The Sixth Sense meets Planet of the Apes in a moving science fiction novel set so far in the future, humanity is gone and forgotten in Lawrence M. Schoen's Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard
An historian who speaks with the dead is ensnared by the past. A child who feels no pain and who should not exist sees the future. Between them are truths that will shake worlds.
In a distant future, no remnants of human beings remain, but their successors thrive throughout the galaxy. These are the offspring of humanity's genius-animals uplifted into walking, talking, sentient beings. The Fant are one such species: anthropomorphic elephants ostracized by other races, and long ago exiled to the rainy ghetto world of Barsk. There, they develop medicines upon which all species now depend. The most coveted of these drugs is koph, which allows a small number of users to interact with the recently deceased and learn their secrets.
To break the Fant's control of koph, an offworld shadow group attempts to force the Fant to surrender their knowledge. Jorl, a Fant Speaker with the dead, is compelled to question his deceased best friend, who years ago mysteriously committed suicide. In so doing, Jorl unearths a secret the powers that be would prefer to keep buried forever. Meanwhile, his dead friend's son, a physically challenged young Fant named Pizlo, is driven by disturbing visions to take his first unsteady steps toward an uncertain future.
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About the Author
LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is a certified hypnotist. He's also one of the world's foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. His debut novel Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard won the Coyotl Award for Best Novel, and his latest is the sequel The Moons of Barsk. Schoen has been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia.
Read an Excerpt
The Elephants' Graveyard
By Lawrence M. Schoen
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Lawrence M. Schoen
All rights reserved.
A DEATH DETOURED
RÜSUL traveled to meet his death. The current had carried him away from his home island as if it understood his purpose. He lost sight of the archipelago before dusk, as much a function of the falling rain as the southerly wind that pushed him onward. In the days since, the sun had risen and set unseen, a slightly brighter spot that eased itself across the overcast sky. Nor had it cleared at night to permit a glimpse of the heavens. The clouds changed color as the rain ebbed and flowed, and the wind drove him across the water of its own accord toward an unvisited destination. Rüsul didn't care. He had no need to hurry. He could feel the increasing proximity in his bones and that was enough. More than enough. An aged Fant on a raft alone and at sea, the wind filling his makeshift sail and carrying him toward the last bit of land he would ever stand upon. His father and mother had each left in the same manner, and their parents before them. That's how it had been, going back generation upon generation to the very founding of Barsk.
He'd felt it coming on all season. His every perception called out to him, less clairaudience than common sense. It was part of the way of things. One felt the change in pressure that signaled the nearness of a lull in a storm. One smelled the sweetness of tevketl long before the berries actually ripened so as not to miss their brief span for picking. And one knew when it was time to die. Rüsul could no more fail to recognize his coming death than he could be surprised by a pause in the rain or sour berries.
The certainty came to him one morning. He'd never been the type to awaken easily, always struggling to cross that daily border between slumber and the responsibilities of the wide awake world. But that day he had opened his eyes and known. Death had announced itself, named a time and place, and left him instantly alert. Rüsul had risen and gone about his day with a wistful smile, a bit sad that his time was ending but also relieved to know for sure. That knowledge signaled the start of the final rite of passage for every Fant.
His assistant had seen the change in him at the workshop that day, acknowledging it with a simple question. "You know?"
Rüsul had smiled. "I do. The last lesson I need to learn. No sadness from you, Yeft. It's long overdue. Besides, I know you've wanted my tools since the day you ended your apprenticeship."
The younger Fant ignored the barb and instead asked, "Is there anything I can do to help? Do you have enough time for everything?"
Rüsul had been thinking it through since breakfast. Time enough to complete the game board and pieces he'd promised to his elder daughter's husband after drinking too much beer on the night of their Bonding. Time enough to finish the lintel for the great window in his son's new home. And time also to build a stout raft and gather together the supplies he would need for the voyage. He had no goodbyes to say. Yeft had seen the knowledge on his face as much because they'd worked side by side for thirty years as because it had been so fresh. The rest of his loved ones would realize what had happened after he'd left. None would come seeking him. Until the day they each woke to their own invitations, they wouldn't even know where to look.
* * *
HE'D been on the open water for five days, seated comfortably enough at the front third of a raft, his back against the short mast that held the only sail. A tarpaulin covered a jumbled pile that occupied most of the other two-thirds. Beneath it lay jugs of fresh water and beer to quench his thirst, assorted fresh fruit to enjoy before it spoiled, and dried fruit for after if the wind died or the current slowed and delayed his journey. There was grain and salt for making cold porridge, and an assortment of succulent leaves as much for dessert as for late night snacking. Rüsul had also packed a scattering of various soft woods and, despite his promise, held onto his favorite knife. At the last moment he'd been unable to part with it, though of course he wouldn't need it when he reached his death.
For the last five mornings he'd eased leisurely from sleep as usual. His daily ritual consisted of breaking his fast and then tending to his ablutions over the back end of his raft. He'd raise the sail and often as not tack in the direction that felt right. That done, he would take a chock of wood and his knife from under the tarpaulin and settle in with his back once more against the mast and spend the day carving. His hands and trunk did the work with the familiarity of experience, freeing his mind to wander at will through a lifetime of pleasant memories. When he grew thirsty he'd stop for some midday beer, and when hungry for an early supper. By dusk he'd set aside his knife and furl the raft's sail. As the last of the day's light fled, Rüsul would examine the statuette he'd made, the face of some old friend or relative gazing up from the wood as clearly as it had from his memory. His talent at carving had brought him a modicum of fame and security. His work had become quite collectible, but these pieces would never be admired by anyone else. Before laying himself down for sleep, he made a point of saying farewell to the day's effort and pitching it over the side for the ocean to claim.
This sixth day had gone much like the others. Rüsul's left hand had all day long guided the knife slowly back and forth across the chock in his right. The constant rain created the illusion that the outer layers of wood were being washed away to reveal the figurine beneath. Later, as the sky began to lose its glow and he sat finishing his porridge and fruit, the rain faded entirely. For the briefest of moments the heavy clouds parted and Rüsul enjoyed the unfamiliar sight of sunset and felt the red light of Ekkja on his skin. Defter than the touch of a loved one's nubs, warmth flooded through the folds and wrinkles of his naked body, relieving all weariness while reminding him of just how weary he'd been. Then it passed. The clouds closed again and the rain resumed. He took down the sail.
Rüsul finished his dinner and leaned over the edge of his raft to rinse his bowl and spoon before tucking them away under the tarp along with his carving knife. With his trunk he cradled the day's work, a perfect rendering of Margda, Barsk's long-dead Matriarch. Her face looked back at him with complexity. There was pain and certainty, confidence and confusion, as if she'd just been thrust deep in the throes of one of her prophetic seizures. It was possibly his best work ever.
He had muttered a farewell to the carving and raised his trunk high, preparing to fling the figure into the sea, when the ocean dropped away.
The raft, which had risen and fallen with the sea's mood, froze stiller than calm water. The sudden stability caused Rüsul to tumble over backwards. The tiny rendering of Margda slipped from his nubs as he landed on his backside. He rolled onto his knees, one hand moving back and behind the bottom of his left ear to rub at a sudden stitch in his side. His other hand braced against the raft until his balance returned and allowed him to crawl to the edge.
Peering over the side he saw an expanse of grayness below the raft. It sloped down in all directions too far to measure in the rain. Beyond that lay water. The ocean had not so much dropped from beneath him as something else had surged up from below it, lifting him and the raft.
"There! At the far end. Take him, now. And quickly!"
Rüsul turned. From beyond the other side of his raft, a gate of some sort had opened in the gray below. A tall, bizarre-looking person stood next to the opening and three more poured from it. All four had been wrapped in fire-bright plastic, more plastic than he'd seen in his entire life. The legs of their slacks thickened to form heavy boots. The sleeves of their shirts flowed into gloves and the collars rose up into hoods that hid their heads. Following their instructions, three of them advanced upon Rüsul. Translucent gray masks covered their faces. Two had hold of his arms in an instant and hauled him upright like a wet sack of leaves.
It all happened so fast, so unexpectedly. He was on his way to die. The sameness of the past days had helped him to distance himself from the world and his past life. None of this should be happening. His brain wanted to deny it, disbelieve and make it go away. The hands gripping him made that impossible. As his feet scrabbled beneath him, the greatest piece of strangeness came clear to Rüsul and he struggled to pull free. No trunks. From even a short distance, their plastic hoods and masks rendered his assailants anonymous. But this close he saw the truth. Tiny pointy ears set well back. Long snouty faces with little black, slick noses. And all younger and stronger than him. His pitiful attempts to break away from the two holding him ended as the third wrapped more red plastic around each of Rüsul's wrists and pulled them behind his back. The three pulled him from his raft and began marching him over the grayness toward their gate, past the fourth figure.
"You're Dogs. Cans, aren't you? I've seen pictures. But you can't be here. You're not supposed to ..." He passed within the grayness and stopped speaking, his eyes trying and failing to make sense of the featureless surface surrounding him on all sides. He knew he moved because his feet stumbled and scraped as his captors dragged him along. His stomach flipped and for a moment the possibility of his evening meal coming back up distracted him. They seemed to move in a broad arc and the grayness gave way to painfully bright light that defined a corridor. The three Cans stopped. Rüsul steadied himself against them, squinting down the walls that somehow existed where nothing belonged but the open sea.
Another person came toward him, taller and leaner than the others and clad in blue plastic that lacked hood or mask. She advanced on him with a liquid gait. A Cheetah with a significantly flatter face, a smallish nose, and even beadier, black eyes than the Dogs regarded him and drew back her lips to reveal gleaming teeth.
"I am Nonyx-Captain Selishta," said the Cheetah. "Do you have a name?"
Rüsul blinked. The light hurt his eyes but the questions racing through his mind hurt more. Why were there Dogs on Barsk? Why a Cheetah? Why were they speaking to him when he'd left all conversation behind. Why would anyone ask the name of a dead man? Could any adult be so ignorant and stupid?
"I'm on my way to finish dying," he said.
The Cheetah sneered at him. "Of course you are. You all are. And of course that's why you're naked as well? How foolish of me to think otherwise. Well, old man, your demise is going to have to wait a while. My people have many, many questions to ask you, and I need you alive for that."
The Fant shook his head. "It doesn't work like that, I ..."
A cold plastic hand slapped Rüsul across the face. And then again.
"My name is Selishta. This ship and these men obey my will. I'm the only one who gets to say how things work here." She pulled her hand back, staring a moment at the glove as if her fingers had touched something disgusting, then stepped back. She directed her attention to the 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."
"Shrubs?" said Rüsul, more to himself than the others. "I was a wood carver, but that's past. I've died."
The Cheetah stepped back, waving one gloved hand in front of her stupid-looking nose. "If you had, I've no doubt you'd smell better than you do."
Rüsul's eyes widened and he studied his surroundings for the first time. As the Dogs had hauled him in he'd acknowledged only the formless gray of the place, but now the clear outlines of plastic wall panels, metal floor tilings, and piercing artificial light removed all doubt that he was inside an artificial structure. He gazed longingly back at the open gate they'd brought him through, where Nonyx-Captain Selishta stood silhouetted against the darkening sky. Rüsul watched as other Dogs in their red plastic suits hurried past the Cheetah, carrying away his supplies in the tarp that had previously covered them. Other Dogs had dragged the mast and sail in and down another corridor. Moments later, more of Selishta's crew entered with the disassembled pieces of his raft. And then he saw the Cheetah stoop to pick up something else. As she straightened up and regarded the object in her hand, Rüsul saw that Selishta had found his carving of Margda.
The Nonyx waved the carving in a gesture encompassing everything that moments ago had made up Rüsul's raft. "You won't need any of that where we're going." She paused and regarded the image in his hand. "This is one of your women? Unbelievable. And I thought the males were the ugly ones." She tossed it away.
The Cheetah dismissed Rüsul with a wave and the pair of Dogs took him away, deeper into the "ship" as the captain had named it. But it wasn't like any vessel of good wood that he had heard of, open to rain and sky. The world seemed to close in around him, and at first Rüsul imagined that he had actually died. But he knew it wasn't time yet. Time, in fact, seemed to have stopped. A claustrophobia that he'd never known before squeezed at his heart.
To the chagrin of the Cans leading him, Rüsul's body went limp. Head and trunk down, he began to wail, as mournful a sound as any living being could manage. The Dogs dropped him. They clutched at their heads and kicked him until pain silenced him.
"Why do they all do that?" said one of the Cans, over the sound of the Fant's moans. "I think my ears are bleeding."
"Shut up and grab an end," said another. "I just want to get him into a cell before he catches his breath and starts in again."
"Why do I get the smelly end?"
"The whole thing stinks. All the more reason to hurry up and dump his ass where he won't be polluting our air."
One took Rüsul's arms, the other his legs. Neither Dog came anywhere near touching his trunk or ears.
"How can something that's been sitting out in the rain for days smell this bad?"
"Yeah, every time we grab another one, I worry the ship's recycler is going to break down and then we're all screwed."
They hauled him ever further away from his death.CHAPTER 2
POSSIBILITIES AND MYTHS
JORL slipped the pellet of koph under his tongue, closing his eyes as the drug dissolved and began to take hold. His left ear tingled as it always did, and he flapped it once, twice, and then settled back, resting his head against the wall. The darkness behind his eyelids lasted only a moment, replaced by a roiling curtain of golden light, the gold of his own nefshons.
The first perception granted by the drug induced panic for many novice Speakers. One moment you were alone in the darkness of your own head, and in the next you saw yourself swaddled by shimmering subatomic particles of memory. Those layers of golden fabric could suffocate a beginner. A successful Speaker imprinted on it, learned to identify the unique tang that permeated every gleaming particle. Then it only required an act of will for the Speaker to blind herself to it and move on.
Jorl had been Speaking less than a year, but he had disciplined his mind in academia. At the first glimpse of his own nefshons he banished them from his perception.
He filled the resulting darkness with images from his own memory, imagining a familiar room in a house on the island of Keslo. The dimensions and materials, the colors and textures and scents formed around him. That easily, he sat in a small alcove that lay just off of the kitchen of the home maintained by his friend's widow. The walls were beech, yellow, bright in their own right and polished to a high sheen. A hand-braided rug covered the floor from the kitchen's threshold to the hidden door in the back wall that provided a less obvious entrance to the house. A tapestry woven of wild flowers hung on that wall, filling the air with light, sweet fragrance. Two comfortably curved benches faced one another, set far back against opposite sides such that their occupants would be unseen by anyone passing the opening. Jorl saw it all in his mind, just as he had seen it before taking the koph and settling into that very spot after dinner.
Excerpted from Barsk by Lawrence M. Schoen. Copyright © 2015 Lawrence M. Schoen. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. A Death Detoured,
2. Possibilities and Myths,
3. Airy Glyphs,
4. Solutions in Memory,
5. Reciprocal Reference,
6. Orders and Choices,
7. Parental Disappointment,
8. Venue and Vision,
9. A Voice of Silence,
11. Problematic Probability,
12. Ancestral Lands,
13. Leaving Home,
14. Improper Implications,
15. Meeting Silence,
16. Unexamined Corners,
17. Dead Voices,
18. One-sided Conversation,
19. Degrees of Wrong,
23. Far from Home,
24. Dead to Dead,
25. Near and Soon,
26. Concurrence of Vision,
27. Blind Endgame Beginning,
28. Levels of Difference,
29. Choice and Sacrifice,
30. Lock and Key,
31. Unwelcome Houseguests,
32. Ghost in the Machine,
34. Ill Met by Moonlight,
35. The Face of God,
37. Forgotten Sins,
38. Loose Ends,
Epilogue: Proper Goodbyes,
Appendix One: Races of the Alliance,
Appendix Two: The Islands of Barsk,
Appendix Three: The Moons of Barsk,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
My favorite type of book is idea-driven science fiction. Yes, I want great characters, interesting world building, action and adventure, and a high literary quality to the writing. But above all, I want intriguing ideas that make me think, concepts that I have not seen before (at least not in that way). I want books that consider the repercussions of its ideas and use them to generate the plot. Barsk by Lawrence Schoen has all of that. It is easily one of the best books I read this year. Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard takes place in a universe without humans. Instead all the characters are civilized sentient animals. Most live all over the interplanetary Alliance. The exception are the Fants (descended from two types of elephants), who by terms of a Compact, live only on Barsk (and are looked on with contempt by the other species since they lack any fur.) A few beings, known as Speakers, have the ability to collect particles of memories left behind by the dead and communicate with their spirits. This ability requires a drug made only on Barsk. The book begins when Jorl, the newest Fant Speaker, discovers that the recently dead can no longer be summoned. He becomes convinced that this is the Silence mentioned in the Prophecies of the Matriarch, the Fant who discovered the Speaking ability and wrote its rules. If this is time of the Silence, then the prophecy calls on him, as the most recent to receive the Aleph mark, to go and solve the problem. Meanwhile, the other races of the Alliance, relying on information from their precogs, are kidnapping Fants on their way to the Elephant’s Graveyard (where Fants go when they sense death approaching) and torturing them to get information about the Speaking drug. In the course of the book, it turns out neither the prophecies nor the rules are what Jorl and everyone else think they are. Schoen provides lots of neat twists, but plays fair; each twist is a logical outgrowth of what was previously revealed. Jorl is a very convincing character and his training as an historian influences how he acts and perceives events. Pizlo, the other main Fant character, is an even more interesting invention. Since he was conceived before his parents were Bonded, he had to be given up by his parents to run wild. He is ostracized by the community and unschooled. But he has his own special gifts and light-hearted attitude. Barsk has lots of ideas and develops them in interesting ways. Much of the book is the revelation of what is really going on, and what really has happened in the past. But Schoen is careful not to let this get in the way of telling a compelling story; the book is very readable. I strongly recommend Barsk to anyone who likes real science fiction. Note: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.
Interesting and well written. Nice change from some of the grimdark stuff that is so popular