A bounty was offered by my brother to write an article on the history of the space whale, a staple of Sci-fauna. But when did it become so commonplace?
My investigation starts where most questions like this should: TV Tropes.There, they had an article that discussed the idea of the space whale, as well as a list of things that contained the trope. I did my best to only skim the article for historical merit before heading into the lists, but some of what they did list resonates with the logical part of my brain, so I might echo what they say there. (I’m not going back to check, though, as I don’t want my thought process to be even more contaminated.)
FYI: There’s going to be a lot of TV Trope links, so be warned if that’s dangerous for you.
(I can’t think of a better way to write this article, so we’ll just do it, starting with the conclusion, and then providing the supporting evidence and wrap up with some samples of space whales.)
After searching around, I don’t think there is a root cause for space whales. While certainly, modern depictions of space whales are drawing inspiration from their forebears, there’s not really common threads to be drawing from. From the limited time I’ve spent on this research, it appears as if the idea for space whales develops organically, depending on the story you’re choosing to tell in space. Space whales can be used as representations of a lot of different ideas.
The Retelling of Stories
The question of whether there are original ideas is an interesting philosophical one, but some stories choose to not even try. Some science fiction stories are just a retelling of a well known story, but in space. TV Tropes calls this “Recycled in Space.” Stories containing whales are no exception to this trope. I did find a list of well-known whales in literature, but even without that list, there are three whale stories that easily come to my mind.
A classic fairytale, Pinocchio, has an infamous evil whale, but there aren’t many adaptations of Space Puppet that I’ve seen. There really should be, though. Pinocchio would work even better as a Sci-Fi story, than as a fantasy. The ideas of when does a fabricated creature count as a real boy is a very sci-fi question. The ideas of an external conscience and an error that cause his nose to grow when he tells a lie both work well in sci-fi. I don’t know what I would do for the Blue Fairy, though.
A similarly used whale is the one from the book of Jonah, who also swallows our protagonist for a few days before being spat out. This shows the whale as a creature directly under the control of God, and marks Jonah as a chosen individual for surviving the experience. In 1962, a character in the DC Universe was swallowed by a space whale, and was given superpowers from being exposed to the space radiation inside of the whale
The third whale story is the most famous, Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick. I read a decent chunk of it a few years ago, but ran into a massive chapter on whale dichotomy and it was too much to skip with my kindle, so I put it down and never returned. I really enjoyed it though, and I’ll return to it eventually, when I have a physical copy to peruse.
These stories have common plots that are brought forward into a space setting, so let’s look at them a bit closer.
The SS Jonah or Riding the Whale
Jonah and Pinocchio might think it a bad thing, but honestly, whale seems to be not a horrible way to travel. Sure, there are some problems biologically with using a whale as a submarine, but the idea is one that engineering and the wider scale can easily fix. So in Space, we see whales being used as a spaceship. Farscape uses a whale as their main vehicle, and the Chitauri from the Avengers used armored space whale things as part of their invasion force. Doctor Who has also used whales as vehicles a time or two.
Part of the idea behind Spaces Whales as ships is that they are much simpler to create than a spaceship. Depending on the universe, Space Whales probably have their own propulsion, life support, communications, and power generation. It’s just up to the space bio-engineers to tap into all of that and maybe put some armor on it (maybe not, space is dangerous, after all, and space whales might have naturally thick skin)
Moby Dick in Space!
Notably, Futurama had an episode called Möbius Dick which featured a massive white whale that Leela was hunting. There are a lot of other minor stories that follow this same vein, and, honestly, the truth of space whales that this trope begins to tell is much bigger. TV tropes lists the pair of sisters as The Sky is an Ocean, and Space is an Ocean.
How do we decide what words to use, and what the experience will be? I found this amazing stack exchange talking about the history of the first spaceships in Sci-fi, depending on your definitions. The word has been in use for over a hundred years.
I think it would be impossible to tell how much science fiction was shaped by using the word “ship” and other nautical terms to describe travels in space. The connection is certainly easy to draw. Unlike, say, a car or a train or a covered wagon, ships can’t stop just anywhere. They need a port or an island, a definite place, to stop and refuel and do whatever their business may be. Sailors, and space sailors, are alone in space, having to deal with possible disasters, wild creatures, and even things like pirates, all stories that have been used in space.
It’s entirely possible that there are Space Whales just because there are Sea Whales. Since we’re porting all of the stories and environment of the Sea into the heavens, whales just come with.
Whales as Backdrop Metaphor
There is one more place that whales come from as they wind their way into space. It’s not something that puts them in the forefront of the adventure, by being a trusty ship or steed, or a dire foe, but rather, as part of the setting.
Whales represent the ocean in ways that other creatures can’t. Their size awes us humans. They have a gracefulness and majesty that no other creature can compare. Their size shows us that in comparison to the world around us, we are nothing. Their cries of whales are haunting and beautiful and lonely.
Whales can be used to represent all of these emotions and more. When two characters on the deck of a spaceship look out and see Space Whales, slowly travelling, peacefully across the sky, they can reflect on their own lives, on the travels they had so far and what it means. Whales can carry so much symbolism on their massive frame, that it’s hard to ignore their presence.
Plus, they look really cool.
As promised, here’s some interesting things I found while looking into Space Whales
In 1978, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy began being released. There, they have a whale that is not technically a space whale, but a rather confused sea whale that suddenly appeared in the sky. While not a valid space whale, almost every list of space whales mentions it, so I figured I would too.
The 1986 movie Star Trek IV the Voyage Home uses whales as its McGuffin for a time plot. Some aliens come to earth, speaking Whale-ish and getting mad that no one is answering. So Kirk and his crew fly around the sun to the 1980’s to pick up whales and return them to the 22nd century’s clean, whale-less waters. Hijinks ensue, with things like having to hide Spock’s ears under a headband, needing a material that hadn’t been invented yet, and trouble with bringing Mr. Chekov, of Russian origin, into the height of the Cold War.
The first TV Tropes link at the top leads to a list of uses of space whales in various media, and there’s some gems in there worth checking out.