T.J. Bass only ever wrote two books and this is his second and last one. Both of them are extraordinarily weird. So, Half Past Human (1971) and The Godwhale (1974) play out in a future earth where a few trillion humans live underground in hive cities. They are very degenerated and the hives work like giant machines, and an AI named Earth System provides the humans with simple protein and jobs. Bass was a doctor and he suffused his writing with medical terminology, so the humans are more or less described as biological robots with mandibles and papillae and gonads and lymphocytes. The effect of this is an absurdist, darkly comedic dystopia full of bio- and robotic weirdness. As if the world of Demolition Man progressed another few thousand years.
A main character is Rorqual Maru, a beached android whale. Part ship, part whale and sentient, Rorqual was once a harvester in the oceans for humanity. But after the oceans died out, she swum around for thousands of years looking for organic life and humans to command her. And there is Larry, a young guy who loses his legs in the first chapter. He keeps freezing himself in the hope that future technology can heal him, having adventures as a crippled man in the Hives and ending up as a centaur with a fruit machine girlfriend.
There are a couple of recurring characters, but the novel mostly follows a sequence of events that plays out over hundreds of years. There isn’t much of a plot, and each new chapter may introduce new characters, so the story is more like a disjointed heap of short stories that Bass wrote while being a doctor in daytime. Chapters jump through time a lot, skipping through months or years. A story does crystallize out of the heap eventually, but there is no hook to pull you through it and getting through the novel occasionally feels like work.
I had trouble getting through it because I just didn’t care about anything that happened. Bass actually doesn’t spend much time with Rorqual Maru and is more interested in writing about an underwater society of humans, but the relationships are clumsy, even creepy, and the pacing and story is haphazard.
There is however a touching pathos in Bass’ stories when it comes to robotic life. Robots come in all shapes and sizes and have nicknames and are often cute and childlike. The whale Rorqual has a little cleaner robot sidekick named Trilobite who swims around the oceans looking for humans. In Half Past Human, there was a cool sentient spear named Toothpick. So, while the robots are humanized and written as pets, the human society itself is robotized in an interesting inversion. The characters are flat, though, and Bass comes across as very old-fashioned when it comes to women.
This is the kind of book that needs an affinity with the genre in its readers to be appreciated. I would never recommend this as anyone’s first SF novel. What’s more, you’ll be better off with Half Past Human anyway, because that one introduces this weird world. If you like that one and want more of the same, this one is waiting for you at your convenience. For me, two books was more than enough.