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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

Guess what. It's Nebula Award season! That means I am hard at the Sci-fi/Fantasy review job again. I have been saving up my credits all winter just for this. I have a surplus of credits in my account and I'm itching to use them. When the list of nominees was announced by The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, I immediately went out and scoped it. I primarily concern myself with the novel category. I want to make certain I listen/read every single one of them prior to the actual awards ceremony. This year I sort of lucked out. I've already listened to two of the nominated books! Here's the list, and I've linked my previous reviews to the two I've already covered.
  • Raising Caine, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
  • The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (Saga)
  • Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
  • Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, Lawrence M. Schoen (Tor)
  • Updraft, Fran Wilde (Tor)
This leaves me with five novels to listen to by May 14, 2016. And I've already finished one! Here's the publisher's summary for Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen.

A historian who speaks with the dead is ensnared by the past. A child who feels no pain and who should not exist sees the future. Between them are truths that will shake worlds. 

In a distant future, no remnants of human beings remain, but their successors thrive throughout the galaxy. These are the offspring of humanity's genius-animals uplifted into walking, talking, sentient beings. The Fant are one such species: anthropomorphic elephants ostracized by other races and long ago exiled to the rainy ghetto world of Barsk. There, they develop medicines upon which all species now depend. The most coveted of these drugs is koph, which allows a small number of users to interact with the recently deceased and learn their secrets. To break the Fant's control of koph, an offworld shadow group attempts to force the Fant to surrender their knowledge. 

Jorl, a Fant Speaker with the dead, is compelled to question his deceased best friend, who years ago mysteriously committed suicide. In so doing, Jorl unearths a secret the powers that be would prefer to keep buried forever. Meanwhile, his dead friend's son, a physically challenged young Fant named Pizlo, is driven by disturbing visions to take his first unsteady steps toward an uncertain future.

Sounds intriguing doesn't it? That's why I picked it first. 

All in all, this was a very satisfying story. It was well written, logically followed chapter to chapter without any need for gimmicks or writer's tricks to make the story work. The characters were memorable and some became real people to me: namely Jorl, Arlo and Pizlo. 

The universe Lawrence Schoen creates is both believable, insomuch as fantasy can be believable, and engaging. Those parts of the story requiring a suspension of disbelief were well aided by plausible causality. To say much more would be to possibly provide spoilers, which I won't do. Let's just say the author leverages modern particle physics in a way I've actually thought of myself, so suspending disbelief was relatively easy. To anyone who considers themselves a student of sci-fi, the vehicle he creates should work well. As for those cases where science and fantasy traditionally collide, such as in trying to explain faster than light travel, the author simply doesn't explain it.

This lack of explanation is not a problem. The protagonist in the story is a historian, not a scientist. It would completely break from the third person narrative to have him discuss things he knows nothing about - such as the mechanical workings of spaceships. He does lend a lot of valuable information on historical figures in the world, and helps solidify the universe the story resides in quite well. The technical is frankly unimportant to the story. Not needing to explain certain things was as it would be. It is the Fant way.

And that is what endeared this story to me most of all. Many authors who write sci-fi/fantasy struggle to come up with alien races. Many of them fail. The big problem is we are all captives of our experience. We are humans, living on earth, and trying to imagine anything outside that experience will always fail to one degree or another. We can't actually imagine the unimaginable. To do so would mean it isn't unimaginable. Unimaginable is outside our experience - always. So rather than struggle with this, Lawrence Schoen side steps it deftly and convincingly. These aliens are not really aliens. Their antecedents were Earth bound mammals, just like us. Their social structure is derived from humanity. Their behavior is derived from their ancient ancestors before they were uplifted by humans. Cans, which came from dogs, are steadfast and loyal but never allowed to be in charge. Fant, uplifted from elephants, are matriarchal and for the most part males live a bachelor life as wild elephants do today. Lutr are descended from Otters, and the one we get to know acts pretty much how you'd expect an otter to act. As do all the other "aliens" in this book. In every one of them I could see the roots they came from, the behaviors that define them as a species. It's like Lawrence Schoen channeled Pierre Boulle with David Brin's assistance. That's just cool.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I'm trying something new with my book reviews where I link to other reviews from book bloggers for a given book. I just posted my review of Barsk and wanted to let you know I linked your review! If you'd prefer I remove the link I'll of course be happy to.

    I'm also working my way through the Nebula nominees. This is my fourth one (Already read Ancillary Mercy, Uprooted, and The 5th Season). The 5th Season is my favorite so far (and I see in your most recent post it's yours too). I'd be interested in hearing what you think when you finish them all!


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