Review by Joel Kreissman
Lawrence M. Schoen’s Soup of the Moment: A Tale of Barsk is a distant prequel to his earlier novel Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard but can easily be read as a standalone story. As the title suggests, it takes place on Barsk, a planet of islands colonized by genetically modified elephants or “Fants.” The Fants display a number of traits inherited from their non-sapient ancestors, such as a tendency to live in large matriarchal herds, while males can enter a hormonal rage called musth if they go without sex for too long. They’re also divided into two “races'' called Elephs and Loxs (presumably Elephas maximus and Loxodonta africana). However, they also have a few traits that are obviously engineered but not elephantine in origin, namely their physical inability to conceive children out of wedlock.
Soup of the Moment is presented as the “true story” behind a Barsk legend about a Fant who could fly. Pholo, the Fant in question, was a post-grad who discovered a means of using the limited technology available on Barsk to build an anti-gravity harness powered by the planet’s constant storms. However, nearly everybody else—both her male and female lovers, her great-great-grandmother, and one of the senior faculty at her university—seems to think it’s a horrible idea and try to talk her out of it. While flying is physically dangerous, the core conflicts of the story are more social in nature. Each naysayer has their own arguments and reasons to discourage her, forcing Pholo to come up with different counter-arguments to mollify them.
For a story about a flying elephant on a distant planet in the far future, Soup of the Moment is surprisingly down-to-Earth. It seems evocative of sci-fi novels of the 80s, such as those of Frank Herbert and C.J. Cherryh, that emphasized the social sciences over the physical. One particularly intriguing scene was the “projective test” performed by Pholo’s therapist, in which she laid out Tarot-like cards and asked Pholo to relate them to herself. It turned Pholo’s therapy session into a debate with herself, without any obviously supernatural elements, and acted as a vehicle for exposition about the world of Barsk as she interpreted the symbolism out loud. That was a creative means of bypassing a big info-dump and changed up the debate formula of the previous chapters a bit.
Schoen's writing is very effective at conveying the complex characters of the story and their social situations. Pholo has a life outside of her work, and she has to balance it carefully with her family, her polyamorous lovers, and the university. Nor are the other characters 1-dimensional caricatures: every one of them has their own line of reasoning and different reactions to Pholo's decisions.
If you’re into high-concept science-fiction about ordinary people in strange well-developed worlds, check this story and the other Barsk novels out.