When Lawrence M. Schoen was let go from his first university job – there’d been financial trouble and he was the newest instructor in the largest department, he says matter-of-factly – he needed something to keep his mind off the stress of the job hunt.
So Schoen, who had studied the languages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth as a preteen, reached out to speakers of another fictional language: Klingon. Rather than a simple fan club, the group formed the Klingon Language Institute, a linguistics society that puts out a journal and collaborates directly with Marc Okrand, who originally created the language for the TV show “Star Trek.”
“The whole thing was just supposed to last about six months and I’d get a gig somewhere else and then I’d move on. And then the media found out about it – people like you!” Schoen says over Skype, playfully adopting a melodramatic voice and looming into the camera. “It followed me to Philadelphia, where I found work, and here we are 20 years later and it just won’t die.”
But that isn’t why he’s coming to town this week. Schoen appears Thursday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and Friday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh to discuss his new book, “Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard.” It’s anthropomorphic sci-fi, focusing on the plight of walking, talking elephants exiled to a backwater planet in the unimaginably distant future. He’s written several novels on smaller presses, but this is his first through a large publishing house – fantasy and sci-fi giant Tor. He hopes, among other things, that it opens doors for other anthropomorphic writers.
We talked to Schoen a little about Klingon and a lot about “Barsk.”
Q: Do you have anything planned for “Star Trek’s” 50th anniversary?
A: I’ve gotten a couple of requests to do conventions where I’m a special Klingon guest. The timing is less than ideal because I’m on the road quite a bit this year for the new book. Most people who know me know me from my work with Klingon, and ironically – or sadly, from my point of view – those people don’t necessarily read my fiction.
In a shameless attempt to merge those two worlds, the audio book of “Barsk” is read by J.G. Hertzler, the actor who played Martok (on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), and he’s got a great voice. I’ve worked with him in the past on a project of his. He had a small production company and he got tagged to do the DVD extras on the anniversary edition of “Star Trek VI.” I haven’t seen it, but I’m on the DVD talking about Shakespeare in Klingon.
Q: Why did you want to write about a post-Earth sci-fi future?
A: I don’t think I really framed it that way in my own mind. This was the story I wanted to tell. One of the things I wanted to play with, and that I want to do more so in future books, is the idea of the archetype of man. In order for there to be an archetype, humanity needs to be gone and a lot of time needs to have passed so no one remembers them. I liked playing with that – it’s a little bit meta, but taking our best stories and putting them out into space. It’s more than that big gold record we put on the Voyager satellite many years ago. It let me in one sentence mention Gilgamesh, Pendragon and Kal-El. Who gets to do that?
Q: Why elephants?
A: Why not elephants?
The reality is, I started writing this book almost 30 years ago. I was a college professor in south Florida. I was 27 years old – ink still wet on the doctorate – and I was living in the dorms with my students. The roommate of one of my students was an editor and a writer of anthropomorphic fiction. He invited me to participate in a role-playing game based on a furry comic book of the day. It was basically cats in space, but you could be any race you wanted.
We’re standing out in the courtyard and he’s explaining this to me and I don’t know why, but I said, “I’m going to play an elephant!” And he starts flipping through the book. They have rhinos and they have hippos but they don’t have elephants. I don’t care. I say, “Yes, I’m an elephant, and I come from the planet Barsk, and it rains constantly!” And I go on and on like this. We never played the game!
Q: I’m curious about writing anthropomorphic characters. ...
Q: The common wisdom, and what I’ve always understood, is that in sci-fi it’s easier to connect to humans than with aliens. Are there any specific challenges to writing animals?
A: It’s the same challenge you have with writing an alien. It can’t be too alien – if it’s truly alien, the reader isn’t going to comprehend. They won’t grok it. They’ll go “Huh? There’s a lump of quartz that came off that ship and it’s emitting strange odors and for some reason it wants our women.” You just can’t relate to this thing, so you need to follow the trope – aliens are a thinly disguised mirror to look at ourselves, and this is the classic trope from “Star Trek.”
With anthropomorphic animals, I took a similar tack. There are ecologically based traits that all these species have. The elephants, for example, they’re a matrilineal society. When the males reach adulthood, they go off as bachelors and wander by themselves. The females gather in larger social groups. These are traits we know about elephants. You then take these traits and you uplift them: What happens when you have these traits in a human being? Then, all of the sudden, you have the Fant. So you have things that are familiar in animal traits and you have things that are familiar in terms of human society, and suddenly these characters that look nothing like us remind us of things we already know and are suddenly sympathetic.
In a lot of ways, anthropomorphic science fiction is no different from science fiction with aliens. You just say, “Hey – those aliens look a lot like my dog!” I think we’re going to see a lot more attention given to it, because it’s a great device. It’s both alien and familiar at the same time.