I thought that Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard was one of the best books of 2015/2016, so I was tremendously excited to see this sequel at WorldCon. Better yet, I got to attend Lawrence Schoen's kaffee klatch and hear some behind-the-story details.
In the very distant future, humans as homo sapiens no longer exist; the many forms of hominids are all human-animal hybrids, and they have expanded throughout the galaxy. While the various species all have distinct customs, they share planets and the benefits of civilization..Only one planet is home to a segregated population. Hundreds of years before the events of the story, all the Elephant-human hybrids were forcibly expelled from the planets they occupied and relocated to Barsk, a wet, forested, cloud-covered world that no one else wanted. By Galactic Treaty and Compact, the Fant of Barsk are left alone, and no other species are allowed to set foot onto their world. Certain rare commodities are shipped off planet in a carefully controlled mercantile arrangement. In all the intervening centuries, only one Fant, Jorl, has ever joined the Galactic Patrol and traveled off-world. That, at least, is the official account.
If that scenario sounds ripe for all kinds of disaster to you, give yourself a prize. The insidious exploitation to which Jorl put a stop in the first book was only the first move in an effort by to reclaim Barsk for lucrative industry and colonization. But what Jorl, working quietly as a Senator and academician, does not realize is that the Fant civilization has secrets of its own, and not just the official secrets he is privy to. His efforts to promote reintegration of Fant throughout all the developed worlds are meeting with resistance from nearly all the other species and their Senators, but it’s what the Fant of Barsk’s secret society think of his goals that will put his life in jeopardy.
Here’s the problem: Jorl and his opposite number, Klarce, both want the same thing: safety, happiness and multiple home worlds for Fant, where they can thrive and continue to develop. Jorl wants to accomplish this openly, through cooperation, allowing reality to dispel the bogeymen status of the trunked hominids. And he is willing to renegotiate Barsk’s protected Treaty status to open the way for Fant to travel off world, cultivating goodwill and neighborly sensibilities. Klarce wants to create safety through secrecy; and as Jorl’s actions threaten to discover the workings of the secret society, Klarce is driven to take drastic actions against him. In secret.
Too bad for Klarce and all her planning, because there is one Fant who is even odder than Jorl, and no secret is safe from him. The trees, the animals, the raindrops, the moons themselves all whisper what they know to young Pizlo, the Abomination of Barsk. Conceived out of season, Pizlo was not supposed to be born, not supposed to live beyond infancy, and definitely not supposed to meddle in the affairs of the elders. But Pizlo half-blind, the wrong color, lacking pain receptors, outcast and Unmentionable, goes wherever he wishes, transcends boundaries, and causes confrontations. Quite the role model, our Pizlo.
Schoen gives every single one of his characters complex motivations, distinct personalities, points of view and voices. Instead of Heroes and Villains, he depicts how all of us, with our best intentions and best efforts, find ourselves at cross purposes with each other.
Wise, funny, imaginative, well-crafted, and ultimately kind, this is wonderful SF. ~~ Chris Wozney
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