Review: Fluke (or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings), by Christopher Moore

Fluke

(Orbit, ISBN 978-184-149617-7)

(Review first published on the ASIM website, November 2007)

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Christopher Moore is, it seems, looking to make a big splash on the humorous spec-fic scene this year. This is the fourth book of his to be released locally by Orbit in recent months, with a fifth apparently due out in time for Christmas.

Nate Quinn is a marine biologist, whose life’s work will (he hopes) be to provide an answer to the eternal question: why do humpback whales sing? So far, though, said answer has remained elusive for the twenty years Nate’s been working on the problem.

Fluke begins with Nate and his research student / would-be love interest Amy doing what they do, which is sitting in an unreliable boat, eavesdropping on the humpback whale population off the coast of Hawaii’s Maui island. They’ve recorded the song, they’ve harpooned themselves a DNA sample, now they just need a tail shot for identification purposes. Nothing Nate hasn’t done hundreds of times before – except that usually, the whale isn’t adorned with graffiti.

So alongside his twenty-year-old question, Nate now has a new one: who would write the words ‘Bite Me’ in such large, contrasting letters on the tail of a fifty-foot humpback?

It’s a question that doesn’t look like being answered anytime soon. For starters, the morning’s roll of film doesn’t show the tail shot, when it’s returned from the developers. Nate’s research office gets ransacked. His partner’s boat gets sunk. Somebody, it seems, is suddenly taking a considerable and unhealthy interest in the doings of Maui Whale Research – but why?

I’ve recently read, and reviewed, another Moore offering, A Dirty Job. Fluke is thematically very different, but it has structural similarities. Both books revolve around a central coterie of four or five main characters. In Fluke, these are the personnel of Maui Whale – comprising, besides Nate and Amy, Nate’s longtime research photographer Clay, and their brand-new assistant, would-be rasta surfer dude Kona – and the dynamics of the interactions between these characters are among the book’s absolute strengths. Much of the dialogue crafted to propel Fluke’s story arc is exquisite, and I’m seriously impressed with Moore’s ability to repeatedly construct multi-person, multi-stranded conversations that leave you wishing you could eavesdrop on these people for much, much longer.

Moore also excels at offhand, comically vivid description. Whalesong is described variously as sounding like ‘an ambulance driving through porridge’ and ‘a kidnap victim trying to scream through duct tape’; killer whales are ‘four tons of doofus dressed up like a police car’.

Moore has obviously done considerable research himself, on the topic of whale research. The book’s action sequences have an impressive level of detail and authenticity, and this extends to the background information which is woven into the story. Some might label this detail as an info-dump (I wouldn’t, although, as an academic of sorts myself, I profess to a higher than average tolerance for the art of info-dumping). There is also what seems to me an authentic representation of the rivalry and acrimony that can exist between different research groups working in the same general area, despite Moore’s claim that this bitterness is a confection on his part, and unrepresentative of the interactions he witnessed among the real-life whale research community on Maui. (Personally, I’m a believer in Henry Kissinger’s aphorism: the reason why academic infighting is so bitter is that the stakes are so low. Moore conveys this perfectly, to my mind.) In fact, so satisfying is the verisimilitude of both activity and setting (Moore lives in Hawaii, and it shows) across the book’s first hundred-plus pages that the introduction of the story’s more extravagant spec-fic aspects is an intrusion and, in some sense, an anticlimax. This is not to say the book’s subsequent sections are disappointing – there’s still a lot of good stuff in there, as the story progresses to a largely rewarding conclusion – but for me, Fluke seemed like it could have been even stronger for a little less ‘Twilight Zone’ style content. Still, overall I’d recommend it. The writing is tight, consistently funny, often genuinely moving.

And, in case you’re curious, that question of why humpbacks sing? Nate finds the answer; and yes, in the context of the story, it makes a lot of sense. It works.

And no, I’m not going to tell you. You can find out for yourself, if you’re curious.

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2007)

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