ISHMAEL was chosen as the winner of the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship, endowed by Ted Turner to solicit fiction that suggests creative and positive solutions to global problems. The problems Daniel Quinn tackles are the deterioration of the earth and its atmosphere, the mass extinction of many species of life, and the increasing insufficience of the earth in providing for its inhabitants. Quinn blames these problems on humanity.
Though his plotting and writing style are only mediocre, Quinn’s subject matter is worthy of great attention. Ishmael, a gorilla who possesses wisdom of the world and can relate his thoughts to humans, becomes the teacher in this imaginative novel. He prompts his student, the unnamed narrator, to discover the laws that guide life. Ishmael insists that all animals, including humans, are governed by laws of nature as exact and binding as the laws of aerodynamics, or the laws of gravity. The problem is that humans have not recognized that they are subject to these laws.
The student, heavily immersed in and brainwashed by “Mother Culture,” has trouble accepting Ishmael’s untraditional worldview. Fearful of losing his student to frustration, Ishmael patiently presents his philosophy of life, giving clear and convincing examples of its accuracy. He divides humanity into two large groups: the Leavers and the Takers (Quinn’s jargon for “the primitive” and “the civilized”).
Ishmael provides interesting perspectives on humanity’s numerous creation stories, and offers alternative interpretations of well-known Bible stories, such as that of Cain and Abel. Ishmael argues that Cain—an agriculturalist and a Taker—killed Abel—a shepherd and a Leaver—in order to gain more land for cultivation. The conquest of peoples and lands for the purpose of cultivation, and later commerce—to the disadvantage of many of the world’s cultures and ecosystems—has been the overwhelming pattern in world history. Ishmael argues that this pattern is contrary to the universal laws of life.
Humans have miserably defied the laws and created a mythology—namely the Big Bang theory (Ishmael does not discount the scientific “truth” of this theory) and the Bible—which defines humans as the climax of creation, the creatures for whom all the rest was made. Unless humans learn to see themselves as residents of the earth, rather than rulers of it, and recognize the destructiveness and unlawfulness of their ways, Ishmael predicts that they will annihilate themselves and the earth.