There's magic in the best science fiction. An abiding sensawunda. An intellectual and emotional longing. A deeply human touch embracing the greater universe and the unending possibilities flowing around us.
Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen is one such science fiction novel. Set in a far future populated by anthropomorphic animals uplifted by humanity, Barsk is exciting, intellectually probing, and extremely moving. The novel is also a triumph of world creation, making you love the characters and their universe as if they were your own.
Despite the novel's galaxy-wide setting, the story focuses on a single world, the Barsk of the eponymous title which is the homeworld of two races of elephant-human hybrids. Despised by the rest of the species in the galactic alliance, these races of elephant-humans have walled themselves off on their world, content to live their lives according to their cultural beliefs and ideals.
One of these beliefs is that each elephant-human sets out on a personal journal shortly before their death to the elephant's graveyard. But something is stopping the recent dead from reaching their final resting place. One of the planet's historians, who also has the ability to speak with the dead, sets out to discover what is happening.
I have enjoyed Lawrence Schoen's fiction in recent years, but with Barsk he takes his storytelling to new heights, rivaling the top authors in the SF genre. In addition to the compelling story Schoen created, one of the best things about Barsk is how he weaves in interesting theories of cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics — both fields in which Schoen works — without letting the novel turn either preachy or boring. This depth takes the novel beyond a simple space opera tale into the realm of great genre works like Dune and The Left Hand of Darkness.
I can't remember the last time I finished a SF novel and immediately reread it. I did this with Barsk. This is a novel to cherish and urge others to read. This is a novel to show people who say the science fiction genre is dead and unable to create original stories.
Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard is highly recommended and will likely be on my shortlist of Hugo and Nebula nominees.