Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard was released in late 2015. The lack of lead time did not stop it from snagging a Nebula nomination two months later. I enjoyed large portions of this book, but I cannot fathom why this was considered worthy of a Nebula.
Sixty-thousand years into the future, the Alliance includes four thousand worlds, each teeming with the descendants of terrestrials. Although not, as it happens, humans. Instead, eighty-seven different intelligent species share the galaxy, each of them evolved from a different non-human terrestrial species.
The elephantine Fants are scorned by the other species. Eight centuries ago, the two species of Fant — Lox and Eleph — were given exclusive occupation rights to the planet Barsk. At the time it seemed like a good deal: the Fants got a homeland away from the other species who so loathed them, and the Alliance got access to Barsk’s pharmaceutical riches (thanks to the Fants’ hard work).
That was eight centuries ago and circumstances change.
Koph may be the most interesting drug the Fants sell to the other worlds of the Alliance. It and it alone allows adepts known as Speakers to commune with the shades of the dead. While the Fant have by far the largest percentage of Speakers, the other worlds have theirs as well. All are dependent on the meager supply of koph that is doled out from Barsk.
Dependence on the despised Fants is annoying, but has been tolerable … until recent times. Senator Bish, of the Committee of Information, is convinced that the fragmentary glimpses of the future his seers have reported mean that soon the galaxy will have to choose between what is good for the Fants and what is good for the Alliance as a whole.
Bish’s first scheme is to kidnap a few Fants in order to torture the secret of koph out of them. This proves ineffective, not least because most Fants do not work in the pharmaceutical industry and have absolutely no idea about how to make koph. That’s just too bad for Barsk, because if Bish cannot get what he wants from Barsk, he is willing to simply obliterate all life on the planet, permanently ending its threat to galactic stability.
The fate of the planet, and of every Fant upon it, depends on three Fants. Young Pizlo is a bastard, which is an abomination to the Fants, but his visions may be key to the future. Jorl is haunted: his best friend Arlo has committed suicide, for some unknown reason, and Barsk’s future may depend on the secrets Arlo died to keep. Margda, the very first Speaker, died eight centuries ago, but her resolve to act from beyond the grave may itself cause the final crisis from which she was so determined to save Barsk.
What is it about backward worlds populated by the loathed, with a monopoly on a Very Special Substance? Dune has Spice, Tiamat has Water of Life, and Norstrilia has Stroon. These drugs grant extended life, or psychic gifts, or in the case of Spice, both. All these worlds have some sort of extreme climate — a shared authorial world building choice, I believe, because otherwise the locals would have been pushed onto reservations or wiped out. Which would enhance everyone else’s access to the Very Special Drug. Norstrilia and Dune are desert worlds, while Tiamat and Barsk suffer from an excess of damp.
But while the Fants lack Freman and Norstrilian combativeness, the Fants do have one defense that Dune, Tiamat, and Norstrilia don’t have: only they know how to manufacture koph. Indeed, only a few even know the ultimate secret: the name of the organism from which koph is derived.
You would think that this would make them invulnerable. But if Bish cannot steal the secret, he is willing to sterilize the planet, so that no one else gets their grubby little hands/claws/grasping appendages on it.
The eighty-seven races reminded me, in a good way, of Cordwainer Smith’s Underpeople. I was also reminded of Steve Gallacci’s considerably more obscure Albedo, which, like Barsk, centers on a mystery: how and why did humans uplift so many animals to intelligence? why has no evidence that humans played that role survived to the present day? As far as I know, Gallacci never revealed the answer to those questions. Schoen, the author of Barsk, does.
Some people might have expected me to react badly to the ending of this book. But I did not. True, the means used to force the final compromise did seem a bit contrived, but after all, Schoen wrote woo-woo powers into his setting. It is explicit that not all possible applications of woo-woo have been discovered. A new way to use Speaker abilities, one that can be used settle disputes, is consistent worldbuilding.
No, for me the biggest problem with the book involved Schoen’s choice of time scale. The Committee was determined to conceal the fact that [rot13] uhznaf unq rire rkvfgrq, gung gur uhznaf unq perngrq nyy gur fcrnxvat enprf, naq gung gur hcyvsgrq unq gura jvcrq bhg gurve perngbef.
Well, sixty thousand years have passed since that event. Sixty thousand years is a long, long time to maintain cultural continuity. The thinking beings in Barsk seem no more suited than humans to the task over maintaining cultural continuity over span of time six times longer than the time since we invented agriculture. The plot demands that we believe that we did.
Another way to put it, one more relevant to the plot is that sixty-thousand years is twice as long as the time that has passed for us, in the real world, since [also rot13 for spoilers] gur Arnaqregunyf inavfurq. Ubj znal bs hf ner unhagrq ol gur znyvta ebyr bhe naprfgbef zvtug unir cynlrq va gur rkgvapgvba bs gur Arnaqregunyf? People don’t even feel personable responsibility for the actions of their grandparents or great-grandparents!
And given how fast conspiracies such as Watergate have fallen apart, how is it that the Committee has managed to keep the Dread Secret for sixty thousand years? No one has talked in their sleep, confided to their spouse/clanmate/molt partner, or written a tell-all book? Sixty-thousand years!
Bish’s extremist reaction to koph seems like the regular sort of bungled Prisoner’s Dilemma seen so often in SF, wherein someone convinces themselves that a potential threat requires a disproportionately lethal immediate response. I found it refreshing that Schoen opts for a humane solution to Bish’s worries. Quite a few SF authors would have sided with Bish, believing that an uncertain future requires an immediate, drastic solution — one that favours the proposer of said solution and ignores all others affected by it.
I know that one cannot enjoy SF without some suspension of disbelief, but there are limits. The crux of the plot — how can the Fants convince the Alliance not to wipe them out? — is overshadowed by implausible or distracting elements that (after long consideration), I do not think were necessary to the book at all.
Barsk canbe purchased here.