Sentience Over Skin
By Lawrence M. Schoen
The main risk in featuring anthropomorphic animals in science fiction is the inherent silliness factor. Silliness can either briefly wet the reader’s feet as an ebb tide, or obliterate the story like a tsunami. But the onus isn’t merely on the audience to suspend disbelief—and accept, for example, that dolphins can pilot spacecraft—it’s also the author’s job to exercise good taste.
David Brin’s original Uplift Saga stands as an irresistible cautionary tale. In Brin’s universe, all sentient races throughout the galaxy have been “uplifted” into galactic culture by more mature space-faring races. Except humanity. Human intelligence evolved without guidance, and we in turn used genetic manipulation to uplift chimpanzees and dolphins into fully sapient members of society. In Startide Rising (1983), Brin takes an operatic view of inter-species heroics while delivering robust non-human characters, like the dolphin Captain Creideiki. The Uplift War (1987), unfortunately, squanders the respect Brin accords our fellow Earthlings when he writes in a chimp lap dance.
The gorgeously eerie cover of Lawrence M. Schoen’s new book Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard hints at a dignified approach to talking animals. By avoiding specific interpretations of upright creatures wearing clothing or holding guns, artist Victo Ngai brings readers into Schoen’s world with their imaginations untainted. This canny decision helps the author emphasize his characters’ sentience over their skin texture, and ideas over set pieces.
Barsk takes place in a far future where humanity and Earth are gone, and bipedal mammals who can talk have spread throughout the galaxy. The planet Barsk is mostly water, except for two equatorial island chains and a gigantic uninhabitable southern continent. The Lox (descended from African elephants, tagged by a shortening of the animals’ Linnaean name) and the Eleph (Asian elephants)—together known as the Fant—live in tree cities on the islands and possess a culture unique among the animal races: adults instinctively know when it’s time to die and sail off to a hidden island to do so. Also, the Fant have been corralled on Barsk because they
lack fur. The other animals revile them.
The first Fant we meet is Rüsul, who for five days has been drifting toward the island graveyard on a raft, carving wooden figurines and enjoying a last bit of fruit and beer. When a spaceship rises through the ocean below him, he’s kidnapped by Nonyx-Captain Selishta (a Cheetah) and her loyal, if blandly subservient, team of dogs. The prose, introducing Schoen’s downbeat central premise and peppered with invented words, feels softly urgent. Here’s the aged Fant, who had
felt it coming on all season. His every perception called out to him, less clairaudience than common sense. It was part of the way of things. One felt the change in pressure that signaled the nearness of a lull in a storm. One smelled the sweetness of tevketl long before the berries actually ripened so as not to miss their brief span for picking. And one knew when it was time to die. Rüsul could no more fail to recognize his coming death than he could be surprised by a pause in the rain or sour berries.
Selishta represents the galactic governing body, the Alliance, who operate not only an export station in Barsk’s orbit, but a secret base at its south pole. They’ve taken Rüsul en route to his demise to interrogate him regarding koph, a drug produced exclusively on Barsk. The substance, created by Fant pharmers from exotic jungle ingredients, allows Speakers to summon and interact with the dead. This brings us to Schoen’s Fant protagonist, Speaker and historian Jorl ben Tral, who pops a koph tablet under his tongue and is soon able to see nefshons, shimmering subatomic particles of memory from which individuals can be temporarily reconstituted. Jorl summons his best friend, Arlo, a pharmer who killed himself for reasons that remain secret. When Arlo arrives in a room that Jorl has assembled with his mind—down to the scents and textures—he’s dumbfounded that his friend still Speaks with him so often. He wants Jorl to let his own past go.
Schoen’s summoning is such an elegant, ingenious plot device that it’s easy to imagine Barsk as a brick, heavy with lavishly embellished subplots and a swollen cast of dozens. But as much as Schoen deals in the grand subjects of death, the afterlife, and bigotry, he maintains a narrative intimacy by using only a handful of characters. And not just one of them is deceased, but two. Eight centuries ago, a Fant named Margda was Barsk’s Matriarch and the first Speaker. She set down three rules called the Speaker’s Edict, as follows:
These limits only I place upon you,
that never shall a Speaker summon a Speaker,
that never shall a Speaker summon the living,
that never shall a Speaker summon herself.
By these laws abide.
As for the rest, may your conscience be your guide.
These rules, taken alongside a rare psychoactive substance, reveal Schoen strutting beneath two of science fiction’s tallest pillars, Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov. Koph is reminiscent of Dune‘s spice melange, as is the Speaker’s Edict of the Three Laws of Robotics. These elements, representing chaos and order, provide most—though not all—of the combustion this space opera needs.
Additional friction resides in Barsk’s Compact with the Alliance, created eight centuries ago, by which the planet agreed to provide koph and other exports for the right to be left alone. This shouldn’t be a problem for the host of species who hate the Fant. However, Speaking with the dead isn’t the only super-power Schoen employs. On the Alliance space station, an Otter named Lirlowil is a Speaker and a telepath. She’s been stripped of her citizenship on her home world of Sharv and made an Alliance resource. From a prison suite, she’s forced to scan through diaries, biographies, and interviews regarding deceased Fant in the attempt to Speak with them and learn what they know about koph. According to Senator Bish, the Ox who’s orchestrated the kidnappings, the Alliance needs to reverse engineer the drug for simple economic reasons; settled space is expanding and Barsk’s strategic value is becoming a liability. But as Lirlowil sees it,
[w]hoever had come up with the plan had been utterly clueless about Speakers. She couldn’t simply conjure up anyone from anywhere. The nefshons she manipulated were subatomic particles of personality that dispersed upon their creator’s death. But during the long course of a life, everyone transferred hundreds of particles with every touch. These in turn became the stuff of memory. It’s what made memory of people so vivid and different than memory of how to swim or the capitals of Sharv’s twenty-seven principalities.
Another micro-crafted character, designed explicitly to whip the narrative onward, is Arlo’s six-year-old son, Pizlo. Born out of wedlock, he’s an albino and considered an abomination even among his own people. He’s shunned by all except his mother and Jorl, and possesses precognitive abilities. Endearingly, he mistakes the future details that stream into his mind for things like clouds, trees, and dreams talking to him. When he tells Jorl that he knows of an island not on maps, where old people go to die, Schoen’s potentially humorous epic truly
begins to gallop.
And just how silly is Barsk, with most of its cast able to fan giant ears when embarrassed, or drink through their nose? Not silly at all. There are one or two fun indulgences for which we can forgive Schoen—like when a team of badger interrogators surround their victim and scream questions—because he displays a calculating hand everywhere else. Well, almost everywhere else. Halfway through the story is a transcendent moment in which Schoen loosens the space opera dressing, and his Fant hold a discussion that is so positively alive that they feel less like anthropomorphic constructs than relatives corresponding from the heart. It happens in the secret Alliance base, where kidnapped Fant have been gathered. One prisoner, Tarva, tells a story about his sister and grandmother:
Our aunts had cooked her her favorite meal and barely two bites into it Gram asked her if it was good. My sis laughed and told her it was delicious, and Gram nodded and we all went back to eating. A bit later she asked her ‘does it taste like it did the first time you had it, and decided it was your favorite, or when you say it’s delicious are you tasting the memory of that first time, and making a comparison?
I mean, wasn’t she really asking if the second time we do a thing are we forced to remember the previous time to understand it? That every time my sister ate that meal, at some level, she was eating all the other same meals? I tell you now with no shame that it gave me bad dreams for nights, the notion that so little in life is truly novel, that so much of what we do is connected to our previous experience of virtually the same thing.
Superficially, this sounds like Schoen defending his spins on famous science fiction devices—but that would be a very shallow reading. The scene goes beyond questioning the cynicism in creating something familiar for mass consumption, or doing something repeatedly for comfort’s sake, and implies that the changes we initiate within ourselves are more surprising, more rewarding, than what we can expect from the world. No genre novel that prods its audience toward this level of naked self-examination, whether it stars poodles or parasites, should be taken lightly.
But the real key to Barsk‘s allure might be the question, “What happened to humanity?” The answer is teased during a flashback to Jorl’s days in the Alliance Patrol. While on a mission to catalog unknown sections of space, he and his crew find a moon worth investigating up close. As they approach they receive a message,
from a cavern in ice tens of thousands of years old. Once inside the cavern, the team encounters a huge cube that’s “all gray metal and plastic and cloudy glass.” Then, as swirls behind the glass begin dancing, Jorl touches the surface and, “The swirls rushed together…forming a rough, humanoid shape, losing color until they were a dull black, like the shadow of someone of indeterminate race…” The message repeats, and the team hears the strange word, “Gilgamesh.” Then they hear, “The Pendragon,” followed by “Kal-El.”
Schoen doesn’t revisit this concept of the Archetypal Man until a few hundred pages later, after the nefarious maneuvers of Speaker Margda and Senator Bish are well under way. Like Chekhov’s gun-that-must-be-fired principle, the laws of the Speaker’s Edict exist to be broken. Doing so bestows terrific new circumstances on Jorl, Lirlowil, and Arlo—and yet Schoen closes his cosmically boisterous adventure without terrific amounts of violence. Instead, we get the warmth of diplomacy and logic.
Asimov frequently offered the same in his Foundation novels, which focus on the character Harry Seldon’s science of psychohistory and its ability to predict the behavior of large populations. At the end of Barsk, one of Schoen’s characters nearly paraphrases Seldon when she says, “I saw a crisis, but not the precise nature of it.” Sixty years from now, I hope, there will still be a few nefshons of Jorl dusting the science fiction genre.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.