Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen
NYC, A Tim Doherty Associates Book/Tor Books, December 2015, hardcover $25.99 (384 pages), Kindle $12.99.
In the very far future, civilization has spread throughout the galaxy, but there are no longer any humans. Humanity has been replaced by the descendants of uplifted animals.
Chapter One, “A Death Detoured”, features Rüsul, an elderly Fant, alone and naked, on a raft six days at sea. He is on his death journey, the traditional final rite of passage of every Fant on the world of Barsk. Rüsul expects to sail alone until he dies. He does not expect to be picked up by a spaceship of Cans (canines; Dogs) commanded by a Cheetah, Nonyx-Captain Selishta. She tells her Cans, “‘Maybe this one will know something useful about whatever shrubs and leaves the drug comes from. Hold him here a moment while the rest of the crew secures his flotsam, and then put him below in one of the vacant isolation cells.’” (p. 19)
The importance of Barsk’s drug, koph, is explained in Chapter Four, “Solutions in Memory”, in this description of Lirlowil the Otter and her ability to talk with the dead:
“Beautiful by Otter standards, she’d spent the last few years enjoying the peaks of privilege earned not by any acts of her own, but by the random chance that gifted her with being able to both read minds and talk with the dead. Unless you had the misfortune to be one of those disgusting Fant on Barsk, you could go your entire life without encountering a Speaker. The drug that triggered the ability was fiendishly expensive, and rarely worked the first few times. Alliance science had yet to determine what genetic markers resulted in the talent. Off Barsk, Speakers were unlikely, though hardly uncommon. True telepaths though, people who could effortlessly slip inside the mind of other beings and sample their memories and knowledge as easily as flipping the pages of a book, were orders of magnitude more rare.
The number of individuals with both sets of abilities would make for a very small dinner party indeed. Lirlowil’s mental gifts emerged with puberty and elevated her social status a thousand-fold. The discovery that her talents included Speaking occurred a couple of years later when she’d sampled some koph at a party and began seeing nefshons over the next hour’s time.” (pgs. 42-43)
Nefshons are the “shimmering subatomic particles of memory”, the relics of personality that constitute what is left of the dead. Taking koph enables those with the genetic ability to become a Speaker to pull together those nefshons from the dead and talk with them. Speakers are very sought after in galactic society by all who want to contact the dead: relatives who want to speak to loved ones, law enforcement officers who need to speak with the fatal victims of crimes, historians who want to interview illustrious deceased notables.
Speakers are notable themselves, and they can charge almost anything for their talents. They need koph to energize those talents. Therefore koph is “fiendishly expensive”. And it is found only on Barsk, which is inhabited by the disgusting Fant, who are disgusting because of their enormous size, because of their ugly, wrinkled, furless skin (furlessness alone is enough to render anyone hideously ugly in this galactic society), and because of those horrible long, prehensile noses and great, flapping ears that only the Fant have.
Everyone wants koph, and since only the despised Fant can deliver it, some among the galaxy’s Bears, Elk, Yak, Prairie Dogs, Cats, and other peoples (all furred) will do anything to get it. Nonyx-Captain Selishta, the Cheetah, is one who will fly down to proscribed Barsk to kidnap Fant and try to force them to reveal the origins of koph – which none of her victims know. Lirlowil the Otter, a pampered Speaker, is grabbed by galactic bureaucracy and made to use her Speaker talent to call up the nefshons of deceased Fant that may know how koph is made, so it can be manufactured for the benefit of society. And on Barsk, the Fant Speaker Jorl and the crippled Fant child Pizlo each tries in his own way to unlock the secrets of koph, nefshons, and the dead.
For the furry fan, it’s a vast and colorful galactic society:
“Jorl’s head turned so quickly toward this voice that his trunk nearly slapped the third Dog in front of him, causing that one to flinch, duck, and fall onto his ass. Jorl frowned. Cans were fiercely loyal and disciplined; they made up the bulk of the Patrol, but they were almost never in charge. Standing now in the gate, the source of the responding question, was a Cheetah. Unlike the Dogs, she wore neither hood nor mask. The blue of her gear proclaimed her officer status, and the molded insignia at her elbows, distinct to the initiated but easily missed if you didn’t know to look, marked her rank.” (p. 130)
Barsk is unusual in being an interstellar novel from a major science-fiction publisher, Tor Books, that began as two stories in a furry fanzine 26 years ago. “Of Storm and Furry: Peals and Vents” in Mythagoras #2, Summer 1990, and “Of Storm and Furry: Contemporary Past” in Mythagoras #3, Autumn 1990. From two short stories in a minor fanzine to a handsome hardcover book (with an attractive cover by Victo Ngai) is an impressive step; and Barsk is an impressive book. Don’t miss it.