Some time ago I dreamt that the new issue of ‘Interzone’ featured on the cover a story about giraffes in space. When I woke up, I thought it was a good idea and jotted down some notes, but sadly haven’t written the story yet. Subsequently, I was intrigued when I saw that Lawrence M. Schoen’s debut novel ‘Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard’ is about elephants in space. There are other animals too: otters, badgers, jaguars. A whole range of anthropomorphic races making up an Alliance of thousands of planets many centuries in the future. I also used to like reading ‘Babar The Elephant’ when I was a kid and that was the image in my mind as I started reading. That image soon faded as I became engrossed in one of the most original novels I have read for a long time.
The Fant live only on the world of Barsk, isolated from the rest of the Alliance by the Compact, a centuries old agreement that spares them from interference in exchange for koph, a drug that allows Speakers to communicate with those long dead. On its own, the story of koph, the Speakers and the rules that govern them, as well as the consequences of the drug would make an engrossing story even if all of the protagonists were merely human. The fact that we’re dealing with numerous species of intelligent animals makes this tale truly wonderful, allowing a whole extra layer of cultural interactions and customs to bring the story alive and multi-dimensional. Koph allows the Speakers to perceive and manipulate nefshons, memory particles that comprise each individual who ever lived. As the story develops, we also see the implications of this, how talking to figures from the past affects the Fant’s culture, families, historical research and outlook. Together with well-known elephantine qualities, such as a prodigious memory and the legendary elephant’s graveyard that gives rise to the title, this all adds up to a lovingly rendered and well thought out civilisation. I couldn’t get enough of it. The story drew me in and drew me along as I got to know the characters and immediately cared about them.
There are all kinds of ingredients skilfully woven together in this story: space opera, psychic abilities, tragedy, prophecies, arboreal elephants and ancient technology. I would have been happy for the story to dwell entirely in the anthropomorphic Alliance with no explanation for how it came about but, as the story progresses, the origins of their civilisation began to emerge and add yet more depth and suspense.
The prose is flawlessly smooth, the kind of writing that you can’t remember reading but you can only recall experiencing. There is a wonderful pacing to the story, gentle in its progression and yet somehow urgent and persuasive. We switch back and forth between several point of view characters without depending on undue and prolonged cliff-hangers, each section drawing you along to the next as the story builds up. The prophetic and precognitive nature of some of the characters leads to a certain amount of foreshadowing, but with enough vagueness to keep you guessing. This book is thoroughly engrossing and completely satisfying. Please let there be more.
Gareth D. Jones
(pub: TOR/Forge, 2015. 384 page small hardback. Price: $25.99 (US), $29.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-7702-9)