High-concept science fiction, deeply human characters, and a weirdly wonderful story drive The Moons of Barsk, the sequel to the award-winning Lawrence M. Schoen's Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard
Pizlo, the lonely young outcast and physically-challenged Fant, is now a teenager. He still believes he hears voices from the planet’s moons, imparting secret knowledge to him alone. And so embarks on a dangerous voyage to learn the truth behind the messages. His quest will catapult him offworld for second time in his short life, and reveal things the galaxy isn’t yet ready to know.
Elsewhere, Barsk's Senator Jorl, 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.
About the Author
LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He spent ten years as a college professor, doing research in the areas of human memory and language. This was followed by seventeen years as the director of research for a medical center in Philadelphia that provided mental health and addiction services. Evidence from both these career paths can be found in almost everything he writes. The Moons of Barsk is the sequel to his first novel, Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard.
He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and since 1992 has championed the exploration and use of this constructed tongue and lectured throughout the world. In addition, he’s the publisher behind a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem, aimed at showcasing up-and-coming new writers as well as providing a market for novellas. And too, he performs occasionally as a hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.
In 2007, he was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He received a Hugo Award nomination for Best Short Story in 2010 and Nebula Award nominations for Best Novella in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2018, and for Best Novel in 2016. He's received the Kevin O’Donnell Jr. Service to SFWA Award as well as the Coyotl Award for Best Novel. Some of his most popular writing deals with the ongoing humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist named the Amazing Conroy and his animal companion Reggie, an alien buffalito that can eat anything and farts oxygen. More serious writing can be found in his BARSK series, which uses anthropomorphic SF to explore ideas of prophecy, intolerance, political betrayal, speaking to the dead, predestination, and free will.
Lawrence lives near Philadelphia with his wife, Valerie, who is neither a psychologist nor a Klingon speaker.
Read an Excerpt
NOTHING BUT LIES
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!"
He stumbled into the surf, limbs weary after too many days spent bailing just to keep afloat. His left hand grasped wildly before finding the gunnel and he went down on one knee, submerged in water halfway up that thigh.
"How did I miss it? How does everyone miss it?" Despite his aches and fatigue, he heaved himself forward, leaving the water and struggling up onto the sand. His head turned left and right, taking in what he could see of the beach through the curtain of rain. Behind him, a shaft of lightning struck his boat and set it aflame despite the storm. Ryne sniffed at the scent of ozone, acknowledged the sizzle of burning wood, then ignored both as he focused on the math once more. His muttering continued.
"Five and a half million Fant on Barsk ... birth rate of half a percent ... mortality rate not significantly more as to matter ... at least three quarters — conservatively — of whom sail away when they sense their life's ending ... that's more than twenty thousand people showing up here, year after year, for centuries. ..."
But that wasn't math, that was just arithmetic. Still, it provided a starting point. The bulk of the actual math he shaped into the questions that had assailed his mind, once his need to be here had been slaked by completing the journey and arriving at his destination. Why had he never examined that need? Or its sudden onset? Or how it was simply accepted as part of the natural order of things by everyone on the planet? Or that no Fant on any world in the galaxy prior to the Alliance shoving them all on Barsk — not a single one of them — had ever woken up one morning with the certain knowledge of their coming death and the compulsion to travel to meet it? The slowest of first-year students should have been able to see the incongruities present, and yet ... no Fant did. No Fant had, at least, not prior to sailing away. How many million Dying Fant had walked this same stretch of sand, dazed and bewildered as he was now, expecting ... something. Something other than just another expanse of shoreline.
He strode further up the beach until the edge of the island's forest became visible through the rain. Turning slowly, he took in everything that the storm allowed. For a moment it was as if the years fell away and he stood as at the height of his professorial power, poised once more behind a lectern at the front of a classroom. Beating his trunk against one outstretched hand for emphasis he asked his questions, genuinely wanting answers but knowing in his heart they were rhetorical. "Where are all the boats? The fragments of so many journeys? Where are the bones of all the people?" He bellowed into the wind and rain with the last strength remaining to him.
The weather offered no reply. The beach remained merely a beach. Ryne's trunk drooped lax upon his chest. His upraised arm fell to his side. The years weighed heavily upon him again. It was over. He'd arrived at the last island, done with living.
And then a voice spoke from behind him.
"Really, Ryne, you might ask the same question of any other island. Or do the people of Taylr leave their possessions strewn upon their beaches? Do they eschew the proper rites and fail to bury such citizens as pass before their time? Surely you don't find debris when you travel the points of either archipelago."
He spun, swiftly, nearly falling but with a skip kept his feet. There at the forest's edge, like an actor stepping onto a stage, a figure emerged from shadow and approached through the rain. It resolved into a person. A woman. An old woman. An Eleph. Here, on this island that existed on no map, that only the Dying could find, that made no sense when you thought about it and which no one ever thought about, here was someone walking toward him as nonchalantly as an aunt at a family gathering. And she'd called him by name.
"Ryne of Taylr," she said, her voice hoarse with years but musical all the same. "I bid you welcome. I am Bernath, my mother's name was Layne."
His ears dropped at the wonder of it, questions of math falling away for the moment. She wore a simple dress of pale brown with a slightly darker vest over it, both clung to her body as the rain soaked them. As she drew closer, he caught a faint floral scent, a perfume that had been popular decades ago. Her eyes locked on his face, her arms opened wide in greeting. The simple familiarity of the ritual provided a touchstone and he shook off his confusion, stammering the traditional reply as he had at other introductions, thousands of times over too many decades. "Perhaps our mothers knew one another." The absurdity of his words hit him. Knew one another? It would require a Speaker, assuming one could be found who was old enough to have known either an Eleph named Layne or his own mother before they had sailed away and arrived here themselves. The framing of that puzzle brought the impossibility of the math back to his mind, now compounded. This was the final island. No one lived here. Each Fant sought it some few days after awaking to the knowledge that their death lay at hand and then strove to arrive on its shores. Nothing of the living world belonged here, least of all a ... hostess.
Ryne sucked air hard as his mind raced with probability functions. Assuming the island's perimeter contained an average span of usable beaches for bringing a boat to shore, arriving on the same day as another Dying Fant had better odds than the annual archipelago lottery. But this Bernath, she had called him by name, spoken of his home, and that unlikelihood exceeded all the stars beyond the clouded sky. He gawked at her as the words fell from his mouth. "You ... you know me?"
"I feel as though I do, though I know we've never actually met. But in time, you and I will come to know one another far better. In time, I hope you'll entertain some questions I have, questions about magnetic optics and the dynamics of charged particles on electromagnetic fields."
His ears flapped back and down as he lowered the odds of his initial estimate, taking into account the thousands of students he'd had over a lifetime spent in academia, the many papers he'd presented and published. Even so, the math was still impossible. Cut the nearly infinite in half and one still had half an infinity. And yet the Eleph woman's questions reflected some of his most recent work and unpublished theories, research that had never been a part of his classroom, calling into doubt his calculations once more. "You know my work?"
She closed the distance between them and, without inquiry or invitation, slipped her arm around his. "Indeed, yes. It has occupied much of my time in the last few years. You were so close to a breakthrough before you left, weren't you?" She began leading him back toward the forest from which she'd come.
"I ... I think I was. One can never be certain of course. The simulations were quite promising, but I needed funding to take things to the next level and —"
She patted his hand. "Funding won't be a problem for you any longer. I promise."
He snorted, a piercing trumpet of disbelief. "No matter how small the budget item — and the needs for my work were anything but small — in all my years at the university on Zlorka, funding physics research has always been a problem."
"Look around, Ryne, revered scholar. Do you have any doubt that this island is not Zlorka? The limitations you endured at the university will not hamper you here."
"You mean ... I ... I can continue my work? But I've ... I thought I'd left that all behind, with my life. I'm dead now, aren't I? Isn't that why I'm here?"
"That life is dead, yes. Everything involving the people you knew, the bonds you forged with friends and colleagues, all the relationships you built, the vast family you have known — all that is gone. But I think you have a few years left to you. Don't you agree? And wouldn't you like to finish what you started? Surely you have some suspicion where it all leads. Now that life is behind you, what else is left but to follow the ideas of your mind's creation down avenues no other being has ever conceived?"
"Of course, but —"
She guided him deeper into the trees, moving slowly in acknowledgment of his still labored breathing but without drawing attention to it. "I imagined as such. One does not settle for only a glimpse of how the universe works, not when there's the chance to see so much more. By the way, I have to tell you, I had to argue with a number of the others to be the one to greet and welcome you."
"Others?" Ryne paused, and Bernath patiently stopped as well. His gaze lifted, as if he could see through the dense forest, up ever higher, perhaps all the way to the canopy. "You've an entire, populated, Civilized Wood here?"
She laughed, a strange sound in his ears after days of deluge and constant bailing. "Of course. It wouldn't be much of a city if we didn't."
"Hush, Ryne. All these questions are natural enough, and you're not the first to arrive here and ask them. I promise you, there's a full and informative briefing in your near future and you'll find the answers perfectly satisfying. Now come, let's get you settled. No doubt you can use a hot meal, and a roof over your head, and an opportunity to put on some dry clothes."
"That all sounds quite wonderful," he admitted, though he never expected to experience any of that again. "If ... if you think there's time."
"There's plenty of time, now that you're here. A couple nights of solid sleep in a comfortable bed will have you good as new. When you're ready — and not before — there are more than a few people eager to meet you, students of a caliber you've never experienced, all waiting to discuss your work."
He nodded, following along as in a dream, a part of him already crafting the next stages of his research, spinning off from the last notes he'd scrawled and left behind for his most promising students. After only a few steps deeper into the Shadow Dwell of this, the final island as he'd always understood it to be, he caught Bernath's eye and asked, "So, is everyone wrong then? This isn't where we come to die?"
"Technically, I suppose it is," she said, as they left the last shore farther behind. "Death comes for all of us eventually. No one's discovered any way to avoid that. But just because you've arrived here doesn't mean you need to be in any rush to expire."
"But then, if it's not the end of the final voyage as we've all been taught, what is this place?"
Bernath laughed again and Ryne realized he could get used to the sound of such delight. She patted his arm as she replied, "I like to think of it as the best kept secret on all of Barsk."CHAPTER 2
ONE FACE IN A THOUSAND
THERE was little that Pizlo needed from others. He wore the same thing every day, a pair of shorts with pockets front and back and a set of bandoliers with more places to hold whatever he might find or need at a moment's notice. He'd built various cubbies and sleeping nooks throughout the island, both in the interstitial spaces of the Civilized Wood and down in the Shadow Dwell far below. As for food, the rainforest of the island of Keslo offered an abundance of fruits and leaves and grasses. If in the course of preparing a meal or snack he sometimes sampled from the carefully tended crops of another Fant, well, it wasn't as though anyone would complain. With only a handful of exceptions, all of Barsk society denied his very existence. Pizlo should never have been born.
It was an absolute truth of Fant physiology that unbonded females were not fertile. But Nature abhors absolutes and tosses up the occasional exception. His people called such unintended births "abominations." Nature likewise seeks to correct its own errors and each anomalous, one-in-a-million conception usually carried such a host of genetic abnormalities that if the infant wasn't stillborn it died of its own weakness within a season. At fourteen years of age, Pizlo had defied such probabilities, an abomination's abomination.
Often if he needed something he could simply ask one of the few people who acknowledged his existence. To this day, Tolta, his mother, would welcome him in her home without hesitation, mend his clothes, prepare his meals. Jorl provided paper and ink bamboo, as well as access to his personal library. And while Jorl's wife, Dabni, rarely allowed him in her bookshop for fear of driving away customers, she nonetheless left new books out for him to borrow. The arrangement covered most of his needs but not all. Four years ago he'd become a Speaker, and while Jorl had originally been happy to purchase koph at his request, as Pizlo moved from childhood to adolescence he wanted to stop relying on others. Even if it meant reaching back into the world that denied him.
Pizlo sat on a branch just off a lesser boardway in the heart of the Civilized Wood, no more than an ear's width of dense, living green camouflaged him from the notice of passersby. He peered through the boundary between them to study the apothecary that lay on the opposite side. He kept a tally of the shop's patrons as they came and went. When the shop was free of customers he dropped from his perch, tumbled through the foliage, and rushed within. A wooden bell above the door murmured his arrival. Behind a counter near the entrance, a clerk filled shelves and fronted stock. At the far back end behind a second counter, a chemist compounded remedies and dispensed advice.
The clerk at the front stood facing away from the entrance. She turned at the bell, but Pizlo had already dartted unseen down an aisle of over-the-counter analgesic powders and topical unguents for fireleaf rashes. As he arrived at the back the chemist there had also looked up. She paled — though not so pale as his own albinism — and her eyes desperately sought something else to focus upon even as she searched for an avenue of escape. No such options existed. Her workspace offered only well-stocked shelves, no exits, nor even any place to hide. She made do by backing away into the farthest corner and faced into it like a young child being punished for some misdeed at gymnasium.
Pizlo clambered over the counter. He ignored the chemist and sorted through her pharmaceutical supply bins with purpose until he found his prize — packets of koph-laced wafers. He carried these back to the counter, divided them into several stacks, and carefully wrapped each in squares of waxy paper kept on hand for that purpose. The stiff paper made a slight sound as he folded it into envelopes for the koph. In self defense, the chemist began humming to herself. Pizlo didn't even sigh.
"I know you can't acknowledge me," he said, raising his voice to be heard above the humming. "But I've reduced your inventory and it's not fair for you to bear the cost. I don't have any money ... how could I? Anyway, the day before yesterday a cove on the far side of Keslo called to me. I know that doesn't make sense to you, but it happened. It happens a lot. So I went there."
He paused, slipping the packets into separate sections of the bandolier across his torso. Pizlo glanced over to the corner. The chemist still faced away, her ears pressed flat to either wall. She continued humming, presumably to block out his words. He needed to finish this quickly and pressed on.
"It's a tiny place, not good for swimming or fishing and hard to reach if you don't have the knack of dropping through the Shadow Dwell and arriving in just the right spot. I found a tidal pool there with some funny-looking anemones. I also found a carving. It was weathered by years in the salt, the wood of it cracked in places from its travels. It told me it was among the last pieces carved by Rüsul of Maxx in the eastern chain, a distraction, I guess, while he sailed away."
Pizlo dug in a pocket of his shorts and removed a parcel, an object wrapped up in a broad leaf and tied with a bit of vine. He set it on the counter. "It's here now, where you'll find it after I've gone. You never saw me touch it, so you can honestly say you don't know for sure that it came from me. You can say you just found it here and that'd be true. Keep it or sell it — it's probably worth quite a bit to a collector — and it's worth many times what I've taken from your shelves." He paused. People were complicated; it wasn't enough that he'd offered a generous exchange. Best to provide the framework for other motivations as well, so when the woman altered and embellished today's events, she could justify her own actions.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Moons of Barsk"
Copyright © 2018 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1: Understanding Home,
One: Nothing But Lies,
Two: One Face in a Thousand,
Three: Dead Speakers,
Four: Combatting Entropy,
Five: Bedtime Stories,
Six: Hidden in Plain Sight,
Seven: Knowledge, Questions, and Choice,
Eight: Genies and Bottles,
Part 2: Leaving Home,
Ten: Agent in Place,
Thirteen: Inscribed in Pain,
Fourteen: Consequential Traffic,
Fifteen: Futility All Around,
Sixteen: A Committee of One,
Seventeen: Collecting the Dead,
Eighteen: Moon Threads,
Nineteen: A Child's View of Space,
Twenty: Life and Lies Beyond Death,
Twenty-One: Revisionist History,
Twenty-Three: Speaking Beyond Silence,
Twenty-Four: Betrayal or Redemption,
Part 3: Redefining Home,
Twenty-Six: Set Free,
Twenty-Nine: Contrition and Resolution,
Thirty-Two: A Genuine Echo,
Thirty-Three: Healing Rina,
Thirty-Four: Departures and Retreats,
Thirty-Five: Threads of Personality,
Appendix One: People,
Appendix Two: Places,
Appendix Three: Things,
A Note about Elephants,
Also by Lawrence M. Schoen,
About the Author,