Novella Review: “Another Orphan” by John Kessel

(Cover by Barclay Shaw. F&SF, September 1982.)

Who Goes There?

John Kessel is one of the defining SFF authors of the ’80s, although like many of his contemporaries he had debuted in the ’70s, in the likes of Galileo and Galaxy Science Fiction. Adjacent to the newfangled cyberpunk movement of the period but decidedly not a cyberpunk writer himself, Kessel, like close contemporary Bruce Sterling, is startlingly diverse in his output. His 1986 story “The Pure Product” is one of the more haunting explorations of time travel in modern SFF, and his slightly autobiographhical story “Buffalo” could lay claim to being one of the best short stories (inside or outside of SFF) of the ’90s. On top of his fiction, Kessel is an active genre critic and anthologist, the latter often in collaboration with James Patrick Kelly. While he has a few novels to his credit, Kessel has reserved most of his writing energy to short fiction and genre commentary.

“Another Orphan” is a relatively early outing from Kessel, but as we’ll see, it reads like the work of a stone-cold master. I should say it now so that I won’t have to ease you into it in some coy fashion: this is Moby Dick fanfiction. You may be thinking, “Now Brian, this is obviously not fanfiction!” I guess you’re right; it was, after all, published professionally, and so technically it doesn’t count. But “Another Orphan” is about an original character being plopped into a story that was first written by a different author, a premise which has since become an old and tired chestnut for fanfic writers. It’s what Kessel does with such a premise, though, that makes the result special.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the September 1982 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Despite winning a Nebula, and being regarded as one of Kessel’s most major works, “Another Orphan” has not been reprinted often. Still, we have two options that I would consider major. The first is The Best Fantasy Stories from the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Edward L. Ferman, which is a bulky hardcover that you can find used pretty cheaply, and it also has a lot of stories that I consider of strong interest. More recently (so recent it came out THIS YEAR!) we have The Dark Ride: The Best Short Fiction of John Kessel, a fancy hardcover from Subterranean Press, which I would recommend if you’re already a fan of Kessel and/or you wanna play this game on Hard Mode. Limited edition with copies signed by Kessel himself, so you’re looking at at least $30, and that price will only go up with time.

Enhancing Image

A bit of context, because while it’s not necessary to have read Moby Dick in order to enjoy “Another Orphan,” the latter is very much in conversation with the former. Herman Melville is one of the great eccentrics in American literature, and especiallty 19th century American literally; his magnum opus, Moby Dick, is a bizarre, freewheeling, often meandering novel that alienates a lot of readers because at face value it seems to fail as an adventure narrative, when the reality is that Moby Dick, if anything, is a grand subversion of the seafaring adventure narrative. If you go in expecting what you imagine a canonical work to read like, or if you’re expecting an action-packed romp on the high seas, you’ll be disappointed, but if you’re expecting one of the weirdest and most enigmatic novels in American literature then you might come out of it with a new perspective on what is possible with the written word.

I say all this because our protagonist, Patrick Fallon, is someone who, once he realizes where he is and what he’s in, does not initially give the world of Moby Dick the respect it deserves. Patrick is a commodities analyst for some firm (let’s just call him a yuppie and be done with it) who, after a fight and an apology fuck with his girlfriend (I don’t think they’re married) one night, inexplicably finds himself awaking in the crew’s quarters on a whaling vessel—and not just any whaling vessel! He doesn’t immediately figure it out (he at first thinks it’s a dream, or that he got shanghaied), but he soon realizes that he’s on the Pequod, the doomed ship in Moby Dick that hunts the white whale for three days before being smashed to smitheroons, with only one survivor. Which is a bit of a problem.

Oh right, spoilers for Moby Dick, which is now over 170 years old and whose plot beats a lot of (at least American) readers are familiar with. I know some people are very sensitive about spoilers, but you have to draw a line somewhere. It’s like telling a grad student that Santa Claus isn’t real.

They had been compelled to read Moby Dick in the junior-year American Renaissance class he’d taken to fulfill the last of his Humanities requirements. Fallon remembered being bored to tears by most of Melville’s book, struggling with his interminable sentences, his wooly speculations that had no bearing on the story; he remembered being caught up by parts of that story. He had seen the movie with Gregory Peck. Richard Basehart, king of the sci-fi flicks, had played Ishmael. Fallon had not seen anyone who looked like Richard Basehart on this ship. The mate, Flask—he remembered that name now. He remembered that all the harpooners were savages. Queequeg.

He remembered that in the end, everyone but Ishmael died.

I appreciate the shoutout to the John Huston movie, which, by the way, was written by Ray Bradbury. The more you know…

The first thing I thought of when reading “Another Orphan” was actually L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky, in which a musician somehow gets sucked into the world of his hack writer friend’s latest novel, in which he’s given the role of the villain. The thing is, of course, that said hack writer always kills off his villains at the end, which means our guy has to find some way to get (or at least alter events so as to avoid his doom) before it’s too late, and there’s a similar ticking-clock element in “Another Orphan.” Just know, though, that while there’s a bit of snarky humor at work, Kessel’s story is a good deal more serious than Hubbard’s, and a lot more thematically ambitious despite having half the word count.

Patrick, interestingly, is not put in the place of Ishmael, but he’s not in the place of some other preexisting character either; he’s known to the whalemen as Patrick Fallon, as if he had always been on the ship, although he’s treated like a bit of an outsider. He’s also not very strong, physically, which presents a problem when trying to fit in as a sailor on a ship full of sweaty hardened whalers. (I wanna go on a slight tangent about the homosexuality or rather the lasck of it. Moby Dick is infamously a pretty homoerotic novel, unintentionally or by design, but Patrick is straight as an arrow and he doesn’t speculate even slightly about homoerotic activity that might sprout between men who go out on a sailing vessel for months on end. Kessel’s story comments on or challenges a lot of things about Moby Dick, but that’s not one of them.) The situation only gets worse when he inevitably encounters the captain of the ship: Ahab.

And boy, Ahab’s flamboyance (really his campiness) does not disappoint. Patrick assumes, though (incorrectly, as it turns out), that Ahab is a caricature because of his maniacal rants. More generally he writes off the heightened atmosphere of the Pequod as unrealistic and silly, partly based on his murky remembrance of the novel and partly because he underestimates Melville’s intentions. A mistake Patrick makes repeatedly is that he fails to respect the artistry and intricacy of the fictional world he’s been thrown into; he thinks that because Ahab is subject to manic episodes and that the sea seemingly conforms to the energy of these episodes (a thunderstorm rages during one of Ahab’s monologues, which Patrick considers on-the-nose) it means these experiences can’t possibly be real. Or can they? Does Ahab’s mania, which to some extent reflects Melville’s own, count as a real experience, and not just scenes of heightened emotion concocted by a writer?

Ahab as represented in Kessel’s story is a pretty interesting character, but I’ll save him for spoilers since his “big scene” is saved for the climax. For now there is the question of Ishmael, and who he is, where he is, and who the hell Patrick is in all this. If you’ve read Moby Dick then you may recall that while Ishmael is the narrator, it would be misleading to call him the protagonist. While the first hundred pages or so have Ishmael as an active presence, once he boards the Pequod he becomes less and less a flesh-and-blood character until, for a good portion of the novel, he basically disappears into vapor. I don’t think there’s a single time while on the Pequod that another character calls Ishmael by his name; he’s a bit of a spook. It takes a minute for the realization that Ishmael is effectively a nonentity, and that he could be anyone on the ship, to hit Patrick.

Then an unsettling realization smothered the hope before it could come fully to bloom: there was not necessarily an Ishmael in the book. “Call me Ishmael,’: it started. Ishmael was a pseudonym for some other man, and there would be no one by that name on the Pequod. Fallon congratulated himself on a clever bit of literary detective work.

Yet the hope refused to remain dead. Yes, there was no Ishmael on the Pequod; or anyone on the ship not specifically named in the book might be Ishmael, any one of the anonymous sailors, within certain broad parameters of age and character—and Fallon wracked his brain trying to remember what the narrator said of himself—might be Ishmael. He grabbed at that; he breathed in the possibility and tried on the suit for size. Why not? If absurdity were to rule to the extent that he had to be there in the first place, then why couldn’t he be the one who lived? More than that, why couldn’t he make himself that man? No one else knew what Fallon knew. He had the advantage over them. Do the things that Ishmael did, and you may be him. If you have to be a character in a book, why not be the hero?

Ishmael is definitely not “the hero,” but that’s beside the point.

Patrick basically has two choices: he can take on the role of Ishmael and hope for the best, or he can find some way to prevent Ahab from going on the three-day hunt for Moby Dick that will doom the ship. Sparking a mutiny would be a high-rick high-reward option, not helped by the fact that with one or two exceptions nobody can stand to be around Patrick, let alone persuaded by him. However, if anyone can be persuaded to go “off script,” then it would be Starbuck, the first mate and the bottom to Ahab’s top. Readers of Moby Dick will remember Starbuck as the well-meaning but ineffectual right-hand man who considers overthrowing Ahab at one point, being well aware of the captain’s mania, but chooses not to through with it. Unfortunately Patrick’s efforts to stoke the fires of rebellion in Starbuck prove unsuccessful, but it seems like these “characters” are ultimately capable of making their own decisions.

At first I was wondering if Kessel genuinely disliked Moby Dick or if it was just Patrick’s snarky narration, but eventually I had to conclude it was the latter. I mean sure, it would make little sense to spill so much ink just to rag on a 170-year-old book, but occasionally it was hard to tell. There’s a scene where Patrick observes the harpooneers (Queequeg, Dagoo, etc.) and how they’re all POC, chocking their roles up to racism—although he’s not clear if it would be due to the ship owners’ racism or Melville’s, though it’s probably the former; Melville, it must be said, was considerably less racist than the average 19th century writer. Unfortunately, in what feels like a bit of a missed opportunity on Kessel’s part, we get practically zero dialogue from the harpooneers, and despite being a modern man with presumably modern-ish sensibilities, Patrick makes no attempt to befriend the harpooneers.

These are criticisms, sure, but they’re really just quibbles, especially in light of the back end of the novella, which is so masterfully done that it made me look back on the rest of the story in awe. The lengths Kessel goes to subvert one’s expectations do not reveal themselves until a good ways in.

There Be Spoilers Here

Normally in this kind of narrative, there’s an explanation for why the protagonist was suddenly taken out of their normal enviornment and plopped into something else; it doesn’t have to be a good explanation, but we would at least get an answer. No such relief for Patrick Fallon. Not only has he so far been unable to avert the ship’s course, but the source of his predicament remains completely mysterious. Is this a Schrodinger’s butterfly scenario? Is the world of the book a horribly elaborate dream, or was his prior life in the “real world” the dream? Which one is real? Could they possibly coexist? Why Moby Dick, a book Patrick had read years ago and wasn’t fond of, of all things? Kessel knowingly piles question upon question and refuses to answer, because to give answers would be to undermine the story’s aura as an existential nightmare.

Why should he not have a choice? Why should that God give him the feeling of freedom if in fact He was directing Fallon’s every breath? Did the Fates weave this trance-like calm blue day to lead Fallon to these particular conclusions, so that not even his thoughts in the end were his own, but only the promptings of some force beyond him? And what force could that be if not the force that created this world, and who created this world but Herman Melville, a man who had been dead for a very long time, a man who had no possible connection with Fallon? And what could be the reason for the motion? If this was the real world, then why had Fallon been given the life he had lived before, tangled himself in, felt trapped within, only to be snatched away and clumsily inserted into a different fantasy? What purpose did it serve? Whose satisfaction was being sought?

What had started out as a whacky misadventure has gradually turned into something more ominous and mysterious, but because of that sense of mystery it also becomes more enthralling. There’s a brief scene where Patrick, inexplicably, wakes up back in his old life, with his girlfriend and his yuppie job and all that, but even at the beginning of that scene something feels off. Before long the world of Moby Dick bleeds into the “real world” and Patrick awakens back on the Pequod, as if the reality of Patrick prior life were waning, giving into the growing reality of Melville’s fiction. The growing disparity between worlds, the diminishing hope of finding a way home, is almost of cosmic proportions. At first Patrick found the operatics of the novel to be unconvincing, but now he thinks them perfectly logical. The fading star of his prior life has become his own white whale.

People don’t realize that Moby Dick is a cosmic horror narrative—possibly the first (and to this day the most experimental) of its kind.

The final scene involves a one-on-one confrontation with Ahab, who while very much a character has not been much of a direct presence thus far. They get into something like an existential debate before a fight breaks out, with Ahab victorious—not just physically the winner, but also spiritually. After all he’s been through, Patrick has come no closer to returning home, indeed now with the Pequod appearing to be where he’s truly supposed to be. The final lines of the story echo those of the novel prior to the epilogue, and some of you might recall that Ishmael reveals himself to have been the ship’s sole survivor in that closing chapter. But no such epilogue exists here. I would say this is an anticlimax, and you could say it is, but it’s too deliberately written to feel like that; the lack of proper closure is necessary to nail home the feeling of existential dread. To cop the final words from the SF Encyclopedia’s entry on Melville (which is surprisingly detailed, given that Melville basically didn’t write any SF), Patrick ultimately finds himself “with no surcease in view, no escape from prison.”

A Step Farther Out

Is it fair to compare a 20,000-word novella to a 200,000-word novel? No, of course not, and I’m not gonna do that. “Another Orphan” is effectively a standalone deal; you’ll miss out on some of the juicy details if you’ve not read Moby Dick, but Patrick provides enough context for things that you probably won’t be confused. But as someone who loves Moby Dick I have to admit I was predisposed to either loving or hating “Another Orphan,” and I’m not sure how one would go about hating it. Kessel, incidentally, was about the same age as Melville (early 30s, which is insane when you consider the intricacies of Moby Dick) when he wrote “Another Orphan,” and part of me wonders if he saw the long-dead author as a kindred spirit. Patrick, on the other hand, while not a villainous character by any means, is what we would call a sellout; he repeatedly says he’s not a hypocrite (which is kind of a weird thing to say about yourself), but clearly he’s lacking in integrity. Maybe it makes sense, then, that a work of pure artistry like Moby Dick would serve as the playground for Patrick’s new purgatorial existence.

Very simple evaluation here. If you want your high seas adventures to be a little more thematically substantive, you’ll like this. If you want an ingeniously constructed fantasy narrative, you’ll like this. If you like Moby Dick, you’ll get a lot out of this. And if you’re a Kessel fan then you’ve probably already read “Another Orphan,” because this is essential reading.

See you next time.


2 responses to “Novella Review: “Another Orphan” by John Kessel”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: