Published by Tor Books on December 29th 2015
Genres: Science Fiction
We’re just about nearing the end of the year, but apparently 2015 had one last big surprise for me. It came in the form of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen.
I confess, I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I started this book because I dove in blind, and that’s actually the way I wanted it. When I first looked upon this novel in my hands, I was struck by this feeling that the less I knew about it, the more I would enjoy the experience. So I swore off reading any previews or early reviews and simply let go. I wanted this story to take me where it would.
Well, what an amazing adventure it turned out to be! Barsk was a mysterious and captivating journey from the very first page to the last, featuring a puzzle that begins with the novel’s title itself. According to a well-known myth, an elephants’ graveyard is a place where aged and dying elephants instinctively know to go when they reach the end of their days. There, they stay until they die, alone and far away from the herd.
This is how the story begins, in a distant future where humans have long since died out. Instead, walking talking anthropomorphic animal species dominate the galaxy. On an isolated planet named Barsk, a Fant named Rüsul receives a message in a dream telling him that his time is near, and that he should start making his way to an island whose location is only revealed to the Dying. Fant are a humanoid sapient race, but their features resemble those of an elephant—grey and furless skin, big flapping ears, and the distinctive long trunk. They’re also a species with deep-rooted cultural values, and they prefer to keep to themselves. The only contact Barsk has with the rest of the Alliance is through the trade of specialized pharmaceuticals developed and manufactured by the Fant.
The most desirable of these is koph, a drug that allows gifted individuals called Speakers to summon and interact with the dead. Meanwhile, a shadowy faction in the Alliance government wants control of koph for themselves and are willing to destroy Barsk and all its inhabitants in order to learn how to manufacture the drug. They begin kidnapping dying Fant on their way to the final island, disrupting the natural order of their lifecycle. A Fant Speaker named Jorl notices these disturbances, but gets captured himself when he goes to investigate, becoming the linchpin in the enemy’s grand scheme. He is subsequently blackmailed into Speaking with his dead friend Arlo, a koph researcher who committed suicide years ago to protect an earthshattering secret.
Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard is a novel that is unique in so many ways, I don’t even know where to start. I suppose a good place would be the setting, a galaxy home to not just Fant, but also dozens of other alien races referred to by the common names of the animals they resemble as well as an adapted form of their Latin genus, like the Ailuros (Giant Panda), Bos (Yak), Cans (Domestic Dog), Brady (Three-toed Sloth), Cynomy (Prairie Dog), Lutr (Otter), Taxi (Badger), Urs (Bear), and many, many more. It’s a veritable zoo of different species, and the appendix in the back of the book implies there are even more races beyond the ones that appear in Barsk. Schoen brings these anthropomorphic beings to life using a very interesting approach, making them speak and behave like humans while also giving them their respective animal traits. For example, the Brady are an even-tempered species that likes to take things slow and steady, while the Lutr are more excitable and move about with agile grace. In a sense, characters are given the impression of being alien but also familiar, making it easier to connect with them.
Barsk is also a science geek’s dream, touching upon a number of different disciplines and bringing their philosophies together. One of the central themes of this book is the question of Instinct vs. Learned Behavior, and the development of culture and social norms. It’s worth noting that all the species of the Alliance look down on the Fant, discriminating them for their lack of fur and overall unusual appearance. Fant themselves are highly reclusive, having negotiated a Compact hundreds of years ago that would forbid visitors from ever setting foot on their planet. The relationship between Barsk and the rest of the galaxy plays a vital role in the way things play out, not to mention it also highlights the sheer ingenuity behind the world-building as it relates to our own understanding of sociobiology.
I was simply in awe at how well everything came together in the end. Barsk is a strange book indeed, but it was weird in a wonderful, unexpected way that really appealed to me, due in part to the creative handling of the science fiction elements. A few sections involved very abstract concepts, but it was smooth sailing thanks to Schoen’s easy yet expressive style. This is a story that enticed me, pulled me in and kept me enthralled until I reached its conclusion. If you’re looking for a sci-fi novel that’s truly innovative and different, I highly recommend picking this up.