In Barsk, the animals are talking…but what they have to say might not sit well with you.
Lawrence Schoen's Barsk does something that other science fiction and fantasy about intelligent animals have failed at before: it forces us to reflect on our human arrogance. Where other works use utopian visions of harmony between humanity and animals to guilt us into responsible stewardship of our planet, Schoen tries a different tack. Ultimately, his work appeals to our sense of self-preservation first and our morality second, creating a more genuine depiction of the real consequences of hubris.
The story opens as we witness the initial rumblings of another species' hubristic aspirations. An anthropomorphic elephant, one of two races called "Fant" that live on the planet Barsk, is at sea on his final voyage. Schoen's humanization of this character, depicting his age and world-weary desire to die, eases us past the stark weirdness of talking elephants on a distant planet in the far future. Once we have accepted that weirdness, Schoen deepens it further by throwing cats and dogs at us. Literally. When this lone Fant is kidnapped by a cheetah and her canine lackeys, we begin to realize that not all is well for the peaceful elephants of Barsk.
An interplanetary conspiracy against the Fant is in the making. It centers on the fact that the Fant are the only race in the galaxy who can create a drug that allows academics, politicians, and just about everyone else to consult with the dead. I assume that Dr. Schoen knows he was channeling Frank Herbert's Dune there, on some level, with pharmaceutical politics driving his intrigue. Speaking to the dead is a different direction, however. "Speakers," in Schoen's world, can recall the physical impressions that the departed made on the universe, to ask them about their lives. It is pure fantasy, but it is a fantasy that allows Barsk to incorporate thematics of reflection on past mistakes.
At the center of the drama are two Fant, a Speaker, and a young boy outcast--a literal white elephant who no one else wants. Their bumbling interventions threaten the intrigue planned by a Taurid senator. Where the instinct of most people is to find such characters silly, Schoen makes it clear that the Fant are as human as we are, and the rest of the galaxy's anthropomorphic species are rivaled only by humans in their inhumanity.
Humans are conspicuously absent from Schoen's world, however, and it is for a reason. Barsk is meant to challenge us, and one of the ways in which it does this is by envisioning a future in which humanity has vanished. It becomes apparent that we once existed in this universe, and something happened to eliminate us. By the end of Barsk, it becomes apparent that we deserved it.
As mentioned, this is not the first time that science fiction has delved into the world of intelligent animals. In the 1980s, at the height of a panic about the conservation of whale species, physicist, and author David Brin released the landmark Uplift trilogy. In the Uplift books, humanity had entered a greater galactic community that made a near-religion out of genetically engineering lower species to intelligence. Humans' contributions to this were the engineering of dolphins, chimpanzees, and gorillas to sentience. More modern science might suggest other species, but the Uplift books confronted many issues relating to how such species would interact with their "benefactors," for lack of a better word.
One thing that I found conspicuously missing from Brin's trilogy, however, was any mention of whether it is ethical to uplift species in the first place. In that universe, it was common practice, and it would have been against the grain of a longstanding community to tackle such issues.
Not so in Barsk! Schoen takes a headlong rush into that ethical territory and forces us to confront the idea that humanity could destroy itself not only through irresponsibility but instead through hubris.
All of this comes from a novel about talking space elephants who can commune with the dead. Don't you dare call it silly.
In fact, this issue is more present than ever. When I was an undergrad, I worked in the laboratory of Dr. John Allman, a leading evolutionary neuroscientist who studies the emotional intelligence of humans and other species. He and his collaborators have identified a long known brain cell type, the "spindle cell" or "Von Economo neuron" (VEN) that seems to play a role in the shorthand of social intuition. Much like we use a calculator to avoid the taxing mental efforts of adding large numbers, Allman thinks our brains use VENs to ease the workload of picking up on social cues. Not surprisingly, his work has an impact on understanding autism.
However, his work also has an impact on understanding the most intelligent animals. So far, Dr. Allman and his collaborators have found high VEN counts in gorillas, elephants, and whales. It isn't an accident that those animals were mentioned previously in the article. While VENs are only one piece of the sapient intelligence puzzle, they are found in high numbers in the species that seem most similar to us in terms of their problem solving and social capacities.
As the age of neuroscience helps us understand ourselves, an understanding of animals and what it would take to uplift them (if such a thing is even necessary or a good idea), is on the horizon. A recent WIRED magazine gear article discussed new devices that are allowing dogs and their human companions to communicate more readily with one another. Sure, it isn't what you see in UP, but what happens when it gets there? Are we ready to treat dogs with the respect they may want when we give them a voice of their own? Even The Onion has weighed in on this.
There is a more immediate future here, too, where humanity has worked out a way to communicate in large scale with our cetacean and gorilla neighbors. To me, this seems a bit more realistic and immediate concern. We already have one gorilla who communicates with human researchers by sign language, and in 2014 researchers created a new "word" that dolphins could sing...and then taught it to dolphins. These are the first glimmers of real interspecies communication, and if we continue to view these species as lower life forms, we could be entering some dangerous ethical territory within the next century.
Barsk makes me wonder if we should be tackling these ethical questions in more academic settings--before we start uplifting animals and create a new population of beings to oppress. Where the Uplift books popularized the idea that humanity could transform our neighbors into sapient beings, Barsk raises more difficult questions of how species interact when they are uplifted. That's something that hasn't been done before, and it came not a moment too soon. As neuroscience enters these uncharted waters, Lawrence Schoen's work is the neuroscience fiction that we need to keep us honest.