In Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard, Science-Fiction Writer Lawrence M. Schoen Poignantly Probes Our Relationship With Death | Arts

In Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard, Science-Fiction Writer Lawrence M. Schoen Poignantly Probes Our Relationship With Death


Lawrence M. Schoen
Flyleaf Books, Thursday, Feb. 4, 7 p.m.
Quail Ridge Books, Friday, Feb. 5, 7 p.m.

When was the last time a science-fiction novel made you cry? Until recently, I would have said it was Cormac McCarthy’s emotionally devastating The Road, which I read as a new father. But then I read Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard (Tor Books, December 2015), Lawrence M. Schoen’s moving novel about—stay with me—space elephants.

Almost ten years after McCarthy took us into a post-apocalyptic wasteland of hopelessness and gray dust, I’m approaching the age when I read more obituaries than birth notices. While Schoen’s novel tackles big themes such as genocide and ostracism, it's also a deeply personal book about our connections to the past and our acceptance—or lack thereof—of death.

Schoen, who lives near Philadelphia, is an author with decades of high-level short fiction under his belt, for which he’s been nominated for nearly all of the genre’s major awards. He’s a PhD in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, a certified hypnotist, and the founder and director of the Klingon Language Institute. If he says "qoSlIj yItIv!” he’s not swearing at you; he’s wishing you a happy birthday.

Still, Schoen is a relative unknown in the wider world of bookstore shelves and Publishers Weekly starred reviews. He turned to small presses to publish his series (self-published in later editions) of short science-fiction novels set in his “Conroyverse” of genetically engineered animals, including miniature buffalo called “buffalito” that eat anything and fart oxygen—quite useful on a space station, I assure you, as well as being quite cuddly in stuffed animal form.

But Barsk, which Schoen brings to Flyleaf Books and Quail Ridge Books this week, is his first book to be published by one of the "Big Five" (Tor is a subsidiary of Macmillan). An imaginative “Dune meets Animal Farm” instant classic, it goes beyond merely functional genetic tinkering. Instead, it posits a future where animals have grown beyond sentience into sapience, forming a star-faring interplanetary alliance of bears, leopards, pandas, otters, and precognitive prairie dogs. But like all the best science fiction, this humanity-free future is also a lens for examining our history and our present condition.

  • photo courtesy of the author
  • Lawrence M. Schoen
The “furred” races have a deep-seated distrust of the “Fant," Schoen’s race of elephants. There is no lengthy exposition about what they look like; description emerges (as does much of the feeling that informs the novel’s deeper meanings) from point of view. From the Fant's perspective, they simply use their trunks to grasp things or fan their ears in irritation to hide a blush. From the perspective of other races, we hear about their hairless skin and big ears, their bulk and stink.

The Fant were originally spread across the Alliance systems, intermingled with other races, but after generations of persecution they finally struck a “Compact” that awarded them the remote, perpetually cloud-covered, mostly aquatic planet Barsk. With only a few archipelagos of inhabitable rainforest, it’s a sanctuary that is also, more or less, a prison.

In return, the Fant are charged with providing drugs to the Alliance. Chief among the pharmacopeia is “koph," a drug of galaxy-wide importance that allows a tiny percentage of the population to converse with the dead via their memory particles, or "nefshons." However, as the novel begins, a faction within the Alliance is no longer content with this status quo, wanting to discover the secrets and control the production of koph.

We see much of the action through the eyes of Jorl, a Fant academic historian and “Speaker,” or someone who can use koph to speak to the dead, who may also be the focus of a frightening, centuries-old prophecy called “The Silence.” Jorl has seen more than any other living Fant, as he is the lone member of his race to enlist in the Alliance Patrol. He leaves Barsk only to return and commit another act of societal transgression: raising Pizlo, the outcast albino son of his best friend, a drug researcher who committed suicide under mysterious circumstances.

While some of the more poignant moments come through the inquisitive, indefatigable Pizlo’s eyes as he encounters (and shrugs off) being shunned by his people, it’s Jorl’s investigation into and encounters with the dead that drive the plot and its themes of accepting death in its time. “I’ve never understood why people are afraid of death,” Schoen said when I asked him about this theme. “It’s like being afraid that your adult teeth are coming in. It’s part of the process.”

Correction: This post initially stated that Barsk was Schoen's first professionally published novel. In fact, he has worked with small publishers before, but Barsk is his first book from a major imprint.

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