clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Secret Base Media Club: Herman Melville hates penguins

Herman Melville was an elite-tier shitposter, and Dinosaur Train makes no sense but rules anyway

Book: The Encantadas, Herman Melville

I love Herman Melville more than most people would find reasonable. For instance, I read Moby-Dick about once a year (and sometimes more). This is not because I think Moby-Dick is The Great American Novel, because it’s not. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s a novel at all. People get bogged down in the endless asides and lies about whales, complaining that they obscure the plot, but I think that misses the point. To use what I believe is the academic term, Moby-Dick is an enormous collection of whale shitposts, stuffed willy-nilly into a manuscript and sold (or not sold, as the case may be) as an adventure story.

Since the 19th century was not ready for elite-level shitposting, Melville went under-appreciated in his time. His early work, particularly the straightforward, vaguely charming Typee, was well received, on account of staying closer to the accepted forms, but Moby-Dick was something of a flop and he never recovered his reputation, ending his life more or less forgotten. Being pathologically unable not to shitpost is something I think quite a lot of the internet would sympathise with.

Anyway, here is Melville amusing himself upon penguinkind in its entirety. You might think penguins are cute and graceful, but he disagrees (possibly because he has smelled penguins):

What outlandish beings are these? … Their bodies are grotesquely misshapen; their bills short; their feet seemingly legless; while the members at their sides are neither fin, wing, nor arm. And truly neither fish, flesh, nor fowl is the penguin … without exception the most ambiguous and least lovely creature yet discovered by man. As if ashamed of her failure, Nature keeps this ungainly child hidden away at the ends of the earth.

I like to imagine Melville knew perfectly well how graceful penguins are once underwater but chose to ignore it for the sake of a good shitpost. The internet loves penguins? Fuck penguins. Please retweet. (It’s fortunate for the world of letters that memes hadn’t been invented in the mid-1800s, or we’d have gotten The Chad Pelicans vs. The Virgin Penguins instead.)

The above excerpt is from a short story collection set in the Galapagos Islands called The Encantadas. As with all things Melville, ‘story’ is somewhat misleading; there are certainly stories buried within, but it’s mostly a survey of some weird, wonderful and slightly hellish islands and their equally strange inhabitants. Actually, it’s not even that. The Encantadas are mostly an excuse Herman Melville to shitpost.

All hail our shitposting king.

TV: Dinosaur Train

Dinosaur Train is a kid’s television show which is meant to stoke every child’s interest in Mesozoic paleontology still further. The Pteranodon family travels through time and space on the eponymous Dinosaur Train, meeting different species of dinosaurs and other critters and finding out about how they live. It’s pretty fun. However, I have some questions.

  1. What is the dinosaur train for? Why was it built? The investment required to develop and build the train must have taken absurd amounts of resources, and the only justification I can think of is that this is a tool by which dinosaurs can escape mass extinction, looping back in on time like Primer meets Snowpiercer meets T. Rex. This is never addressed in the show.
  2. Speaking of resources, a ride on the dinosaur train requires tickets, yet no character on the show barring The Conductor appears to possess money or have any sort of job. How does the dinosaur train economy work? Indeed, how could it work in a world in which time travel is normalized? Some sort of massive state effort might explain the elaborate infrastructure, but then ... why tickets? I believe that unravelling this mystery is the key to understanding the dinosaur train world.
  3. Why are the Pteranodons so cool about Buddy? Buddy is the youngest of their children, and he is a Tyrannosaurus Rex whose egg happened to end up in their nest. And sure, he might be cute when he’s a little guy, but someday he’ll be the largest carnivore on the continent, and he’ll remember that only minimal steps were taken to reunite him with his real family. What then, Pteranodons? Kidnapping dinosaurs is not the sort of thing one can afford to be cavalier about. Pretty sure this is most of the message of Jurassic Park.

This is Secret Base Media Club. Every Wednesday, a member of Secret Base staff will talk about what they’re reading and anything else they happen to be enjoying. Feel free to join in the conversation or start your own — books, movies, music, tv shows, sports (hah!) are all fair game.