Monday, March 24, 2014

Review of Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

While we debate mankind’s relationship with the environment and its future possibility in space, there is one thing that is not in question: mankind’s domination of Earth.  Whether one believes the human animal to be civilized or not, it has evolved to occupy the top spot in the food chain, no questions asked.  Mike Resnick’s 1994 Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge traces, through windows of time, this process: from minority to majority, then postulates what may happen after.  Though rather simplistic in presentation and clunky in assumption, there remain more than a few grains of truth tucked into the novella.

A frame story, Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge opens with a group of aliens as they explore Earth many years after man has extinguished himself from the universe in an extended conflagration of aggression—a mere 17 millennium after reaching the stars.  On an archeological dig, the variegated group sift through strata of Earth and the remains of past human civilizations—looted and otherwise.  He Who Feels is the narrator, and his talent is to be able to experience an object’s history through touch.  Seven such objects coming into his presence—a metal stylus, triangular stone, bullet, knife handle, three small pieces of bone, and a chain link—it is through their individual histories that Resnick presents his perspective on the evolution of humanity through and into the future.  Whether the story is a cautionary or just pure cynicism is up to reader interpretation.

Literally post-human, Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge is a far future perspective on humanity.  Instead of humans exploring an extinct civilization, it is their remnants being unearthed.  Using the succeeding windows of time He Who Feels experiences through the objects—from primacy to slavery, imperialism to environmental destruction, Resnick makes his point: humanity’s aggressive flame eventually burns itself out.  I will not get into a debate here about the nihilist vs. realist presentiments of the novella.  That is up to the reader to decide.  I would point out, however, that Resnick’s views on the subject of humanity’s evolution are rather unsophisticated.  This is not to say unintelligent, rather that the ideas appear only half thought out.  Like an armchair philosopher, there is a common sense reality to much of what he presents, but a lot of it does not appear fully informed.  And the lack of coherence is obvious in the text.  The following dialogue is between two alien scientists observing the ‘tailless monkey’ on Earth long, long ago.

    "Perhaps we should capture one and dissect it. The contents of its stomach might tell us a lot about it."
    "You promised."
    "It would be so simple, though," he persisted. "All we'd have to do would be bait a trap with fruits or nuts." 

A coroner examines the stomach of a person after they die, but a real life zoologist observes an animal in its natural habitat to know what it consumes.  I can only imagine that a space-faring race would possess only more sophisticated techniques for gaining information.  Worse yet, if you don’t know what an animal eats, how can you be so confident nuts and fruit will lure it in?  Like an elephant through the grass, Resnick lumbers ideologically and stylistically forward through the other facets of the novella as well, mindless of what’s ignored or stepped on.

Again, this is not to say the idea under discussion is not relevant.  Though showing small signs of improvement, mankind has yet to indicate it is in control of itself, the population spike just one example.  From an environmental perspective we are destroying the very place we call home, and in the process jeopardizing quality of life, perhaps even the existence of future generations.  It is thus best to ignore the unsophisticated presentation of the novella and focus on its aim.  That is undeniable.

In the end, Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge is a bold novella ideologically, but one which waxes and wanes from an execution point of view.  The frame story is a great idea for the theme under discussion, but it remains uncertain whether the science and ideas backing content are always valid.  Presenting a simplistic rather than subtle understanding of the world, the ideas of species aggression and the resulting environmental degradation nevertheless remain vitally important topics, and Resnick at least nails these in the story.

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