That’s right, author Lawrence M. Schoen and Tor Books have just released the marvelous new novel Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard. It’s about uplifted elephants–elephants that have language and culture like humans–and it’s like nothing you’ve ever read. It might sound like a children’s novel (Horton? Dumbo?), but these elephants are deadly serious. There are other animals as well: cheetahs and sloths and bears and yaks. They can talk to the dead–some of them, anyway–through a fascinating technology that raises interesting questions about memory, legacy, and free will. I’ve invited Lawrence to join my blog today and tell us how he came to write about such an intriguing topic.
So, Lawrence… how did you come to write about anthropomorphic animals?
I’m tempted to tell you it all began a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, but the truth is it was back in the late 80’s when I had just started teaching at New College in Sarasota, Florida. At 27, I was the “boy professor” with the ink still wet on my doctorate, and for my first teaching gig I was actually living in the campus dorms right alongside the students. It was an odd time in my life, as I was closer in age to most of the students than the other members of the faculty (indeed, some of my students were older than me!).
One of the courses I taught was Psycholinguistics, and one of the students had a roommate, Watts Martin, who was very much into anthropmorphic fiction. Most of the interest in this sub field focused on the artwork, but Watts was pushing the writing. He edited and published Mythagoras, a zine dedicated to anthropomorphic fiction.
Anyway, back then there was a popular comic in the field by Steven A. Gallacci called Erma Felna, EDF. Erma was an anthropomorphic cat serving in the Extraplanetary Defense Force, kind of like the Federation from Star Trek, and fighting against the Independent Lepine Republic (ILP), a different kind of federation made up mostly of anthropomorphic rabbits. The comic was so popular that it generated a roleplaying game spinoff. One day, Watts approached me about being part of a group of gamers to give it a go, explaining that I could roll up a character and it could be almost any “race” I wanted. In that instant, something just clicked in my head, and the worldbuilding that would become Barsk exploded. I remember the exchange went something like this:
Me: I want to play an elephant.
Watts: Umm… that’s not an option. We can probably fake it though…
Me: Right, an elephant. From a planet where there are nothing but islands. And the islands are full of rain forests. And it rains. Every. Day.
Me: And the elephant grandmothers on that planet, they have an expression. They say, “So, do you think it will rain today?” And they laugh and laugh and laugh!
Watts of course remembers the exchange differently. The part that lingers in his mind goes more like this:
Lawrence: We believe the only proper way to kill the rabbits from the ILR who’ve invaded our homeland is to pick them up by the ears with our trunks and smash them against a tree.
Me: Umm… the rabbits are armed with military rifles.
Lawrence (without missing a beat): There’s not many of us left now.
Two things about this are worth mentioning. First, we never did play the game (and to this day, I can’t recall why). Second, in that moment I vowed to start writing a novel about those elephants. This is more than a bit insane because, while I’d written some short stories at that point, I hadn’t managed to sell a one, and here I was pledging to write an entire novel!
Watts didn’t blink. In the months that followed, he published the first two chapters of what would eventually become the first draft of Barsk in the pages Mythagoras. Not long after that, I left Sarasota to teach at a college in Lake Forest, Illinois and Watts and I fell out of touch until just a few years ago when he showed up in my autograph line at the Nebula Awards Weekend in San Jose, California. He continues to write and promote anthropomorphic fiction, and in fact has been nominated several times for the Ursa Major award and won the Coyotl award.
But that’s how my writing Barsk all began, a chance conversation more than twenty years ago with the roommate of one of my students who just happened to be on his own path to being a writer of furry tales. It’s one of those stories that’s so unlikely it has to be true, because as fiction it’s unbelievable.
Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula awards, is a world authority on the Klingon language, operates the small press Paper Golem, and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.
His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of prophecy, intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.