The Moons of Barsk, by Lawrence M. Schoen – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

The Moons of Barsk, by Lawrence M. Schoen.
NYC, A Tom Doherty Associates Book/Tor Books, August 2018, hardcover, $26.99 (430 [+ 1] pages), Kindle $13.99.

This is the sequel to Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, reviewed here in 2016. Barsk has such an unusual and unique plot that you should really read it before The Moons of Barsk. Both have interstellar settings and are set in the far future when humanity is extinct and has been replaced by the descendants of uplifted animals.

You also need to read Barsk first because there is no synopsis here. The opening paragraph is:

“Amidst torrents of rain and blasts of lightning, Ryne stepped from his boat onto the shore of the last island, the place where his life ended. The mental beacon that had guided him across the open water faded away. Clarity replaced certainty, composed of equal parts confusion and anger. Flapping his ears against the downpour he muttered a phrase heard by his students at least once a tenday for the past six decades. ‘The math is all wrong!’” (p. 11)

But Chapter One is titled “Nothing But Lies”. Pizlo, Jorl, and Ryne are Fant, elephant-men of the planet Barsk, looking like a human with an elephant’s head; great flapping ears and a trunk. That’s not why Fant is reviled as abominations throughout the galaxy, though. Of the eighty-seven races (species) of the Galactic Alliance, the Fant are the only ones who are not furred. The Yaks, the Prairie Dogs, the Giant Anteaters, the Hares, the Sloths; all the others have respectable pelts. Only the Fant, divided into Elephs (uplifted Asian elephants) and Lox (African elephants), are disgustingly nude, with wrinkly gray, hairless skin, plus those giant flapping ears and the huge mobile nose.

The Fant are not only known for their hairlessness, though. Barsk is the only planet where the wonder drug koph can be found. Koph enables rare individuals who take it to access the nefshons of the dead and to become Speakers to the dead. “He could see nefshons; the subatomic particles of memory and personality would come at his call. If he summoned enough of them that had belonged to a dead person he could even talk to them.” (p. 22) Barsk is partially about some Fant, and the attempts of some individuals of the other races of the Alliance (notably Nonyx-Captain Selishta, a Cheetah) to get more koph.

Barsk focuses upon a few individual Fant on their planet, and a few members of the Alliance, notably Selista the Cheetah and Lirlowil the Otter, a Speaker, who are especially dependent upon koph. The Moons of Barsk is about Barsk’s relationship with the rest of the Alliance, focusing on why the Alliance wants to destroy Barsk.

Although The Moons of Barsk tells the adventures of the Fant Jorl and Pizlo (and his lover Rina), and to a lesser extent Ryne, the novel is most fascinating for its description of the society of Barsk:

“Most women’s homes in Keslo [“an island located near the northeastern portion of the western archipelago. It is home to Jorl ben Tral.” – (p. 426)] were enormous and tended to get bigger as generations of women and children branched and expanded. Rooms were added, porches enclosed, neighboring dwellings annexed and connected by inventive and oddly constructed temporary hallways that acquired permanence and extensions of their own. Back yards became internal patios, became parlors, became bedrooms and kitchens and even bathrooms depending on need and whim and available materials. This was the pattern in every Civilized Wood throughout both archipelagos, expansion and adaptation rather than contraction.” (p. 55)

It also presents more background. The Fant used to be spread throughout the Alliance. Eight hundred years earlier, Alliance politics resulted in all the Fant being relocated to Barsk.

What are The Moons of Barsk about?

“The portion of the firstborn generation of Barsk that established the Caudex based their entire existence on a single core belief: the Alliance wanted every last Eleph and Lox – every man, woman, and child – dead and gone. They believed the bureaucracy responsible for transporting all the galaxy’s Fant to Barsk had only enacted the beginning of a plan, putting them all in one spot to facilitate their eventual annihilation. Margda’s Compact had forged a truce of sorts, but it was at best a stopgap; it bought some time for the Fant, but not safety. The Caudex resolved to use that time to best advantage, to develop plans to ensure they survived at any cost.

Sometimes the Alliance’s contempt for anything and everything touched by Eleph or Lox worked to the advantage of the Fant. Eight hundred years earlier, when the first waves of resettlement had begun – before the tone of the relocation had grown darker – among the many ships ferrying Fant to their new home on Barsk were commercial spacecraft owned and operated by Fant concerns on Marbalarma and Kensington, Venango and Slon, Dramblys and Passyunk. In the rush to be done with the unwanted Fant, these vessels slipped off the grid, ostensibly kept in active service to transport latecomers, which went on for most of a decade. When the planet’s pharmaceutical treasure trove opened, these same ships provided some support for building Barsk’s space elevator and orbiting satellite. But then, under the guise of ‘business as usual,’ various agents of the new forming Caudex purchased every Fant ship and began hiding them throughout the system, powering down all nonessential energies and limiting personnel to the barest of crews. Alliance licensing databases showed all of them as decommissioned, sold to other concerns, or crashed on the surface of one of the moons of Barsk and destroyed.” (pgs. 66-67)

Since the Alliance maintains the pretense of representing all the races of the galaxy, it has to allow a token representative of the Fant. This is Senator Jorl ben Tral, “who can speak with the dead, navigates galactic politics as Barsk’s unwelcome representative, and digs even deeper into the past than ever before to discover new truths of his own.” (blurb) Pizlo, a Fant teenager, seems especially ostracized; he is an albino, considered an abomination by the other Fant who are considered abominations themselves by the rest of the galaxy. But Pizlo’s physical and mental uniqueness makes him able to “hear” voices from the moons of Barsk. He investigates …

The Moons of Barsk (cover by Victo Ngai) would be helped by more background from Barsk, but the reader is quickly swept up by the story. Be aware that there is at least one more novel to come.

– Fred Patten

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