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Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard Paperback – December 27, 2016
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Weird, wise, and worldly, "Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard" is a triumph. "Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Red Planet Blues"
The second you encounter the arboreal uplifted elephants who speak with the dead, you know you're reading a work of singular imaginative power. It's a delight from beginning to end. "Walter Jon Williams, Nebula Award-winning author of the Metropolitan series"
A captivating, heartwarming story in a unique and fantastic world... as rich and mysterious as "Dune." "James L. Cambias, author of A Darkling Sea"
A heartfelt and wonderfully weird book: a space opera about kindness and memory. "Max Gladstone, author of the Craft Sequence"
A masterful, onion-layered tale of pariahdom, treachery, and genocide that ultimately reveals the true deathlessness of hope and love. "Charles E. Gannon, author of Fire With Fire"
Combines excellent characters and a fascinating world. What really makes it work is how he deftly weaves together startling SFnal ideas with character-based intrigue. You'll really care for these characters, even as you find them believably alien. I found it a compulsive page-turner and immensely enjoyable. "Karl Schroeder, author of Lockstep"
Powerful. Grand in scope, yet deeply intimate. Schoen gives anthropomorphism some serious spirituality. It got inside my head in the way that only an exciting new idea can. "Howard Tayler, Hugo Award-winning creator of Schlock Mercenary""
About the Author
LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He's also one of the world's foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He's been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia.
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But let's back up a bit. What exactly is it Schoen does in BARSK to bring the Third Law into reader’s minds? First, there are the Fants. Anthropomorphic versions of the African (Lox, after the Latin Loxodonta) and Asian (Eleph, after Elephas) elephants we all know from the circus, the zoo, and National Geographic. Collectively referred to in Barsk as Fants, these futuristic mammals, found solely on the watery world known as Barsk, are recognizably elephantine, with the same big floppy ears and trumpety trunks we all know and love. But there are differences. Rather than the big clodhopper feet they walk upright on, their forelimbs feature toolmaker digits with opposable thumbs. They live in houses and sit on chairs. They make breakfast and dinner. Oh, and they talk. (But not to Pizlo, an albino abomination not expected to live even the six years he already has in BARSK. Like most cultures, the Fants are more scientifically than culturally advanced in some ways).
These far future sapient elephants also read and write and use computers. A beanstalk space elevator lifts their trade goods to orbit, where a galaxy that shuns the furless Fants can make use of their talents without risking contact. A galaxy-wide Compact sets the rules that keep Fants and other mammal species apart. But that’s just the set-up.
What Schoen then has his Fants doing that echoes the Third Law is even more improbable-sounding, at least early on. One of Barsk’s exports is a drug called koph. Koph allows certain individuals to speak to the dead. Although not wholly explained when Schoen first presents it, this process, called Speaking (and its practicioners, of course, are Speakers), involves calling up the particles that made up a person - nefshons - to recreate them as they once were, often within a constructed environment that the Speaker expects will make them comfortable during their unexpected recall. The reconstructed person, by the way, seems physically present. Piss off a Conversant you called into being and he might punch you in the nose. Ouch!
The Speaking process also comes with an 800-year-old Edict and a prophecy. Still looking very magicky and almost primitive, given an agrarian society on a sparsely populated planet. But trust me - and trust Schoen - it’s all scientifically sound in the BARSK Universe. And the story Schoen tells depends on that.
The first part of BARSK introduces a family of sorts: the historian Jorl ben Tral; his lifelong best friend Arlo, whom Jorl can only talk to via his nefshons, the original being some two years passed under circumstances that still puzzle Jorl; and Arlo's now six-year old son Pizlo, a rare albino shunned by all of their society save for his father, his mother Tolta, and Jorl.
This part of the story concerns a group of elderly Fants who each set out to sea alone as they perceive their time of dying at hand and go in search of the island that is every Fant's traditional resting place. We learn quickly, however, that somebody wants these Fants for an unknown purpose, waylaying over two hundred Dying who will never be missed - and in fact they aren't, since the only contact they might be expected to have with the living at that point would be through their nefshons. Via means I won't spoil for you, Pizlo helps Jorl go looking for these victims, whose disappearance seems related to the 800 year old prophecy referred to as The Silence. Did I mention precognition as another element in the BARSK universe? It’s rare, but it’s also real, just like nefshons and uplifted mammals are.
Unraveling this mystery takes up the rest of the novel, introducing several fascinating characters both dead and alive, including a number from other mammal species that, like the Fants, display human-like attributes but, unlike the Fants, are all furred species who shun the hairless Lox and Elephs. Which is one reason they are confined to Barsk, while other species roam the galaxy at will.
Schoen's story develops a bit slowly at first, but once he starts taking us through the logical consequences of the science behind Speaking, things get cracking in a hurry, and the last hundred pages are a joyful ride as, straining then breaking the arbitrary 'laws' of speaking, Jorl gets to the bottom of 800 years of secrets no Fant could ever have imagined. Nor you or I. All credit to Schoen. Now let’s see if he can cook up an equally revelatory sequel, now that all of BARSK's secrets have been revealed. Or have they?
I love the way this book begins, with a single Fant – an anthropomorphized elephant – named Rusul setting out on the final journey almost every Fant makes, sailing to an uncharted island where their kind go to die. But as Rusul makes his peace with death, with his life and its passing, the unimaginable happens.
Thousands of years from now, the galaxy is widely populated, but not by homo sapiens. How exactly humanoid-animal species came about is only one of the mysteries of the story, revealed in good time and to great dramatic effect. The future children of the galaxy have Aesop Fable-like characteristics based on their species of origin, but their interests and loves and passions are universal, or at least essentially human. For example, prejudice is still a binding and blinding emotion.
The planet Barsk is a marginal, low-tech world. For 800 years, the Fants have lived on Barsk, isolated and protected by the Compact that keeps all other Alliance species off their planet, in exchange for materials their world provides. Jorl, a historian and Speaker, has actually spent time off-world on Galactic Patrol. But now he is home again, doing his work, and being a sort of godfather to Pizlo, a genetically anomalous young Fant and the son of Jorl’s diseased friend. Being a Speaker means Jorl can, under certain restrictions, commune with the dead – a very handy ability for a historian. Jorl is obsessed with the prophesies of the first Speaker, the legendary Margda, who established the rules of Speaking. Certain portents are indicating that a time of crisis is at hand, and that he, Jorl, has a part to play in how, or whether, his people survive. What Joel cannot even guess is that Pizlo is also implicated.
Other species produce Speakers as well; much more rarely, telepaths are born. Rarest of all is the Speaker-telepath. Since knowledge is power, and foreknowledge is power to the n-th degree, it is hardly surprising that someone with a lust for absolute power has been collecting telepaths to get a read of the future. Unfortunately for Barsk, all the assembled precogs agree that a product native to the planet will lead to a singular breakthrough, the kind that remakes entire civilizations. Even more unfortunately, the one who controls the precogs has just found a Speaker-Telepath who can extract from any mind, living or dead, whatever he wants to know.
This novel is richly nuanced, with ironies that curdle your stomach, humorous touches that delight, and revelations that astound. At its heart, I think, is nestled the parable of the rejected stone. To paraphrase Walt Kelley, “We have made the Alien, and he is us.”
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I especially liked the come-uppance for the main villain and the...Read more