Mammoth, John Varley

<em class="BookTitle">Mammoth</em>, John Varley

Ace, 2005, 364 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01281-7

It’s no exaggeration to say that Mammoth is John Varley’s least remarkable book yet.  It’s not part of a series, has made few waves upon release, seems partly destined to kids and features little science-fictional content.  In tone, it’s a lark that eventually takes itself seriously.  In theme, it pushes no envelopes and even treads upon Varley’s previous work.  In short, it’s forgettable and optional: the very definition of a minor work.

But that’s not a catastrophic assessment when dealing with a writer like Varley.  Mammoth does have a few qualities of its own.  Anyone looking to compare Varley at his least impressive to any other writer could learn much by studying Mammoth: Even in minor works, Varley manages to out-write a number of his contemporaries, feature one big spectacular sequence, throw in a few neat ideas and find a haunting finale.  The pieces don’t necessarily all fit together in a satisfying fashion, but that’s a comment on a different level: Line per line, Varley remains one of Science Fiction’s most preposterously readable author.

The best demonstration of that talent is to see how difficult it is to stop reading the novel even when it’s either following obvious paths, refusing to give satisfaction, headed in the wrong direction or tackling soppy sentiments. Varley’s narration somehow makes it all look promising, even when we’re sure of the contrary.  There’s always a neat little hook of storytelling to keep up going forward, a slight twist of perspective or a mini-mystery to keep readers going forward.

So it is that Mammoth begins as a straight-ahead time-travel story.  Somewhere in the Great Canadian North, a really-rich businessman’s archaeological team has discovered not only a superbly preserved mammoth, but also the remnants of what looks like a piece of advanced technology in the hands of a human wearing a wristwatch.  Looking for answers, the really-rich businessman hires a really-smart scientist to figure out that is probably, after all, a time machine coming from a lost time-traveler.  We get, in-between chapters, snippets of a kiddy documentary about mammoths.

There are complications.  The time machine looks like a bunch of marbles in a suitcase and no one can understand how (or if) it works.  Animal activists mount an attack against the really-rich guy’s compound and disrupt the marbles.  The really-smart guy figures out the way to travel back in time when the author nudges him so.  The really-smart guy’s return to contemporary Los Angeles, after a few days in the prehistoric wilderness, comes with a bonus mammoth herd.  A spectacular mammoth rampage ensues, followed by extreme police brutality, mammoth mop-up, and a plot that goes increasingly off the rails when it resumes years later.  By the time our protagonists are kidnapping a showbiz-star mammoth and running away to Canada, well, Mammoth fully earns that “least remarkable Varley book” title.

The time-travel plot ends up in a loop, the strange time machine becomes a formless plot device that Varley isn’t interested in explaining, the super-rich guy becomes a villain (then a more tragic figure) and Canada becomes a haven for mammoth-rights activists.  For those who are tired of conveniently rich characters in science-fiction, deliberately unsatisfying plot devices or dumb animal activism may not find the book entirely to their liking.  (There’s a particularly vexing suspension-of-disbelief problem when we’re asked to believe that mammoth would become the next big thing in showbiz.)  The writing is good, but it all amounts to a plot that alternates between weak and silly.  There are several fine moments in the novel (the return of the mammoth herd in downtown Los Angeles is a spectacular sequence, and it’s announced by a cute re-arrangement of chapter numbers), but they add up to a disappointing shaggy-mammoth story, with a sad extended epilogue that seems curiously out-of-place in the middle of an otherwise light-hearted (even ridiculous) story.  To see a fine premise scatter off in all directions like this is a disappointment, especially considering that it’s coming from a writer who has done far better in the past.

But even Varley fans have accepted that he can have off decades, and that the fizzy wonderful Varley of the seventies (or, to a lesser extent, the nineties) is not the one writing nowadays.  Mammoth is fine in the ways Varley can be fine even when he’s writing trifles, but it’s also maddening in reminding us that he can do far, far better.  Call it, as I first said, a minor addition to his bibliography: worth tracking down only once you’ve exhausted his top-line work.

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