Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard
By Lawrence M Schoden, Ph.D.
Dr. Schoden was born on July 27 1957, in Chicago Illinois, the youngest of 4 children. His family moved to Southern California when he was 18 months old and he grew up in Clover City. He graduated from California State University Northridge with a BA in Psycholinguistics and would move on to get his MA and PhD in Psychology from Kansas State. He would spend 10 years as an assistant professor in a number of colleges before moving to the private sector. He started writing in the 2000s, with a number of stories set in a common sci-fi universe, featuring creatures named buffalito. He's also one of the leading experts on the Klingon language and an advocate for the created language. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his wife Valerie. Today we are going to review his novel Barsk, published in 2015 by Tor books.
Barsk takes place over 60 thousand years in the future. Humanity is extinct and not even a memory but it's legacy lives on in the dozens of uplifted mammalian species that now spread across the galaxy. The species live in a semi-united polity called the Alliance which is ruled by a Senate. I say semi-united because the planets have a lot of control over their own affairs and there's a lot of prejudice and bigotry running through the Alliance as its members collectively look down their snouts at each other. There is one thing that unites the members of the Alliance: the fact that they hate Fants. Fants are uplifted Elephants and they've been consigned to a galactic ghetto, a single planet that doesn't even have continents, instead having islands spread across it's watery surface. That planet is named Barsk, however the Fants have ended up with something of a last laugh. Barsk is a treasure trove of plants with vast medical and recreational possibilities. The Fants have become experts in identifying these plants and turning them into finished products for the Alliance. In exchange? All they ask for is fair trade and to be left alone. No other species is to set foot on Barsk. This is a deal called the Compact that has held firm and been profitable for both sides for generations.
The most important of these drugs is Koph, which allows certain people to summon forth the dead. This is explained by the idea that your memories aren't just relations between your synapses stored physically in your brain, but are also made up of quantum particles that are called nefshons. This also takes advantage of the fact that your cells are constantly changing, that the atoms that make up “you” are different ones from the atoms that made up “you” last month or even last week. Those atoms were part of different things before they became a part of you and they'll go on to be part of different things after you die. As Carl Sagan said, you are made of star dust. Those nefshon's don't disappear when you die, they disperse out into the universe and if enough of the right ones are brought back together into the right pattern, your memories emerge and with them your personality and thoughts. It is magic covered with the words Quantum and Atoms but as far as I can tell most of us regard Quantum Science as a form of magic anyways. I'll admit for my own part Quantum Science might as well be magic for all that I am capable of explaining it or really grasping it. That said, I'm not criticizing the story for this, the magic of nefshons is internally consistent and makes sense within the story, which is all I'm really going to ask for. There's a lot of pretty-much-magic in science fiction (often starting with the FTL drive) so there's no point in being snobbish about it. Although I do think it's interesting to trace what type of science we turn into our magic. In my own life time, I can remember when it was nanotechnology (or nano machines son! If you prefer) that was the primary magic word of choice and before that Atomic or Radiation did well in a pinch. Additionally there's fair bit of using bio-technology or genetic engineering as well but I digress.
Those who can use the drug to call up the dead are called Speakers (mainly because necromancer would been to on point?). The first Speaker was a Fant herself, in fact she forged the Compact with the Alliance and taught them how to use Koph and in doing so bound every Speaker of every species into following 3 little rules. That Never shall a Speaker summon a Speaker. That Never shall a Speaker summon the living. That never shall a Speaker summon herself (or himself). Beyond that, Speakers do have some limitation. They have to have a pretty good idea of the person they're summoning (you can't just pull up a random dead person), the easiest way to do this is to summon people you knew before they died. You can also gain information from written sources that can allow you to recognize the nefshons and summon a public figure (the best is first hand sources such as letters or diaries, well researched biographies will work but general history books don't seem to have enough information). So basically you couldn't use my copy of The Millennium to summon a figure from the dark ages, but you could likely use Theodore Rex to bring forth Theodore Roosevelt (I am not responsible for any damage that Teddy Roosevelt does to any Speaker who summons him however, take that as a warning).
This is all rather handy for our main character Jorl ben Tral who is a historian, a Speaker and a bearer of an honorific also cooked up by the first Speaker. He has a tattoo made from glowing ink that is called an aleph. The aleph let's Jorl operate beyond the laws of his very tradition bound society and his ability as a Speaker is rather handy in gathering information for his work as a historian. So all things considered you would think he has it made. Except he has a number of problems. First off, his gift was triggered in the aftermath of his best friend's Arlo's suicide. I should note that this suicide is touched upon repeatedly and plays a heavy part in the plot. Jorl isn't dealing with the self inflicted death of his friend well and has repeatedly summoned his shade to try and figure out why he did such a thing, only Arlo isn't telling. Add on to this that Jorl is trying to help Arlo's widow Tolta take care of the young son Arlo left behind named Pizlo. This is complicated by the fact that no one else will admit Pizlo exists. Pizlo was born before Arlo and Tolta were properly married and has a number of birth defects, such as albinism and an inability to feel pain. Fant tradition is that such children are to be abandoned to die. Arlo and Tolta defied the convention but the rest of Fant society stubbornly holds to their traditions and shuns a six year old. A six year old that may be a genius and is rapidly developing abilities and powers that may become dangerous in the future but even that has to be put on a shelf because there's yet more problems on the horizon.
The Alliance has grown tired of depending on the Fant for koph. It's not enough that they've bottled up all members of the species onto a single planet. It's not enough that the Fant produce enough koph to keep all the Speakers of the Alliance supplied. At least not for some Senators of the Alliance who feel that it's okay to break the Compact, if it means that Alliance gets to control of the supply of koph from now on. Of course they have no idea what koph is made of or the correct process for making it so they have to resort to underhanded means to get it. On top of this, the recently departed (which is literal in Fant society as the elderly take themselves off to a hidden island to die out of sight) aren't responding to being summoned. Remember how I mentioned the first Speaker was a Fant? Well she could also foresee the future and left behind some prophecy foretelling such a situation. That prophecy is also telling Jorl that this is his mess to clean up. To do it, he'll have to confront both the living and dead and break not only his society’s rules but a number of rules that apply to the entire Alliance. I suppose it's lucky that first Speaker set up the aleph system in the first place giving Jorl tacit permission to break those rules (hey... wait a minute... Bloody precogs!).
I got mixed feelings about this book, the Alliance is in many ways corrupt and frankly frightening. It has the ability to declare it's citizens resources and strip them of their rights and those people have no recourse. On top of that there seems to be no oversight on the Senate and no check to their power. This is definitely one setup that could do with an independent executive or judicial branch to reign this crap in. This makes them very handy bad guys but we're also set up to view just about every non-Fant character in a fairly unsympathetic light so we're not provided a very balanced view of this group. I do like how Fant society is portrayed, it's not a group of angels but clearly a group of beings who have in their isolation allowed their society to become rigid and overly bound by their traditions. Traditions aren't necessarily bad things mind you, but they do need to be questioned and updated to prevent them from becoming stale and a drag on the society they're suppose to serve. That said I think using the Hebrew naming system for the group of educated people forced to live in a ghetto by the bigotry of greater society was bit... Unsubtle, to the point that I was wondering if Dr. Schoden was afraid I would miss the metaphor here. Additionally, I felt the villains of the piece weren't really well done, for example the Yak Senator who serves as Jorl's main adversary has his negative qualities clearly displayed and then we're forced to sit through several rounds of him pretending to be a kind old grandpa. I'm also somewhat lost as to his motivations as I find myself asking why he's so determined to seize complete control of the koph, he can't personally use it and it won't give him any advantages nor will it really improve the situation of the Alliance as the Fant are already providing koph in as much quantity and speed as can be done. Also given Jorl's treatment of several non-Fant characters, a number of his protestations of how awful the other characters ring a big hollow. So I have a number of frustrations with this book. Still this was rather interesting book that explored it's ideas fairly well and I also liked that sheer amount of depth to Fant culture and could recognize the influence that elephant behavior had on it. I also liked that the uplifted mammals were not humans in furry suits but completely different creatures with different responses to their drives and such. That said, I myself really only able to give Barsk By Lawrence M Schoden a C+. I like the book but the inability of the characters to really engage me left me kinda spinning my wheels.
You know... Maybe I need to go back to nonfiction for awhile. Next week... We talk about some real elephants.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen