Kirinyaga by Resnick, Mike, 1998

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I have been on a bit of an Africa kick lately. In the last few months I have been rereading all my favorite stories with African motifs in them. Authors such as Octavia Butler, Michael Bishop, Ian McDonald, J.G. Ballard and E. N. Akendo all have written some great African themed SF, and most of these authors have already turned up on my book review pages. Sadly though, I do not think that there is too much more out there, other than a few stories, and some fantasy works that I personally do not care for. But despite the dearth of quality African SF, there are a few great books out there. My favorite hands down is Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga. Ive read this collection several times so far, and sadly I am starting to realize that while it may stand up to the test of time, it really does not read as strongly for me as it used to. Three-and-a-half stars out of five.

Kirinyaga is a fix-up. Due to the financial, critical and popular success of each story Resnick has claimed that Kirinyaga is the "most honored science fiction book in history." He may be right, as each separate story was nominated for and won lots and lots of awards. The book itself won some critical praise after it was collected and published in one volume. I usually like books that are put together like this such as City by Clifford Simak, because they give you a chance to get into a novella length story, put the book down when you are done, and not really have to remember where you were when you come back. But this book, because of its separate-story nature suffers from the one big problem that plagues these kinds of compilations: Major repetition. Resnick really should have re-written some of the lines in this story, because each and every chapter makes the same few back story elements crystal clear within the first few pages, and it drive me nuts. Were not talking KJA inspired page filler, but it really is obvious that you are reading stories that were initially published separately because Resnick spends valuable time in each one setting down the ground rules again and again and again.

Thematically Resnick sticks with the elements that worked so well for him in the 90's and early oughts. Those are traditional African culture and society, post colonialism, and utopia. Resnick also uses the character traits of escapism and denial to great effect. He does an incredibly good job in showing us how the nature of society and culture, even while striving for utopia, scuttle any real chance the people have at ever realizing it. In the book a highly educated elderly Kenyan named Koriba has petitioned the United Nations for the right to occupy a terraformed planetoid which he calls Kirinyaga, after the mountain home of his tribe, the Kikuyu. Koriba and a large group of Kenyans who have lived in accordance with the old ways abandon Earth for Kirinyaga before encroaching European-style civilization destroys their culture. The Kikuyu live an ancient lifestyle on their planetoid in a half-created replica of ancient Africa that has no elephants, hippos, lions or cheetahs, which are all extinct, or Maasai or other traditional enemies of the Kikuyu, who have all been absorbed into modern Kenyan culture. The only catch is that there is a region called Haven where any Kikuyu may go and be taken by shuttle back to Earth any time they wish. Koriba is the mundunugu, or witch doctor, to all the Kikuyu villages. The Kikuyu traditionally have no written language, so the mundumugu serves as the repository of their culture and the Kikuyu's way of life. He is also a healer and adviser to the chiefs, and is generally feared as he is closest man to their god, Ngai.

Like every good SF tale, Resnick pushes his characters to extremes in order to plot out this utopia tale. Koriba is gradually transformed from the mouthpiece of god to a broken and disgraced old man who nobody listens to. The culture of Kirinyaga was set up with great care to mimic what was prior to Eurpoean intervention in East Africa. The idea was to get away from Kenya and go back to a way of life that was these people's definition of utopia. And it seemed at the beginning that was exactly what they had accomplished. But despite the fact that the Kikuyu people were light years away from Earth, elements of "European" (read, modern) culture dripped and drabbed into Kirinyaga. As this happened the Kikuyu youths, whose parents had willingly segregated themselves on Earth, started to realize that a backbreaking life of boredom was not what they really wanted for themselves or their children. But Koriba himself was never really able to separate the theory from the practice, and because of that disconnect, ultimately lost the sympathy and support of his flock. Resnick sent in conquering Masai hunters, confused new age immigrants who thought they would belong with the Kikuyu, intrusions by "Maintenance," the organization that orbits Kirinyaga and keeps the climate on target, and ultimately internal discord to rend apart the Kikuyu. The disintegration of any Utopia is cause for sadness, but there is a strong internal conflict here that leaves a feeling of hope. Since they came from and still had contact with an advanced civilization Koriba saw one of his most important jobs as keeping the Kikuyu ignorant so that they would not know what they were missing. He did this at first by evading the hard questions, mostly by making his point with parable and fable, much the way one would expect a witch doctor to do. But as time went on and the intrusions and questions increased, Koriba resorted first to guilt, then to lies and finally threats to keep inquisitive minds from finding out the truth of modern ways. Koriba likens his position in the end, ironically, to the little Dutch boy who tried to stick his finger into the dyke to stop the flood from washing him over. As the story progresses the Kikuyu very gradually (and very believable) start to doubt the word of their spiritual leader, and as a result begin to develop a sense of self apart from their roots.

I doubt that I am going to read this book again for a very long time. I need some time to forget what happens in it, and unfortunately that kind of thing is very hard for me to do. But at one point in time this book was one of my two favorite SF books of all time, right next to The Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steve Barnes. I'm really not in the frame of mind make this a high level recommendation right now, but it is a very strong book, and fits quite well into the sub-category of SF utopia pieces, including the classic ones. If you find it, it is certainly worth the effort of acquisition.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

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


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