BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Long after Man has left the stage, the ability of uplifted elephants to speak with people from the past is feared, and coveted.
PROS: Chock full of worldbuilding and intriguing concepts; emotionally powerful and resonant; story is excellently contained.
CONS: The pacing of the final portion of the book and some of the personal changes felt underwritten
BOTTOM LINE: A great introduction to a fascinating and interesting SF world.
The age of humanity is long past. Across a wide variety of solar systems, Uplifted mammals, seemingly unaware of their origins, go about their lives and business. One world is very different than most: Barsk, the home of the Fant. Uplifted from Elephants, the Fant are uninterested in galactic affairs and generally want to be left alone. Their possession of a drug that allows the specially sensitive to communicate with remnant personalities of the dead, however, makes Barsk of extreme interest to the powers outside it. The longstanding deal was simple: Barsk manufactures the drug for export, and they get left alone in return.
When a Fant who HAS seen the universe outside Barsk finds out that the drug isn’t working quite as it should, and soon discovers just how interested certain forces are in the creation of the drug, and what they are willing to do about it, is where the heart of the tale lies.
The worldbuilding, for me, is the strongest part of the novel, and Schoen delivered a world enchanted me with its poetry, beauty, and detail. From the lovingly rendered world, culture, society and nature of the Fants, to the enormous variety of other sapients in the alliance, the cast that the author populates his world with is diverse and varied. While the focus is mainly on the Fant, there is a wide variety of other races (helpfully listed in the back of the book) to show just how big the alliance is in terms of species and types of worlds. I felt like I could explore more of the islands of Barsk, and then travel up the space elevator and onto the enormous universe beyond.
The emotional resonances of the novel were also strong. Given that the drug koph generally only works with the dead that the user knows well, the contacts are often between friends,lovers, and parents and children. As a result, these contacts have the potential for emotional freight, and the author takes full advantage of his concept to deepen his characters, especially his primary viewpoint character, Jorl. And the novel does not end on a dramatic beat, but a strong and emotional one that has been building the entire novel. It moved me.
There were, however, a few weaknesses in the denouement, and it seemed a bit underwritten and outlined a bit too briefly. The actual plot points involved would be a spoiler, but the otherwise excellent pacing of the story was thrown a little off as a result. Given the author’s interests, I expected conlanging and linguistics to be more vital to the story than was the case.
There are many resonances for me in Barsk to other authors and worlds. I’ve used the word Uplift deliberately, to invoke the novels of David Brin, which feature a wide variety of Galactic races, including a couple that humans themselves have raised to sentience (Chimps and Dolphins). The power of a drug to violate time and space, and with a limited, local supply, of course, is a clear callback to Dune. Like Dune, the power and threat that such a drug has for the universe at large is explored in complex and realistic fashion. The legacy of humanity gone, carrying on was reminiscent of Paul McAuley’s Confluence Trilogy. I was also reminded of the old Robert Silverberg Time Gate anthology, where the numina of historical figures were, with great difficulty, recreated as artificial intelligences to live again but with a reality beyond simple simulation. Barsk is in dialogue with all of these in my mind, yet more importantly, stands on its own.
Barsk is a powerful novel. The story is very well self contained and I was left satisfied with the culmination of the tale. I’m extremely interested and eager for more stories and more novels set in this universe, with some of these characters, or with new ones. Barsk offers a world I was happy to dive into, and I’d definitely do so again and again.