Lawrence M. Schoen’s newest book, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard (out now from Tor Books), takes the “talking animal” conceit in a wildly new direction. Imagine a future – an impossibly distant future – where human beings are long gone. In their place are a multitude of various races, each reminiscent of a species we might find familiar…except that they walk, talk, think, invent, and travel through space.
One of these species is the shunned and ghettoized Fant – anthropomorphic elephants that live on the rainy world of Barsk, a planet that few other species are willing to visit. However, the Fant hold the secret to koph, the mysterious drug that allows certain gifted individuals – known as speakers – to speak to and interact with the dead.
Schoen’s book focuses on Jorl, a Fant speaker who quickly finds himself at the center of a mystery that stretches back millennia. As different militarized races converge on Barsk to unearth the secrets behind (and recipe for) koph, Jorl is forced to tempt fate, dig up some literal secrets of the dead, travel off world, and pull back the curtain on his (and his entire species’) destiny.
This is an immensely enjoyable read that I couldn’t put down. If you’re a fan of “out-there” science fiction and wildly inventive characters that practically leap off the page (I admit to drawing some comparisons to Robert Pepino’s Mort(e), and that’s not a bad thing), you’ll find Barsk to be a journey well worth taking.
GeekDad: I understand that you wrote the first version of Barsk 25 years ago, shelved it, and then recently broke it down and rewrote it completely. I wonder, if the Internet had been around back then, might you have just published the original version, which you’ve admitted was pretty poor, online and been done with it?
Lawrence M. Schoen: I don’t think so. I have a healthy appreciation of the need for gatekeepers, if for no other reason that even my massive ego won’t let me just assume that my work is the exception to the whole signal to noise problem that afflicts self-publishing. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’ve seen some incredible fiction from this avenue, but it’s only in recent years I’ve felt any pull toward going that route myself.
GeekDad: That approach seems to be more and more common among young writers struggling to find a traditional publisher. They want to be published immediately, grow frustrated, don’t bother to perfect their craft, and just throw their first draft online. And that’s not usually to your benefit as a writer. For all of the aspiring writers out there, what would you say is the best bit of advice you’ve gotten that you like to pass on to others?
LS: Find someone whose taste in fiction mirrors your own, and have that person read your work and give you honest, frank, even brutal feedback. Typically, and most especially soon after I’ve written a thing, I’m too close to it to tell if I’ve done everything I needed, or just think I did. This is what I meant by a gatekeeper; someone who can save me from myself and my own desire to see my work out in the world when maybe it’s not yet ready. Or more simply, editors are your friends, and your friends can stand in as your editors.
GeekDad: I know it was a long time ago, but do you remember when the first seed of this story came to you? When did you have your first glimpse of anthropomorphized animals that live in highly complex, civilized societies…and also travel in space…and can speak to the dead?
LS: It started with the idea of the planet Barsk, a world where the rain never stops. And how the people there would be shaped by that, socially, culturally, even linguistically. And then, there was the natural extension that the rest of the galaxy was made up of furry races, and that because of the weather there, none of them would ever want to go to Barsk. All of this happened in an instant in response to an invitation to play an RPG based on an anthropomorphic comic book series.
GeekDad: By nature of the characters that inhabit the book, Barsk is filled with intriguing scenes and compelling imagery. While reading, I found that my imagination kept making the Fant look like the Hindu god Ganesh. Aside from the extra arms, how off was I?
LS: I think that may be pretty close. Ganesh is usually described as having a traditional human body and the head of an elephant. I tend to imagine the Fant as being stockier than the human norm, thicker.
Ganesh is of course the remover of obstacles. Jorl has been marked by his people with the right to go anywhere. Close enough for me.
GeekDad: You have a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, and you use that background (maybe sometimes unconsciously) to flesh out your characters and fully develop the worlds you create. When it comes to your writing and your academic training, how much does each inform the other? Do they ever conflict?
LS: They’re so intertwined by now it’s hard to see where one ends and the other begins. There’s no conflict because understanding a psychological principle gives insight into the language I use, and the words and style and prosody that I choose in my writing are enhanced by a greater knowledge of how and why such things work as they do.
GeekDad: The bit of your author bio that really jumps out is not your doctorate but that you’re “one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language.” So I have to ask: have you read Shakespeare in the original Klingon?
LS: Not just read it, but published it! One of the things I’m proudest of in my more than two decades leading the Klingon Language Institute is bringing the Klingon translations — pardon me, restorations — of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing to print. That, and when we sold the rights of Hamlet to Pocket Books, they asked me to write an appendix that was a lecture from a professor at Star Fleet Academy. Seriously, who else do you know who has taught there?
GeekDad: If Barsk were to be made into a movie, who would play Jorl and Pizlo? And would they be mo-cap animation (like Gollum) or wear prosthetics?
LS: Seeing the movie Avatar convinced me that the techniques of CGI and motion capture animation had progressed to the point where Hollywood could do Barsk right. I’m sitting here by the phone, waiting for the call now.
I’ve not landed on who I’d like to cast in the roles yet, but I can tell you that the folks at the IF List added Barsk to their site way back in May — seven months before the book was even out. I encourage your readers here to voice their opinions on that site.
GeekDad: You’ve established this universe that’s rife with fascinating species and possible stories. Do you have any plans to dive further in somehow?
LS: Absolutely. I’ve already turned in proposals for two sequels. And that’s just staying with the Fant. I also have shorter stories I want to tell about some of the characters we’ve met in this book, as well as go off and explore via full novels some of the other races and cultures that we’ve barely glimpsed.
I could be very happy writing in this universe for a long long time to come.
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.