding preposition. We certainly receive a number of emails every day with similarly daft proposals, but this book is from a time before the ubiquity of electronic snake oil, namely 1992. As such, Ishmael feels slightly dated in some of its cultural assumptions, but in the stark face of climate change, the rest of it is scarily prescient.

When the narrator arrives at the address on the advertisement, he finds himself talking to a strange companion: a gorilla. For reasons unexplained, this gorilla, the titular character, can communicate telepathically, and enters a long discussion with the narrator. Much of the book is a long dialogue on a variety of subjects, most of all the environment.

The discussion focuses around the interaction between two groups of people, ‘leavers’ and ‘takers’ with different philosophies about humankind’s relationship with the environment around it. The end result is a cosmology of human civilization that you won’t find in any anthropology book, but is dazzlingly elaborated upon. Quinn even takes the time to argue that stories from the Bible can be read through this lens!

I won’t go any further in describing to you Quinn’s philosophy; it’s worth working through yourself. It is delivered in captivating prose and with a logic that seems hard to argue with. In any case, Ishmael will leave you with new perspectives on where we are in the world, and perhaps more importantly, of how we think of ourselves in that world.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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