Ivory by Resnick, Mike, 1988

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

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I know that I have said it before, so pardon if this sounds repetitious, but Mike Resnick is incredible when he is writing stories set in (or about) Africa. This week's review is of his 1988 novel Ivory, which has recently been reprinted by Pyr books. Where one of his other masterpieces, Kirinyaga, is about the Kikuyu tribe from Kenya, this book concerns the Maasai. It is the story of literally the last Masaai in his search for the ivory of the Kilimanjaro Elephant which weigh over 200 pounds each and came from the greatest and most fearsome creature ever to walk the land. This book is riveting. Four out of five stars.

Ivory is told in installments that make the book feel like it is a fix-up, but I do not think that it really is. Set in the year 6,300 (about the year 9,400 by our calendar, which is no longer extant), the set up to this story makes it sound like its going to be a snooze. Of course, it is anything but. The last living Maasai, Bukoba Mandaka, has hired Duncan Rojas of a publisher called Braxtons Records of Big Game to find for him the ivory. Mandaka is exceedingly rich, and will pay any price for the ivory. The rhythm of the story is pretty modulated, and goes something like this: 1) Rojas interviews Mandaka about the history of the ivory; 2) Rojas logs on to his almost AI desktop and asks it to perform searches for evidence of the ivory's appears in the public record; 3) Resnick focuses in on that incident in the past and tells the story of how the ivory came to or passed from a prior owner; and, 4) Rojas holds palaver with Mandaka to get more information to limit his searches better. Resnick also starts off every chapter with a brief excerpt of the late stages of the elephant's life as it migrates towards Mount Kilimanjaro to demand the gods tell it what its purpose in life is. In the sections that tell the story of the ivory tusks themselves Resnick does his best job. The ivory throughout history has been coveted by numerous people and groups, and many times had been the prize in some conflict, starting with a poker game and including a war, a political contest, and many others. While all of this is going on, Rojas also is trying to unravel the mystery of why Mandaka wants the ivory, and what he plans to do with it when he finally finds it. Resnick does a very admirable job of moving the story along while keeping tight rein on the various story threads.

Even though I really don't like pulp stories, this one had a number of pulpish qualities that I actually found endearing. I'm at a loss to explain why that is. Resnick writes of alien-filled bars, quaffing what ever it is aliens quaff, playing games of chance and making music. It was very much like the bar scene in Star Wars. There were also overbearing galactic emperors, and men of science who were also galactic adventurers. I could practically see the puffed-out pants and white scarves. Many times Rojas consulted his desktop computer and queried it for answers to questions that it could not possibly answer, but of course it knew everything save for the ultimate answer, leaving something for the hero to do. Often the answer given when the ultimate question was asked was along the lines of "I am not programmed to make judgments in that area," or some such. It was all very Robby the Robottish. Resnick also made a few pulpish faux pas as well, such as having FTL craft that took time to make interstellar journeys, but phones that could connect to a distant star in real-time, though I suspect that element was purposefully engineered for ambiance. But there is also much more here than a pulpish story. Many of the vignettes that tell the story of the ivory mirror the Maasai's fate under colonialism, and in that respect Resnick acknowledges the mistreatment of the noble Maasai at the hands of first the British, then under the government of Jomo Kenyetta, a Kikuyu who seized power after the British left. Most of these sub-themes deal with things such as antiquities plundering, corruption, natural resource depletion, war, and the phenomena of "white man's burden," and the "Great White Hunter," but there are others.

With Kirinyaga, Resnick gave us a cautionary fable about the future of the Kikuyu. My review of that incredible work can be found on these pages. With Ivory Resnick gives us another cautionary tale, this time steeped in mythology. Actually, I was struck by how well Resnick built almost a divinity around the ivory, and the effect that the ivory had on the Maasai's future. The ultimate message in Kirinyaga is that holding too hard onto outdated and irrelevant mores from the past will lead to unhappiness. The moral here is that if you violate your heritage, you risk your future. Resnick really does have a knack for morality tales, so don't let the conflicting messages throw you from either work. Personally, I cannot see this book failing to impress anyone. Itís a must get, and Iíve now got a new permanent addition to my bookcase.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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