Book Review: Starship and Haiku, Somtow Sucharitkul (S. P. Somtow) (1981)


(Gerry Daly’s cover for the 1981 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

“Nature does not write haiku.  Men write haiku.  The world cannot end in chaos, with things running wild, with gangs running rampant, with cannibals, with dog eating dog and plague-deaths and the abominable mutations.  O, I know it is so in some other countries, but we are Japanese.  We are the children of the whale, who have committed the original sin of patricide… but we have pride, and we must die in beauty” (131).

Somtow Sucharitkul (S. P. Somtow after 1985) is a fascinating individual.  He’s a Thai-American SFF author/composer who moved back and forth between Thailand and the UK (English was his first language and he received his education at the University of Cambridge).  Perhaps best known for his Mallworld sequence of stories (1979-2000), Somtow’s output is immense and ranges from horror to mainstream fiction (in addition to numerous symphonies and operas).

His first novel Starship & Haiku (1981), which won the 1982 Locus Best First Novel Award, joins the ranks of a veritable subgenre of SF about whales and pseudo-whales—including (off the top of my head, there are bound to be more!): Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Ian Watson’s The Jonah Kit (1975), T. J. Bass’ The Godwhale (1974), Philip José Farmer’s The Wind Whales of Ishmael (1971), John Varley’s Gaean series (1979-1984), Alan Dean Foster’s Cachalot (1980), and  Robert F. Young’s Spacewhale sequence of short stories (1962-1980) which includes “Starscape with Frieze of Dreams” (1970).  And yes, a whale makes a fateful appearance in Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)… The interest in whale SF was probably rooted to the increasing scientific research on whale song in the 1970s.  And whales do hold a certain allure as the largest mammals on our planet!

Bluntly put, Starship & Haiku (1981) does not reach the heights of T. J. Bass’ The Godwhale (1974) or Ian Watson’s The Jonah Kit (1975).  Original premise and somewhat thought-provoking moments?  Yes.  A successful novel? Not so much.  For another view of the novel, see The Little Red Reviewer [here].

Recommended only for those desperate for more 70s/80s post-apocalyptic SF…

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (as always, spoilers)

“Look! Skeletons,

in their best holiday clothes,

viewing flowers.

—-Onitsura (1961-1738)” (9).

Queue post-apocalyptical world after the so-called Millennial War that shattered the moon into pieces… America has fallen into a balkanized state of warring kingdoms.  Three kings rule Hawaii: “they all have gangs of wild people, and they go around killing people, but usually they don’t come near the hotels or town” (45).  The oceans are polluted and only a few fishing vessels ply their waters.  Japan maintains a semblance or order and control but manipulative leaders, drawing on the pull of ritual suicide (somehow innate in the Japanese people), were “devoted to death: to encouraging the people to die, with honor, rather than ravaged by plague, or deformed by the caprice of mutation, into things no longer human” (73).

Into this greater morass of things comes two parallel narratives that intertwine and culminate (with the help of some whales), eventually, in a sad, but transcendent, deliverance… First, there’s  Ryoko Ishida, the daughter of an important Japanese government official, she comes of age on a journey to Hawaii where she learns of her ability to communicate with whales.  Her father, behind the back of Takahashi and Kawaguchi, develops a program where a spaceship will rescue some of Earth’s inhabitants.

In Hawaii she encounters Josh Nakamura, who is profoundly reluctant to acknowledge his Japanese heritage.  Josh lives with his brother Didi (perpetually in boy form, unable to speak to humans, but, who along with Ryoko, is able to communicate with whales) and spends his days caring for the mutated.  Moments of body horror abound: “And then again when he was holding a strange in his arms.  It was only a little kid.  There was nothing wrong with it to look at, it was a beautiful child, an angel.  But everything was wrong as it could be, inside, it was a jumble of misdirected plumbing and misplaced organs and missing tubes and upside-down valves—” (39).  After his encounter with Ryoko, to whom he is strongly drawn, he decides that he will leave violence torn Hawaii for Japan (with the help of an heirloom from his deceased grandmother).

I would want to live in a place where “King of Hawaii, a stripling, a black guy, surrounded by spiders of all colors, wielding their makeshift clubs in their funny uniforms with extra arm-holes. He was on a tattered throne, an old leather armchair” rules supreme (50)!

Ryoko herself “inherited most strongly the ability to communicate” with the whales, who are also the ancestors of man (73).  After her return to Japan, while out at sea with her father and  Takashi and Kawaguchi, is impregnated by a whale (70).  And, these strange offspring that inhabit her ovaries, are a new species that might escape a dying earth.  If only they will escape the suicidal doom propagated by the Death Lord, and facilitated by a rewritten play of Ryoko’s whale insemination and various nefarious holographic projections….

Final Thoughts

What I enjoyed:  There are evocative moments scattered amongst the pages.  The first line for example, “Spring, season of suicides, came suddenly for Akiro Ishida…” (8).  Likewise, a framing metaphor of seemingly incongruent events/ideas, for example the notion of “beautiful death,” appears and reappears.  These are highlighted by some gorgeous haikus from historical masters that play into the theme.  And similar incongruent forces and natures form the core of many of the characters; Didi, who cannot speak but has the most to say; Ryoko, the most “Japanese” of the Japanese, and the one who refuses to commit suicide; and Josh Nakamura, who proclaims his “Americanness” but is drawn to Japan…

One particular incongruent moment particularly intrigues me, while Ryoko wanders across the Japanese landscape in the throws of mass suicide, she encounters the symbol of herself in the play, The Romance of the Young Girl and the Whale (86) created by Takahashi to compels people to their deaths.  She too feels drawn by its message, although, ultimately she knows it is but a fiction, a myth constructed around events in her life for reasons which are not hers.

Likewise, although many might dismiss them as silly affectations rather that a more serious exploration of non-human communication, Sucharitkul’s use of diagrams to illustrate whale speech at some level does perhaps indicate connections that are more conducive to diagrammatic explanation….

However, these elements do not combine to create an otherworldly experience.  The reader is mired with forced characterization (the kissing sequence during an earthquake between Ryoko and Josh is profoundly painful) and a tendency to resort to very predictable post-apocalyptical tropes that undermine the fascinating sheen of Japanese culture—how many times do we see pre-cogs in these worlds?  Josh himself is a poorly drawn character.  At one moment he cares for the mutated, in another instance he is content to recount how he throws stones at them! (“Or they would throw stones at the veggies and watch them wilt,” 54).  His profound dislike for his grandmother, despite her endless protestations that he has lost his Japanese heritage verges on inhuman… In this world replete with death and despair, one would imagine that the few connections we are able to maintain would be affective in some way.

And we will not talk about Ryoko’s forced impregnation by a whale.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX


(Gilda Belin’s cover for the 1983 German edition)


(David B. Mattingly’s cover for the 1988 edition)

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Starship and Haiku, Somtow Sucharitkul (S. P. Somtow) (1981)

  1. It’s pretty neat that there’s a whole subgenre of whale science fiction (Hello Star Trek IV!). Gigantic sea dwelling mammals who think and communicate and have complex societies is just so darn fascinating!

    Starship and Haiku was absolutely bizarre for me. I think my favorite part of the book was the visual representation of the language of the whales. Am I happy I read it? Yes. Will I read it again? I doubt it.

  2. You are EVIL..MALIGNANT…everytime I visit your page, I start salivating and get an urge to buy books that I can´t afford…I already got like 15 books in my pile other than books to induce me to want to get! GREAT page 🙂

Comment! Join the discussion!

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.