Ishmael Summary and Analysis of Parts Six and Seven


Part Six

The next day, Ishmael begins the session by reiterating the Taker axiom that knowledge about how to live is obtainable. Ishmael counters this axiom, however, suggesting that one can find laws on how to live if one consults “what’s actually there” (96). He proceeds to uncover those laws with the narrator.

The strategy he employs is looking to the community of all life - and not just the community of humans - to determine these laws. As example, he points out that humans are as subject to laws like gravity and genetics as any other creatures are. Therefore, the issue involves identifying which natural laws might provide guidance on how to live.

The gods, according to Ishmael, played three tricks on the Takers, each of which troubled Taker society because it contradicted Mother Culture's story. The first was that the gods did not place the world at the center of the universe, which challenges the idea of human centrality. Secondly, the gods arranged for humans to evolve like any other species, thereby challenging their feeling of uniqueness. And thirdly, the gods did not exempt man from natural laws, laws which must be followed unless a species wishes to court extinction. Over the centuries, the Takers adapted to these first two discoveries, but they deem the third unforgivable.

To explain how Takers fallaciously believe themselves exempt from natural laws, Ishmael compares Taker civilization to the first flying machines. An airman testing one of those early machines might take off on it from a cliff and believe that he is flying even as he is simply falling at a reduced rate. He might see the ruins of failed machines on the ground below him, but he simply wonders why they stopped trying to fly - he does not realize they have crashed. Similarly, humans look at failed civilizations and simply wonder why they stopped trying to succeed. Believing that their method of living has worked thus far, Takers proudly persist in their way of life. However, the truth is that we are heading for a crash, as we squander irreplaceable resources while only a relative few people recognize the danger.

Part Seven

Next, Ishmael presents the narrator with a puzzle. He asks him to imagine living in a strange society that works extremely well. In this society, people called “A’s” serve as food for those who are “B’s.” Similarly, “B’s” are food for “C’s,” and then “C’s” for “A’s.” This society conforms to a law, which allows them a friendly, peaceable existence. Ishmael asks the narrator how he would discover what this law is, without asking the citizens directly.

The narrator decides that he would look at the society from two sides. First, he must determine what makes the society work; second, he must determine what they do not do. To help, Ishmael provides that one man has been found guilty of breaking the law, and is sentenced to die. Assuming he has access to that criminal's biography, the narrator concludes he would assess what this man has done that nobody else in the society has done. Under those three parameters, he could potentially discover the law.

Ishmael points out the world existed in harmony for 3 billion years until the Takers (about 10,000 years ago) decided that man would no longer follow the “peace keeping law” (118). In the wild, lions and gazelles are not enemies, even if they hunt one another. Though the Takers might view them as antagonists, a lion will only kill a gazelle to survive - that relationship reflects the life cycle. Five hundred generations in, the Takers have the world on the brink of death, but believe that the fault is an inherent flaw in humanity, rather than their own choices.

Ishmael asks the narrator to leave and discover what this "peace keeping law" is. When the narrator expresses doubt in his abilities, Ishmael reminds him to use the parameters he discovered in the puzzle. If the law had not been followed from the beginning of time, the Earth would have remained barren. Like the criminal in the puzzle, one species (the Takers) has broken the law, so the narrator must identify what they have done that others (the Leavers and animals) have not.

That night, the narrator feels anxious and angry, but cannot initially identify the reason. After a while, he realizes he is upset that his lessons with Ishmael will eventually end, while he actually wants "a teacher for life" (122).


In this section of the novel, Quinn continues derailing the common human assumptions about civilization. One of the novel's most important allegories is that of the early flying machines. The crux of the argument is that there is a major difference between flying and falling, and civilization is currently in the process of the latter. What makes the allegory so important is that it reminds us that perspective is as important as action. We must first recognize the truth is we are to enact change.

This point is important towards understanding Ishmael's point about the three tricks that the gods played. The irony is that though humans consider science to be their greatest achievement, the discoveries of science have often contradicted the Taker feelings of superiority. Darwin discovered we evolved from apes, and Galileo that we were not the center of the universe. Essentially, Quinn suggests, actual objective science suggests that there is no difference between humans and any other species on Earth. But because we refuse to acknowledge this fact and live subject to the laws that govern all other life, we are bringing the world to its knees. Again, the point is that we must change our perspective, and see ourselves outside of the delusions perpetuated by Mother Culture.

Ishmael's riddle - about the "A's," "B's," and "C's" - is significant for several reasons. First is the moral component. The narrator is initially shocked to learn of this hypothetical society, much as many readers might be. The cannibalism is so distinct from our own society that it seems fundamentally wrong. And yet it sets up the important point, expanded in later sections, that the food chain does not constitute a natural antagonism.

Secondly, it reinforces the idea of a law that everyone lives subject to for the sake of harmony. Ishmael's suggestion in the riddle is that these people do not consciously choose to honor the law - instead, they take it for granted, and subsume themselves to it. What is distinct about Takers is that we choose to flaunt the "peace keeping law" even though its validity is objectively clear. When Ishmael reveals more about the law in the next section, the sense is that we must return to a world where natural laws are naturally followed, rather than being a conscious choice.

Finally, it is interesting to consider the novel's form. Quinn attempted to write this book several different ways, but never tried telling it as a narrative until the Turner Fellowship Opportunity came about. In other words, what finally made the idea stick was the introduction of the two main characters. While much of the novel is merely a dialectic, the narrator's personality is extremely important. His feelings of betrayal at the end of Part Seven remind us that we must take responsibility for our own selves - we cannot rely on a teacher for our entire lives. In other words, even if this novel inspires us to want change, we will eventually have to enact that change ourselves. Over the novel, the narrator's journey is certainly intellectual - he learns a lot - but it is also physical. He eventually has to make a choice to continue spreading Ishmael's lesson. The moment at the end of Part Seven is an indication that he is starting to become aware of this second facet of the journey.