Prophecy vs. History By Lawrence M. Schoen
I wanted to play with memory on a number of different levels. The whole “drug that lets you speak to the dead” thing is very much a part of this, and critical to the book, but I also wanted to explore the memory we share as a culture or society. Normally, we call this “history,” and it’s a memory of things and how they happened (or at least what we say happened”). In Barsk, I have a historian who is trying to understand the meaning of a prophecy, which in turn allowed me to think of prophecy as a kind of memory for the future, how things will happen.
It’s a different way of looking at time travel. Imagine interviewing individuals who have been dead for centuries, beings who while still alive set in motion sequences of events intended to bring about a far foreseen future outcome. Questions of free will and destiny are no strangers to time travel stories, and it’s all too easy for the tale to turn fatalistic, but it begs the question: is the future fixed, or does it become fixed because you buy into the idea that there’s nothing you can do to change the predicted outcome?
Here’s a snippet from the POV of Jorl, my historian, as he shares his concerns with Arlo, his dead best friend, regarding a prophecy called “the Silence”:
“Each of Margda’s prophesies goes on and on for pages in that meandering double-talk of hers—”
Arlo interrupted, “And yet, there’s a bit that you’re deliberately not mentioning. Jorl, you said you needed to talk to me about this, so talk.”
Jorl gestured at his forehead with one hand, moving his trunk in parallel for emphasis. “The next line says, The newest Aleph must do what has never been done though it is almost always done. Whatever that means. It’s nonsense.”
“Nonsense that bothers you. Because there are what, only three Fant now living who’ve been awarded the aleph? And you’re the most recent person to bear the mark. You think she’s talking about you!”
“Maybe. But only if the Silence is really happening. For all I know, I’m misreading the signs, and the Silence is something totally different that won’t come to pass for another hundred years, by which time I’ll be dead and some other guy will be the latest person with a glowing tattoo on his head. I’m probably worrying about nothing.”
There’s an observer effect here. If Jorl weren’t an historian, would he have been concerned with this particular prophecy, to the point where he goes off in search of an answer and sets much of the book’s story in motion? Did he ever have a choice? And if not, is the study of the history of such things really the study of the future? Moreover — and minor vague spoiler here — as the novel progresses, Jorl looks at the available evidence and thinks he’s figured out what the Silence means, only to discover he’d gotten it wrong when new information comes along and he decides, no, this here is what it is. Until he discovers he’s wrong again, over and over.
When you have characters who can speak to people who’ve been dead for centuries and in effect reach back into the past, and one or more of those conversants were, during their long faded lives prone to precognitive visions, you get a kind of time travel that doesn’t involve physical matter but rather information, and issues of destiny and free will transform into a power struggle where, by some perspectives, the only choices are to either play the game, or be a piece on the board. But just as it’s been said that history is what gets written by the winning side, it may be that the ability to talk to the people who made that history allows for a little wriggle room in how it’s carried forward from some moment in the past into the future, maybe, just maybe, prophecies that seem immutable are as fluid and open to choice as each moment of the present.
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.
About the book:
- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Tor Books (December 29, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0765377020
- ISBN-13: 978-0765377029
The Sixth Sense meets Planet of the Apes in a moving science fiction novel set so far in the future, humanity is gone and forgotten in Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard
An historian who speaks with the dead is ensnared by the past. A child who feels no pain and who should not exist sees the future. Between them are truths that will shake worlds.
In a distant future, no remnants of human beings remain, but their successors thrive throughout the galaxy. These are the offspring of humanity’s genius-animals uplifted into walking, talking, sentient beings. The Fant are one such species: anthropomorphic elephants ostracized by other races, and long ago exiled to the rainy ghetto world of Barsk. There, they develop medicines upon which all species now depend. The most coveted of these drugs is koph, which allows a small number of users to interact with the recently deceased and learn their secrets.
To break the Fant’s control of koph, an offworld shadow group attempts to force the Fant to surrender their knowledge. Jorl, a Fant Speaker with the dead, is compelled to question his deceased best friend, who years ago mysteriously committed suicide. In so doing, Jorl unearths a secret the powers that be would prefer to keep buried forever. Meanwhile, his dead friend’s son, a physically challenged young Fant named Pizlo, is driven by disturbing visions to take his first unsteady steps toward an uncertain future.
About the author:
In 2007, he was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and in 2010 received a Hugo nomination for Best Short Story. He’s hard at work writing the latest in the ongoing adventures of the Amazing Conroy, a stage hypnotist traveling the galaxy in the company of Reggie, an alien buffalito that can eat anything and farts oxygen.
Lawrence lives near Philadelphia with his wife, Valerie, who is neither a psychologist nor a Klingon speaker.