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If there's one thing I like, it's a logically rigid system of magic in a made-up world. If there's one thing I like better, it's a logically rigid system of science in a made-up future. Particularly one that brings to mind Clarke's Third Law, the one about a sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. You'll find Lawrence M Schoen's science of the far future in his Nebula-nominated novel BARSK: THE ELEPHANT'S GRAVEYARD more logical than Spock. And until Schoen starts explaining things, it might as well be magic. But the revelations, when they do come, fuel a masterpiece denouement that will have you staying up as long as it takes to finish.
But let's back up a bit. What exactly is it Schoen does in BARSK to bring the Third Law into reader’s minds? First, there are the Fants. Anthropomorphic versions of the African (Lox, after the Latin Loxodonta) and Asian (Eleph, after Elephas) elephants we all know from the circus, the zoo, and National Geographic. Collectively referred to in Barsk as Fants, these futuristic mammals, found solely on the watery world known as Barsk, are recognizably elephantine, with the same big floppy ears and trumpety trunks we all know and love. But there are differences. Rather than the big clodhopper feet they walk upright on, their forelimbs feature toolmaker digits with opposable thumbs. They live in houses and sit on chairs. They make breakfast and dinner. Oh, and they talk. (But not to Pizlo, an albino abomination not expected to live even the six years he already has in BARSK. Like most cultures, the Fants are more scientifically than culturally advanced in some ways).
These far future sapient elephants also read and write and use computers. A beanstalk space elevator lifts their trade goods to orbit, where a galaxy that shuns the furless Fants can make use of their talents without risking contact. A galaxy-wide Compact sets the rules that keep Fants and other mammal species apart. But that’s just the set-up.
What Schoen then has his Fants doing that echoes the Third Law is even more improbable-sounding, at least early on. One of Barsk’s exports is a drug called koph. Koph allows certain individuals to speak to the dead. Although not wholly explained when Schoen first presents it, this process, called Speaking (and its practicioners, of course, are Speakers), involves calling up the particles that made up a person - nefshons - to recreate them as they once were, often within a constructed environment that the Speaker expects will make them comfortable during their unexpected recall. The reconstructed person, by the way, seems physically present. Piss off a Conversant you called into being and he might punch you in the nose. Ouch!
The Speaking process also comes with an 800-year-old Edict and a prophecy. Still looking very magicky and almost primitive, given an agrarian society on a sparsely populated planet. But trust me - and trust Schoen - it’s all scientifically sound in the BARSK Universe. And the story Schoen tells depends on that.
The first part of BARSK introduces a family of sorts: the historian Jorl ben Tral; his lifelong best friend Arlo, whom Jorl can only talk to via his nefshons, the original being some two years passed under circumstances that still puzzle Jorl; and Arlo's now six-year old son Pizlo, a rare albino shunned by all of their society save for his father, his mother Tolta, and Jorl.
This part of the story concerns a group of elderly Fants who each set out to sea alone as they perceive their time of dying at hand and go in search of the island that is every Fant's traditional resting place. We learn quickly, however, that somebody wants these Fants for an unknown purpose, waylaying over two hundred Dying who will never be missed - and in fact they aren't, since the only contact they might be expected to have with the living at that point would be through their nefshons. Via means I won't spoil for you, Pizlo helps Jorl go looking for these victims, whose disappearance seems related to the 800 year old prophecy referred to as The Silence. Did I mention precognition as another element in the BARSK universe? It’s rare, but it’s also real, just like nefshons and uplifted mammals are.
Unraveling this mystery takes up the rest of the novel, introducing several fascinating characters both dead and alive, including a number from other mammal species that, like the Fants, display human-like attributes but, unlike the Fants, are all furred species who shun the hairless Lox and Elephs. Which is one reason they are confined to Barsk, while other species roam the galaxy at will.
Schoen's story develops a bit slowly at first, but once he starts taking us through the logical consequences of the science behind Speaking, things get cracking in a hurry, and the last hundred pages are a joyful ride as, straining then breaking the arbitrary 'laws' of speaking, Jorl gets to the bottom of 800 years of secrets no Fant could ever have imagined. Nor you or I. All credit to Schoen. Now let’s see if he can cook up an equally revelatory sequel, now that all of BARSK's secrets have been revealed. Or have they?