When I put in my ARC request for Lawrence M. Schoen’s new novel Barsk, all I knew about it was that the setting involved a group of worlds inhabited by a variety of anthropomorphic space-faring animal species, with the main focus on elephants (thus its subtitle: The Elephant’s Graveyard). C’mon. El-e-phants in Spaaaaaccce! How could I resist? But Barsk is much more than a funny-but-cool premise; it’s a thoughtful, moving, and provocative exploration of a host of issues, including but not limited to memory, history, free will, and power. Even better, Schoen doesn’t forget to ground his issues in characters we can care about, preventing the novel from devolving into mere abstraction.
As mentioned, the setting is a federation of worlds (the Alliance) made up of nearly a hundred different anthropomorphic and highly advanced mammal species known by either their common or Latinate scientific name (often shortened): Sloths (“Brady’s”), Dogs (“Cans”), Pandas (“Ailuros”), and Yaks (“Bos”) are just a few of the species we see. The major species in the novel are elephants (shortened to “Fants”), which are separated into two races: Eleph and Lox. Eight hundred years ago the Fants, which nearly all the other species despise for the their lack of fur, were resettled on the planet Barsk, and both sides agreed via The Compact to a sort of benign non-involvement, barring the Fants’ export of pharmaceuticals. The most important of these is koph, a drug that allows particularly gifted users, known as Speakers, to converse with the dead. Now though, someone seeks to break the Fant monopoly on koph, and is willing to do anything to achieve that goal, including perhaps even genocide. Meanwhile, long-ago prophecies made by the first Fant Speaker (the gift appears far more often amongst the Fant than other species) appear to be coming true, heralding something known only as The Silence. Dumped into this clash of ancient predictions and current political intrigue are Jorl, a Fant Speaker/Historian and Pizlo, the young son of Jorl’s best friend who recently committed suicide, though only Jorl knows this. Together the two will journey separately on and off their world and uncover a secret that could rock the Alliance, as well as lead to the destruction of their people.
The first thing I want to say is about that secret (actually, several secrets). While one is, I’d say, not so hard to predict, the reveals all take place at the end of the book and seem purposely placed there for maximum effect. Which makes it all the more odd to me that some of the promotional literature, not to mention the inner flap of my hardcover, just out and out state one such revelation. Granted, it’s the most obvious/predictable one, but still, if you prefer to figure it out on your own or wait for the reveal, I suggest skipping the inner flap description or reading too much about Barsk.
With that out of the way, let’s turn to the novel itself. I absolutely love Schoen’s construction of Speaking to the dead. He bases the concept in some nicely concrete science, with talk of subatomic particles (“nefshons”) each of us leaves behind as a sort of personality residue. And yes, this is “sci-fi science,” not actual science, but I appreciate the effort, and also that one could — with not much effort — tie it into relatively recent ideas of the key element of the universe being information (as opposed to matter/energy). With the use of koph, gifted individuals can collect these nefshons and re-form them back into the pattern of the dead individual, who then reappears before them with the full memory of their life up to the day they died, even recalling prior Summonings. The limitation is that the Speaker must either have known the Summoned or researched enough about them to collect their nefshons.
This basic premise of Barsk works in several ways. First, calling up the dead obviously offers up some rich opportunities for poignancy, as when Jorl calls up his best friend Arlo, compelled to try to understand why he committed suicide. And though it isn’t much touched upon, undergirding such moments is the general question of letting go, of grieving and then moving on. Second, one can see how this gift would serve Jorl in his professional capacity as historian — what better way to research events of the past than to talk to those who lived through them? But this access to the past means one can also uncover secret or lost knowledge, and this plays a larger and larger role in driving the plot. Finally, while the emotional potential seems obvious, Schoen also does a nice job of playing the ability for some unexpected humor as well, as in a scene between Jorl and his father, which seems as frustrating for Jorl as it would have been when he spoke with his dad while he was alive, or when Arlo says of another character, “We’ve met, and it wasn’t the highlight of my being dead.”
The exploration of memory and personality and identity would all be interestingly abstract, but Schoen has created in Jorl a fully realized character, one with whom we can easily identify as he moves through moments of curiosity, grief, fear, trauma, and the like. One of his more admirable traits is his kindness, particularly evident in the way he has taken Pizlo under his wing despite the fact that the boy is shunned as an “abomination” by the rest of the Fants (save his mother) for reasons I won’t detail here. And the shunning is complete — people simply act as if he is invisible, interacting not at all with him. It’s impossible not to feel for Pizlo, even if he himself often seems unconcerned, focused more on his own unique gifts of visions in the form of the moons, as well as other natural objects like trees and waves, “talking” to him. Other characters are compelling in their own (often less-admirable) light, especially the First Speaker of the Fant, and a particularly goal-oriented Yak Senator, both of whom offer up some prime material for thinking about ethics. My only complaint about characters is that one, another Speaker of a different species, is pretty much dropped midway through the book, which seemed a bit of a lost opportunity.
In a more general vein, while we don’t get lots of page time devoted to individual species, I did love the many quick glimpses we had of the variety, and the ways, each species has its own little quirks/stereotypes (Sloths move/think relatively slowly, Badgers “did everything with sharp, quick movements” and were generally aggressive). I also liked how these traits led to tension between races, but even more so how some characters were self-aware of their near-instinctive actions/responses and sought to master them.
Plot-wise, the story moves along at a good clip, never lagging but also varying its pace, allowing for moments of quiet interaction or introspection. Schoen does an excellent job in allowing important information to gradually, naturally reveal itself — how the Alliance works, what species are involved, cultural aspects of the Fant, how Speaking began, etc., and it all builds to a very strong climax. The prose is precise and engaging, and while I don’t think I marked any particularly memorable lines for their stylistic impact or originality, I certainly had no complaints.
Had I read Barsk a month ago, I don’t think it would have made it onto my list of 2015 Best Books, but I certainly would have given it some consideration before probably deciding that it would just miss the cut, more due to the selectivity of the list rather than any flaw in the work itself. But I’d certainly highly recommend it. I don’t know if there are more stories to tell in this universe, but I’d be happy to return to it if Schoen can come up with an entry point.
Barsk; or the Elephants’ Graveyard, has a real plot with twists and setback. It has nasty villains; it has secrets and it has humor. It also has bipedal elephants (called Fants) who live in arboreal towns and villages. For that alone, it’s worth reading.
Schoen brings together new ideas in quantum physics/information theory with a revered SF tradition of “uplifted animals,” and adds in a study of political power, the nature of memory, and the ways people honor the dead. On Barsk, the home world of the Fants, a Fant close to dying receives information in a dream, and takes a boat to sail away to a location that has never been disclosed to the living. This is even more remarkable when you realize that, aided by a certain drug, some individuals among the Fants and other species, called Speakers, can contact and talk to the dead, but the dead never give up the location.
When the story starts, a historian and Speaker named Jorl is discovering that some people who set out on the death journey are not replying when summoned by a Speaker. This has never happened. Jorl wonders if this is the Silence, a state predicted in a prophecy by the first Speaker, a powerful woman named Margda. As the book progresses, Jorl, and we, realize that the Silence could, in fact, be many things.
Schoen takes his time getting the plot rolling because he lets us see the lives of everyday Fants. I enjoyed that. I was taken with Jorl’s generosity of spirit and his relationship with the outcast boy Pizlo. Pizlo captivated me. Throughout the book there is a contrast between the adult Jorl agonizing over what is the right thing to do, and Pizlo, who acts out of innocence, but also faith in something more (which I’m not going to address here because spoilers).
One of the most villainous things the villains do in Barsk is interrupt the dying-ritual of the Fant. I was horrified at how this played out, and I love that I was horrified because it means Schoen made the Fant belief and their ritual believable and real. I might quibble over other nits in the plot, but Schoen truly creates memorable characters in a memorable world that isn’t ours.