Today I’ve got an interview with Lawrence Schoen, author of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard (not to mention tons of short stories over the years). If you missed my review post, it’s over here.
Interview with Lawrence M. Schoen
Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard features dozens of anthropomorphic species. Was there any species you wanted to fit in but just couldn’t?
The original draft of the novel had the protagonist visiting several worlds of the Alliance, and along the way he met representatives from a number of additional races. Some of these were lost (not from the galaxy, just from the portion we see of it) when the action was scaled back to take place just on one planet and a space station.
It’s strongly implied that all of the races in the Alliance are mammalian, and while it’s impossible to “prove a negative,” I can tell you that the reason we haven’t seen any primates is because there aren’t any, which is a point I hope to come back to in a future book.
In my notes, I have references to Cats and Foxes and Sheep and at least a dozen more. Some will surely show up in future stories. I am sorry that I couldn’t work in a Tapir. That would have been fun. [Me: and popular in my house!]
Have you always been interested in elephants? If not, what sparked the central race of this book?
I’ve always liked elephants. They’re unlike any other land animal, so much so that the two species that we have get lumped together because while they differ from one another in some pretty significant ways, they’re still more similar than either is to anything else.
And the more you discover about them, the more fascinating they become. When I learned that they had infrasonics I squealed with delight! And did you know that some historians believe the Greek myth of the cyclops, that one-eyed giant, has its basis in encountering an elephant skull? What’s not to like?
The social structure of the female Fants didn’t get much time in Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard. Any plans to return to them?
That social structure is hinted at, both in the mainstream when Jorl visits his sister (and communal home made up of mothers, aunts, sisters, female cousins, and children of both sexes) and in terms of outliers when we glimpse how Tolta lives, but yes, we’ve seen little thus far. That’s an unfortunate function of running with a male protagonist in society where the men and women have rather limited access to the lives and lifestyles of the other side.
That said, there are proposals for two sequels sitting on my editor’s desk. If I get to write them, I have plans to show much more of Barsk culture from its women’s perspective. And too, we’ll see some more glimpses of other races and their societies, both overall and from the differing perspectives of the male and female characters inhabiting them.
There’s so much to write. I worry that I’ll have time and opportunity to tell it all.
The linguistics were buried pretty deep here, and I know that’s where your training is. Is that where you started? or could you just not resist figuring out the linguistic aspects of this universe?
One of the things that pisses me off in a lot of science fiction where we’re encountering non-humans is the way that language is handled, or rather not handled. If we’re able to understand the aliens (or in the case of Barsk, the raised mammals that make up the many different races of the Alliance), then there damn well better be an explanation, and if you hold up a universal translator, attempt to shove a babel fish in my ear, or try to sell me some other bit of hand-wavium, I’m going to be very, very unhappy.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the Fant are raised mammals who are descended from elephants (both African and Asian) on Earth tens of thousands of years in the past. And yet, it’s pretty clear they’re speaking English. Not just English, but English with slang and colloquialisms. (I had to fight with my editor to keep the word “ginormous” in the book).
Any solution that I came up with not only had to make sense — not just in terms of the plot, but also linguistically — but it had to serve the story, and not simply my need as the author. Or more simply, it had to make sense in the context of everything else we learn as the book unfolds. I think I managed all of that pretty well, and I’m looking forward to the response from the more language savvy members of my readership.
And one other fun bit, that I did because I’m me and I could, as part of the world building I invented a writing system for the Fant. To my delight, my publisher even used some of it in the book.
While we’ve seen something of a renaissance in space opera in the last decade or so, it’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that dared to go *this* far into the future. What were some of the challenges of ultra-far-future SF compared to something closer to our own backyards?
Unlike a lot of SF writers, I don’t tend to worry too much about the “hard science” details. In part this is because my doctorate is in cognitive psychology, not physics or chemistry or biology, but it’s also because my protagonist doesn’t have training in those fields either. As such, he’s not going to be distracted by how a spacecraft gets him from place to place, no more than you or I need to know the workings of an internal combustion engine in order to drive a car to the grocery store.
That freed me up a lot. We see things that imply a level of technology that’s superior to our own — a galaxy-spanning Alliance, interstellar ships, space stations — but they’re all taken for granted, yesterday’s news. The story here isn’t about how different or similar their science and engineering is to our own, rather all the technology is there mainly as props and cues that this is a science fiction story. Hard SF fans will probably be disappointed that, except for one section where I have a scientist (Jorl’s dead friend, Arlo) actually explain some theory and application of science that’s beyond what we have today, all the other trappings work in the background like magic. You know, kind of like the way most of us go through life today.
The drug koph allows the Fant (and other races) to talk to the dead. Of our recent dead, who do you think would get most tired of being called up this way?
There are probably a handful of celebrities who would be hounded (no pun intended) in death much like they were in life. Marilyn Monroe immediately comes to mind. And then there are the mysteries that are a part of popular culture that have never been solved like where is Jimmy Hoffa buried, and who really kidnapped the Lindbergh baby? And then of course there’d be the ironic uses, like chatting with Erik Weisz.
Personally, I’d be embarrassed by most of these applications, and I’m hoping my raised mammals do a better job at it than I suspect we primates would. I can think of scientists and authors I’d like to chat with, and perhaps arrange for Speakers to serve as conduits to get Einstein’s thoughts on the current state of physics or a new novel from Octavia Butler or Jay Lake. There would probably be reams of commentary about the complications of intellectual property in such situations, but I’m not going to be the one to write them.
Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. 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. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia. You can find him online at LawrenceMSchoen.com and @KlingonGuy.