Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Is it damning with faint praise when the best recommendation I can give to a novel by a major science fiction writer is that it was pleasant reading? Or is pleasant reading the norm I should expect in fiction, with anything better an unexpected bonus?

I am referring to Mammoth, John Varley’s novel about a herd of mammoth which abruptly travels through time from the ice age to modern Los Angeles, arriving on the downtown streets and causing immediate chaos. The first half of the novel reads as if Varley intends to study the possibilities of time travel. It opens as an archeological team uncovers a frozen mammoth with a family huddled beneath it, apparently struggling for whatever warmth the huge body can give it. This would have been a major scientific discovery, except it became fantastic when the scientists also discover a boxlike contraption beside the man, who happens to be wearing a thoroughly modern wristwatch.

Perhaps my biggest complain with Mammoth is that it seems to have been written with the intent of being a bestseller. The early portions alternate between modern scientists trying to decipher the mystery–including a math genius trying to learn the secrets of the briefcase which is assumed to be a time machine of some sort–and scenes of the mammoth herd 10,000 years ago. The scenes set in the past are written entirely too cutesy, and they invariably end with an abrupt statement of foreshadowing which is usually dropped and never really explored.

In fact, the entire first half of the novel is written in an over-the-top manner which makes the novel hard to accept as serious. On his website, Varley states that Mammoth “was originally going to be a screenplay.” That might explain why most of the novel’s thrills more resembled those of a blockbuster movie rather than the thoughtful sense of wonder of a science fiction novel.

The second half of Mammoth seems to be headed in the direction of a routine thriller as the baby mammoth’s handler, who is one of the two main characters of the novel along with the mathematician, kidnaps it because she feels that he belongs in the wide open spaces instead of performing twice-daily at a glorified circus. The mammoth’s “owner” is the same billionaire who discovered the original dead mammoth, and naturally he is determined to get his property back. Fortunately, just when I was ready to reject the novel as totally shallow, the old Varley rears his head and the thriller evolves into some thoughtful speculation about time travel and predestination. The ending was somewhat surprising, although certainly not stunning, and satisfying.

So while I would never place this novel alongside Varley’s major works such as The Golden Globes or Steel Beach, it was, well, pleasant reading. Just don’t expect too much from it other than a few hours’ pleasure.


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