The premise of Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard sounds a bit out-there: It’s a space opera about anthropomorphic elephants! But the themes of bigotry, greed, corruption, and kindness Lawrence M. Schoen explores in his first novel make this weird future feel deeply human.
In Barsk, it’s the distant future, and humanity’s offspring—sapient beings that were uplifted from mammals on Earth long ago—have spread across the galaxy. Of the 87 races comprising the Alliance, none are more universally despised than the Fant, who are highly intelligent elephants. But the Alliance is also reliant on Fant technology, until a prophesy of a new drug for waking the dead threatens to destroy the Fant’s world.
This book’s world-building is phenomenal; the tropical ocean planet that our tusked protagonists inhabit steeped in centuries of history, tradition, and culture.
Eight hundred years ago, Fant society changed forever when a woman named Margda discovered a drug, koph, that allowed her to speak with the recently deceased. Using this knowledge as bargaining power, the Fant struck a deal with the Alliance: they would be granted complete autonomy on the rainy ocean world Barsk, on condition that they continue to manufacture the prized drug for the benefit of all.
Since then, the Fant have enjoyed peace and security, shielded from the blind hatred of other races, who find their hairless bodies and bizarre trunks to be appalling. But when precogs across the galaxy begin prophesying the rise of another drug far powerful than koph, a shadowy Alliance faction starts kidnapping and interrogating the Fant to learn their secrets.
Among those taken into custody is Jorl ben Tral, a Fant Speaker with the dead. His captors force Jorl to communicate with a recently deceased friend, who took the secret behind a terrible new power to the grave. As Jorl uses his dead friend’s discovery to uncover a dark truth from the distant past, he finds himself facing an impossible choice: hand this new weapon over to the Alliance, or allow his people to be exterminated.
The concept of uplifting animals to higher intelligence has a long and colorful history in science fiction, from H.G. Wells to Star Trek. In Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, Schoen takes the idea further than most: his dozens of different races are different microcosms of human nature. Indeed, while Dogs are fiercely loyal, Otters are hedonistic revelers, and Yaks are ruthless pragmatists, all share certain flaws, including an ingrained fear and loathing of the Other.
And no where is the Alliance’s bigotry more evident than with the Fant, who are despised for nothing more than their strange physical appearance. But even on Barsk, a planet of outcasts, prejudice against those who are different runs deep. A Fant boy named Pizlo, for instance, could be the most powerful precog in the galaxy, but his own kind refuse to acknowledge his existence—all because of a birth defect. Their technology may be advanced, but the peoples of the Alliance are slave to the same tribalistic prejudices that plagued their creators thousands of years ago.
There’s also the fascinating matter of the Alliance’s mythological history, in which certain truths have gone unquestioned for tens of thousands of years. Why, for instance, do diverse people scattered across thousands of worlds all speak the same language? This could have been a plot conceit (they’re talking animals, just go with it), but it’s deliberate. Schoen uses the existence of universal language to explore how speech is tied with intelligence—and what happens when our linguistic symbology goes without changing throughout the ages.
My one issue with this book is its treatment of exposition. Schoen does a beautiful job opening his world up slowly at first, but toward the end, the History Lessons start to lay on thick. Still, by the time I got there, I was so captivated by the story that it didn’t really matter. There might have been a more graceful way of working some of this exposition into the narrative, but it didn’t lessen my overall enjoyment of the book.
Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard is a weird future, it’s a fascinating universe, and it’s one that I hope Schoen revisits. I never thought I’d say it, but interplanetary conflicts featuring cheetahs, yaks, and elephants can be just as interesting as anything involving hairless primates.
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