Writing Excuses 13.B1: Bonus Episode – Elephants and Death, with Lawrence Schoen
Key Points: (no tusks). Elephants and death? In particular, uplifted elephants and death. Exploring the human condition through things that are not human is at the core of science fiction. With anthropomorphic animals, you get aliens plus we are already familiar with them. Then add in animal society. Why does Schlock Mercenary have elephants? Because everyone agrees uplifting the African elephant was a mistake. Whack-a-mole is hard because prairie dogs are precognitive. Animal behavior and alien behavior gives stories traction for exploring human attributes. When characters stop being animals and become people, that’s great. Because humanity doesn’t care what flesh it’s wearing or what the DNA looks like. We are complex patterns of organized information, and that information shouldn’t vanish just because the meat we are wearing has gone bad. What if you had foreknowledge that this is the last thing I will make? What if you knew this was your last day, your last week? Remember the saying, “Live today like it was your last.” What does that mean? “Wait. I haven’t…”
[Mary] Season 13.
[Howard] Our patrons, over at patreon.com/writing excuses, have made it possible for us to record more than just 52 episodes in a single calendar year. This episode is one of those bonus episodes. Thank you, patrons, for making this possible. Thank you, listeners, for joining us, and if you’d like to become a patron, I already gave you the URL.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Elephants and Death, with Lawrence Schoen.
[Dan] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And with us, we have my beloved roommate for this convention…
[Dan] At GenCon, Lawrence Schoen. Lawrence, tell us about yourself.
[Lawrence] Oh, wow. I wear lots of different hats. And that… I never wear hats. I am a cognitive psychologist. I’m a hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues. I’m the founder and director of the Klingon Language Institute. A small press publisher, and oh, yeah, when there’s time, I write novels.
[Dan] Awesome. Thank you for coming.
[Dan] We are not going to talk about any of those things.
[Dan] We’re going to talk about elephants and death. The reason that we have this is because when we were discussing topics, I was really excited about uplift, and they were really excited to talk about death, because I’m the one who writes about death, and they’re the two that write about uplift. So…
[Chuckling in the distance]
[Dan] Both of you have uplifted elephants featured prominently in your science fiction.
[Lawrence] That’s true.
[Lawrence] The fact that you ask that question means that no answer I give you would be satisfactory.
[Lawrence] Because elephants are just cool, and they are fun to write, and they were the protagonists of the novel, so… I ran with that. But the novel’s all about death, as well, so it’s… I am the bridge between the two of you.
[Howard] He’s very much… The Barsk novel. I loved it. Is… It’s a great exploration of the psychology of death. The elephants… The Phant, as you called them…
[Lawrence] Because they have their own writing system, which I did a typeface of. It’s the Fant font.
[Howard] Okay. You get one of those, and that was it.
[Lawrence] It’s a live show. I figured…
[Dan] Now you guys know exactly what it’s like to be his roommate.
[Howard] But the exploration of that through what is essentially an alien is… That is at the core of all that is science fiction. We are able to explore the human condition through things that are not human in ways that we probably couldn’t if we were writing about humans.
[Lawrence] This is the fun thing about writing about anthropomorphic animals, because you get all the great things you get when you write about aliens, but we already know them. So I get to draw in various things that an ethologist would have… Does research on like elephant societal structures and then just… Oh, and they’re intelligent, so instead of… In regular elephant… In regular? The kind we have, females and children all wander around together in like large family units, and when male elephants reach maturity, they go off on their own, as like wild bachelors. We have this in Barsk. So if you’re a realtor on Barsk, there are these enormous family homes, and all these little tiny one-bedroom apartments.
[Howard] Bachelor pads.
[Lawrence] Bachelor pads. And the men keep moving around, they never stay in one place very, very long, because they have to keep moving. They will travel to other islands, and on and on like this. The womenfolk are there, raising… So it’s… I always think of it as that line from Gilbert and Sullivan, “And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts.” Obviously, your listeners need to listen to HMS Pinafore more.
[Lawrence] It just changes the whole way you approach society.
[Howard] I recently watched Zootopia, and in the special features on Zootopia, the guys talked about going out to Africa and watching animals. Their design for the characters in the film completely changed after seeing this, because they were doing exactly what you’re describing. They would take the groups… Instead of, “Oh, here’s a giraffe and here’s an elephant and here’s a lion… Giraffe, elephant, lion, antelope, whatever,” they started grouping them the way they would group in the wild. It was kind of brilliant and beautiful. And it informed… I love watching the special features. It informed the story from there. My elephants… Dan asked why’d you guys put elephants in… Was a terrible, terrible mistake.
[Howard] I told a joke… I’ve been to Africa. On the safari, they warned us the most dangerous animal out here is not man, because none of you have guns. The most dangerous animal out here is the bull African elephant. Do not make it angry because that’s the only thing here that can kill us while we’re in the car. They have terrible tempers. I mean, you piss them off and they’re all over you. So I told a joke about uplift. We’ve uplifted this, and this, and this. And the one thing everyone could agree on was that uplifting the African elephant was a mistake. My readers… I did not realize at the time, my readers felt like I’d made a promise to them that there were going to be elephants in the comic. Heh.
[Howard] Drawing… The scale between a human being and elephant is pretty dramatic.
[Howard] Putting them all in the same panel took a lot of really annoying work.
[Lawrence] I’ve always appreciated that extra of effort you’ve put into them. I’ve noticed those strips seem far and few between. But I always appreciated that.
[Howard] I haven’t gone to the lengths that you’ve gone to in order to incorporate elephant culture, because if there’s anything worse than drawing one elephant, it’s drawing 10.
[Lawrence] Well, let me give you another example of the same…
[Dan] Fighting in a circus.
[Howard] Fighting in a circus.
[Laughter] Fighting in a circus.
[Howard] What a terrible idea that was.
[Lawrence] And then the gravity shuts off. But… Barsk is… I mean, Barsk is the name of the planet where the elephants live, but it’s the galaxy full of over 100 uplifted races. Species. It’s another example of drawing on real animal behavior. There’s a scene where one of our villains goes to meet a bunch of prairie dogs, who happened to be precognitive. They’re all in a…
[Lawrence] As they are.
[Howard] That’s why whack-a-mole is so hard.
[Lawrence] He goes to see them and he enters the antechamber and one is waiting. He says, “Oh. You’re waiting for me because you knew I was coming because you’re precognitive.” He says, “No. One of us is always here.” Because prairie dogs always leave a sentry at every opening to a prairie dog colony. If you know that about prairie dogs, you go, “Oh, I get it. That’s…” If you don’t, you just say, “Oh, well. Schoen’s too clever for his own good,” and then you move on.
[Howard] And away you go. The animal behavior stuff, the alien behavior stuff, exploring human attributes through this, I think, is where, for me, stories in general really… That’s where they get traction. When I see a piece of myself…
[Lawrence] The thing I like best when people tell me about their experience of Barsk is when they tell me they reached the point where they… The characters, the protagonists and so forth, stopped being elephants, that they became people for them. That’s Yes! Because the humanity behind a character doesn’t care what flesh it’s wearing, doesn’t care what the DNA looks like. That’s where I was going with all of this, and that’s why one of the themes about the book is things like intolerance and so forth. But we haven’t gotten to death.
[Dan] Well, that’s okay, because we’re going to pause right now and you’re going to tell us about Barsk. Not that we haven’t been hearing about it for seven minutes, but… Give us the quick pitch. It is Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard. Tell us about the book.
[Lawrence] I will give you the quick pitch, because my wife wrote this… Helped me write this. She insists I do this every time. So. Prophecy. Intolerance. Loyalty. Conspiracy. Friendship. A drug for speaking to the dead. Also, elephants in space.
[Howard] I’m in. Well, I mean, I already read it, but I’m in again.
[Lawrence] I will sell you another copy.
[Dan] So, that is Barsk, by Lawrence Schoen.
[Howard] Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence Schoen.
[Dan] By Lawrence Schoen. Go pick it up.
[Howard] Is it available on Audible yet?
[Lawrence] It is. The Audible… There is… If I can sneak in a quick thing about the Audible.
[Lawrence] So I mentioned… I know there’s no rule…
[Dan] You got an actual elephant to read the…
[Lawrence] Even better. Even better. You said we weren’t going to talk about some of the other [garbled… hassleware?], but I have all of these people who follow me because of my work with Klingon, but they don’t want to read my fiction. Because it’s not Klingon fiction. So I reached out to an actor I knew, J. G. Hertzler, who portrayed Martok, Admiral Martok on Deep Space Nine.
[Dan] He’s got the best frigging voice in the show.
[Lawrence] He’s got the best… But he’s never done audiobooks before. He recorded the audio for Barsk. It is beyond brilliant. I’m thinking this is going to be a whole new future career for John. I want my percentage.
[Lawrence] Or at least I want him to do the next book.
[Dan] All right. So let’s get back into this. It is not just Barsk, it is Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard.
[Lawrence] There’s a colon in there.
[Dan] So death is a key part of this. How so?
[Lawrence] The MacGuffin there is that there is this drug that only… That is derived from a plant that only grows on Barsk, and certain people, under the influence of this drug, discover they can perceive a new subatomic particle. A subatomic particle of memory and personality. We all give these particles off every day we live. When we die, they disperse. If you use this drug, you can pull them back. When you have enough of them, that person materializes in front of you, and you can converse with him or her. This is the latest instantiation of this in my fiction. I just don’t like death. I don’t like the idea that death is the end of us. So in Barsk, the idea is we are all complex patterns of organized information. That information doesn’t… Shouldn’t vanish just because the meat we’re wearing has gone bad. The parallel I like to give is you look up in the night sky and you’re seeing the light from stars that don’t exist anymore. But that information is still coming toward us. We happen to have eyes that allow us to perceive that. What we lack at the moment, arguably, is either sensory apparatus or hardware that lets us perceive the information each of us… That is each of our lives. So, the premise behind this drug is that it gives us that ability. Then we’re off and running.
[Dan] That’s awesome.
[Howard] The exploration of death from the eyes of someone who is uncomfortable with it, as most of us should be, I don’t know how much of you saw when I was reading the book, but I saw a whole lot of me. There’s a character in the very beginning… The point at which I knew you’d written a wonderful book was the scene where someone is carving. He knows it’s the last work of art he’s going to perform and it’s not for him. It’s for… I don’t know what it’s for. As an artist, the idea that at some point I’m going to make the last thing I make is a little terrifying. The idea that you might be given foreknowledge, you might know this is the last thing that I am going to make, and it is only for me. I wept during that. Because as an artist, and as writers, we want our works to outlive us, and I think we want to be read after we’re gone.
[Lawrence] Part of the conceit of the title is on Barsk, when your death is approaching, you wake up one morning and go, “Oh!” And you have a destination in your mind. There is an island that you set sail to. Nobody knows where it is until it is time to go. If you… You won’t tell anybody, because it’s… They don’t need to know yet.
[Howard] You’re not dying.
[Lawrence] You’re not dying. You don’t tell anybody you’re going, you just pack up and go. This is in the very first chapter. I think it begins with Rüsul. Rüsul went to meet his death. So he’s in this weird state of his life is over, and he hasn’t gotten to the island yet.
[Howard] He’s not dead.
[Lawrence] He’s not dead. But he is dead in that his life is past, his life is behind him. He’s not physically dead. In his mind, he’s filled out all the forms, he’s said his goodbyes to the people he needs to say goodbye to, he took the things he wanted to take with him on his voyage, he’s packed for the trip, and he knows where he has to go. Minor, minor spoiler is that the bad guys, who are basically everybody else in the galaxy because they want the drug that grows on Barsk, and they don’t want to have to deal with the elephants anymore…
[Howard] They don’t want to pay for it.
[Lawrence] They show up and they abduct him because no one’s going to come looking for him, because he’s dead. And we’re off and running.
[Howard] The thought there, and I want to extrapolate this a little bit broader, because this appears through fiction all the time, how do you behave if you know that this is your last day? How do you behave if you know that this is your last week? I was in my 20s and somebody said, “Live today like it was your last.” What’s that really mean?
[Dan] That’s when I just start breaking things.
[Lawrence] It’s no accountability. Well, it’s… No. I mean, that’s the first reaction. I’m going to get drunk, I’m going to get laid, maybe at the same time, and all these things. Black tar heroin, and whatever you want.
[Dan] Whatever I want?
[Lawrence] Whatever you want.
[Dan] StarCraft landing party.
[Howard] This is your roommate, Dan.
[Lawrence] There you go. He’s been sleeping with one eye open. But then you look at your life and you say, “But that’s not me.” I’ve actually had this conversation with other people. They said, “No. If I know it’s my last day, I’m… Maybe I won’t go to work. But I’ll spend the day with my wife, and I’ll take the kids to the zoo…” Ironically enough.
[Lawrence] Or “I’ll go walk on the beach,” or I’ll make peace with myself. What are the things that I never got to do that I meant to do? And I’m okay with that.
[Howard] I remember a line in one of the VorKosigan novels where Miles gets shot in the chest and dies.
[Lawrence] He does.
[Howard] The last thoughts are, “Wait. I haven’t…” And then it’s done.
[Howard] That terrified me because I do not want that to be my last thought. Wait, I haven’t…
[Lawrence] This goes back to… What’s the poem? “When I have fears that I may cease to be before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain…” They burned that into me in high school, and it’s like, “No. That can’t be a thing. I have books to write, and I’m of questionable health.” I’m thinking, “Man, this sucks. I gotta quit the day jobs so I can write more books. But then I’ll die, because I don’t have food or a house or…
[Lawrence] So, there is this compromise we play. But no, I have things to do, I have stories to tell. I just had my birthday last week, so it’s like my mortality has been brought to my awareness again. It’s like Whahahaha!
[Howard] That’s what birthdays are for.
[Lawrence] That’s what birthdays are for.
[Howard] Dan, are we morbid enough yet? I…
[Dan] Well, I think we need to take this cheerful tone and end the podcast on it. Because our time is up. Ironically.
[Howard] Oh, my.
[Lawrence] Well, when you’re out of time…
[Howard] You get one, and that was it.
[Dan] So. Give us a really quick writing prompt.
[Lawrence] Okay. Come up with a method for immortality, and then convince your protagonist not to use it.
[Dan] Very cool. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses, now go…
[Lawrence] I’m glad they didn’t say die.