Furry books have popped up here and there in mainstream fantasy and science fiction. Most often, the furries are aliens (C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur series) or denizens of a fantasy world (Steven Boyett’s The Architect of Sleep, Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series). Occasionally we get uplifted animals (David Brin’s Startide Rising). Rarely do we get to see furries realizing their own society in a science fiction setting.
Enter Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, a new novel by Lawrence M. Schoen, in which Fants—anthropomorphic elephants—inhabit the planet Barsk, the only source of a drug that allows certain gifted individuals, “Speakers,” to speak to the dead. The Fants are generally despised by the rest of the races of the galaxy, all anthropomorphic Earth-based animals with names mostly derived from their Linnean genus name: Nonyx for cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), Cans for dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), and so on. But the drug, koph, is highly desirable for obvious reasons, and when one of the Fants dies after discovering a secret about koph, the Alliance, the governing body of the known universe, sends a mission to Barsk to find out what the secret is.
The story is told mostly through Jorl, a Fant Speaker, and Pizlo, a six-year-old albino Fant. Jorl is one of the few Fants who has been off Barsk, having served as an Ensign in the military branch of the Alliance, and so is one of the few who can speak effectively to the Alliance’s mission. Pizlo is an illegitimate child, and as such is not recognized by society, but he has a peculiar rapport with Barsk’s moons that allows him to see certain aspects of the future.
That’s as far as I’ll go with the plot of the book, which is well constructed and engaging. Schoen dispenses information with excellent timing to build the world as the reader follows Jorl and Pizlo through the book, leaving enough questions unanswered to make the narrative compelling without shrouding too much of it in mystery. The dilemmas facing the protagonists feel real and crucial, and there are seldom easy answers to them.
Where Barsk really shines is in its world-building. The planet itself feels real and lush, as do the societies Schoen has constructed. Furry readers will enjoy the presence of a different mix of species than are found in most furry novels: foxes appear only off-screen (I know, what’s with that?) and wolves, tigers, lions, raccoons, and rabbits are scarce. There’s an otter girl, but the other main characters are the Fants, a bear, a yak, and a sloth. Schoen does a nice job of using the species to enhance the characters in familiar ways, and though furry readers may find he doesn’t spend as much time describing the fur and forms as they’re used to, the anthropomorphic aspect of this book is quite well done.
The other aspect of Schoen’s world-building centers around the powers of prescience and speaking to the dead. The latter is explained through “nefshons,” particles generated by every living being that persist after that being’s death; the former is never scientifically explained. But a large part of the book revolves around certain individuals with the gift of prescience setting down paths for others to follow after them, and the question of whether the future has been set for you or not.
Here is where the book, for me, stumbled a little. The prescients can see things like “it is important to go to this place,” or “it is important to tell this person this thing.” Certain gifted prescients can see more, and on occasion, when more than one prescient is trying to study the same event, they interfere with each other, preventing one from seeing it clearly—but this is only mentioned once, as a way to prevent an antagonist from getting information. There are some very good themes in the book about free will versus carrying out a set future, but at times it feels like some of the characters are moving through a pre-written play, and several movements in the middle of the book are driven by prescient messages telling the characters to go to the right place. To Schoen’s credit, the most critical choice is indeed left up to a main character and is a gripping part of the book, and the characters do often struggle with the prescient messages they receive, and honestly the whole matter didn’t bother me until I was thinking back on it; it didn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the story at all.
Similarly, the tricky topic of speaking with the dead is generally very well handled, from the emotions of the Speakers to the experience of the dead themselves. In Schoen’s world, the dead can interact when called on and can form new memories—a dead person summoned multiple times will remember the previous conversations, though none of the time in between. And Fant society has incorporated this into its thinking in some ways; there is a ritual whereby Fants who feel themselves ready to die journey off to do so in private (as in the legend of the Elephants’ Graveyard). There are a couple places in the book where characters retain a fear of death that seems at odds with a society where the dead are accessible, albeit with a little more work—as if one of your friends traveled to Mars and you could only communicate with them by going to a NASA building and paying a lot of money to use their satellite bridge. But on the whole, this culture is well thought out. And of course, in any fiction where death’s impact is reduced, there must be a fate worse than death, and Schoen does not leave that unexplored.
My major complaint about Barsk is not a story-critical one. Jorl and Pizlo and two or three of the other characters are well-drawn and fully realized, but many of the side characters don’t have much attention paid to them, and the villains are by and large not much more than villainous (“you have something we want and we are going to take it”). The anti-Fant sentiment is similarly one-dimensional: they’re gross and hairless. (This prejudice is explained late in the book, but I still think that even if the underlying bias is physical, people have ways of cloaking that in different concepts.) There are a lot of different ways in which people view the other; not just physical, but societal and cultural as well. It would have been interesting to see a couple of those sprinkled in: Cans thinking about how weird it is that the Fants are solitary, with no pack concept; speciesist myths (“I heard that they run around that backwoods planet naked!”); cultural biases (“they don’t even have proper hygiene,” or “they never look you in the eye when they talk to you”).
Overall, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard is an imaginative, engaging story, and it’s terrific to see another furry book enter the F & SF mainstream, especially as well done as this one is. It’s a great read, and furry readers can only hope that Schoen isn’t done with the Barsk universe.