Kilimanjaro by Resnick, Mike, 2008

Kilimanjaro by Resnick, Mike - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I have already reviewed some of Mike Resnick's African fiction, including his magnificent fix-up, Kirinyaga. That work told the tale of Kikuyu utopia (the Kikuyu being a tribe from Kenyan Africa) in space on a planetoid built and terraformed by a UN-style agency called the Eutopia Worlds Project. Kirinyaga, the Kikuyu word for what most non-Africans know as Mount Kilimanjaro, was largely a failure. It was envisioned as a traditional Kikuyu homeland, where descendents of the that tribe could live in accordance with ancient social rules and free from technology. The problem was that Koriba, the mundumugu, or "witch-doctor," tried to control not only the environment, but the minds of the colonists as well. Koriba made many mistakes during his tenure, and eventually exiled himself back to Earth, after immense pressure from the Eutopian Worlds Council, while Kirinyaga went on to succeed without him. This story, Kilimanjaro is set approximately 112 years later, in 2234. Another African tribe from Kenya, the Maasai, have petitioned for and been awarded an Eutopian World of their own. Forearmed with a deep understanding of Koriba's mistakes, the leaders, including a tribe of elders, an attorney, and a historian, named David ole Saitoti ("ole" meaning "son of,") have set out to create a real utopia for their people.

Written in several parts that take place over five or six years, Kilimanjaro is a short novel, just a bit longer than the typical novella. While it is not a page-by-page rewrite of Kirinyaga, Resnick does deal with many of the same issues, though in much different ways. The one big logical difference here is that rather than allow ancient and outdated customs to become the rules for a modern society, the Maasai approached each crossroad with open minds and sensitivity towards ancient customs. For example, in Kirinyaga Koriba helped a mother give birth in one of the first stories. The mother produced twins, which was taboo to the ancient Kikuyu; a mother could only produce one soul at a time, so custom dictated that the second child should be killed. Koriba killed the child right way, which brought the ire of Maintenance (the organization that monitored Kirinyaga) down upon Koriba. There was not much that they could do right then, since the charter of Kirinyaga called for it to be a Kikuyu homeland where the people lived in accordance with tradition. In the first story of Kilimanjaro a similar problem arose, though fortunately not as grave.

Kilimanjaro was divided, much as modern Kenya is, into many sections. This particular planetoid had five cities, one for each tribe of the Maasai, with reserves of vast plains for the pastoralists who lived lives like those shown in the National Geographic photos you have undoubtedly seen; swaddled in red blankets, bearing long spears, dancing by jumping up and down, and nourishing themselves on a mixture of cow's blood and milk. One afternoon one of the pastoralists, a young man of 14 years named Mawenzi ole Porola, went to see Saitoti about a problem he had. He was approaching his circumcision age, and wanted to undergo the ritual, but his father had refused to allow him to do so. Mawenzi was concerned that he would not become a man if he could not undergo the ritual. The boy did not know why his father had refused his pleas - only that he had refused. So David, whose purpose was to study Kirinyaga history and to help prevent the failures of that other world from being replicated on Kilimanjaro, agreed to help the boy. The two returned to the boy's home and David discussed the matter with Mawenzi's father, Samuel, after Samuel had given him permission to intervene.

""It's a brutal custom," he continued. "We have hospitals that insist on sterile instruments, on disposable gloves for surgeons and nurses, on antiseptic cleaners for everything within the building. And yet when I was circumcised I stood knee-deep in a polluted stream, and was cut by a knife that had cut every member of my circumcision group, that still bore their blood. I knew that no Maasai is supposed to show pain, so I stood there like a statue, despite the agony I felt, unaware of the possible effects of the ceremony. I was proud of myself, and years later I was equally proud to have my son under go the same ritual. When he became ill I took him to teh laiboni (a Maasai witch-doctor), and only when the laiboni could not cure him did I take him to the hospital in the big city, where they told me they could not save him, that we had waited too long. On that day I discarded my red blanket, threw away my speak, and allowed my hair to grow long again." A look of fierce defiance spread across his features. "I will not lose another son to this madness!"

If you've been paying attention, the solution to this problem has already been suggested. David pointed out that the Jews have been doing sterile circumcisions for ages, and Samuel agreed that if Mawenzi would go to a hospital, he could be circumcised like a proper Maasai man. See what I mean about cultural sensitivity? Resnick showed it twice in this story: Once when David asked Samuel for permission to help by intervening in a family concern, and again when he suggested a solution that would work for Mawenzi and Samuel both. Koriba would never have allowed David's idea to be implemented on Kirinyaga. Koriba would never have allowed a modern hospital on Kirinyaga, and that was the big difference between the two worlds. In one Koriba was the speaker of the law, and tradition controlled; if it did not exist in pre-European Africa, then it did not exist on Kirinyaga. Koriba's greatest battle was not with cultural drift or innovation. It was with the memories of the adult colonists there who remembered what life on Earth was like. It was with mind crime. On Kilimanjaro the people decided what was best for them, and they embraced tradition and innovation both. Which one do you think is the utopia?

The rest of the story is about the enlightened resolution of a number of other problems, including female circumcision and women's rights, formation of government, resource and land management, penology, ecology, economics, immigration, tourism, and flight to the cities by pastoralists and the loss of a class of wise laiboni. I was even more impressed with this work as I have been with Resnick's past African-themed works. He has an understanding of African culture that just boggles the mind, and a way with characters that in my mind sets him apart from most other authors in SF. His characters are all thoughtful, wise, learned and decisive in action.

The only complaint that I have about Resnick is the way he treats his technology, or rather, the way he fails to treat it. Technology for Resnick seems only to be a means to an end, and never an opportunity for description or speculation. For example, his stories are peppered with instantaneous drives that move people around the cosmos in the blink of an eye, and telephones that connect one planet with another in real time. As far as I can tell Resnick has never treated his tech like magic, but he really never bothers to tell the reader why his gizmos work the way that they do. Odd for most SF, but certainly not fatal to the story. Resnick prefers to speculate on the human aspects of the situation. Consider Sokoine ole Parasayip, an ancient laiboni who tried to slice his own wrists:

""What is a laiboni to do when he is no longer wanted or needed?" asked Sokoine miserably. "Not a single girl in my domain has been circumcised this year. Eleven boys have been circumcised, but here in the hospital, not in the traditional ceremony. I no longer am asked to bless the cattle, the animal laiboni - the veterinarian - comes out from il-ikumai with his medicines. The children ignore me, the young men laugh at me, the elders look at me with the same sympathy as when they look at an old cow that will soon be slaughtered." He stared at me, his face a mask of puzzlement. "What is a laiboni to do when he is no longer needed?"

Ask yourself what kind of resolution this question should have in a utopia. If you think about it that way you should not get bogged down in this man's obvious depression, but should instead look for systemic fixes for his problem, because he is probably not the only one having it. That is just what David did by pointing out Koriba's failure, and reminding the old man that what caused it was rigidity and an unwillingness to separate oneself from tradition. The conversation between the two was long, but at the end:

""You were right, David old Saitoti. Everything changes, and what seems new today is tomorrow's history...It is history. Not the need to comfort my people, to heal their wounds and protect them from demons. That is eternal. But the means by which I performed my duties are clearly history. They have been replaced by new means - by medical doctors, by hospitals, by complex machines. And tomorrow they will be history, and the needs of my people will remain.

This book is an excellent, fulfilling and thoughtful examination of tradition in the modern age, and is in my opinion an excellently conceived companion tome to the magnificent Kirinyaga. That first story turned out to be something that Resnick added to over the years. I dearly hope that he does it all again with this new story.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)

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