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.


  1. Hard to understand what all the uncritical fuss was about. Good Sci Fi is supposed to be coherent within the world imagined. Even in this short foray, there are gaping holes of logic some of which you have pointed out. A very bothersome one is that despite Man supposedly being extinct and the extra-terrestrial anthropologists very different with superior gifts, nevertheless the "Exobiologist" character was described as a female, killed by a bone raining blows on her head and shoulders with the bone passed off as her own. What was she then if not something resembling a human and as susceptible to head injury? And why would supposed celestial anthropologists knowing Man's development from apes have difficulty figuring out that the "dark figures" are hominids or degraded Man?

    The ideology is leftist or at least interpreted as such by most of its fans, resolutely ignoring the fact that far from civilized man devastating his surroundings as the green alarmists would have it, the environment is best cared for in developed countries. The latter have also figured out how to feed the enlarging world population while increasing the global living standard higher than has ever been known before. There are pockets of primitivism - presently Syria and its tyrant's sponsor Russia come to mind. The "Morlocks" of the world may well overwhelm naive western "Eloi" who concern themselves with entertainment more than education, polluting even science with emotion rather than sober consideration of facts and evidence.

    Both the ideology and execution of this novella, really a bare outline are crude, hardly deserving of all the rewards heaped on it - perhaps an ironic exercise in what may cause Man's doom eventually - chattering classes reinforcing each other's delusions about what is "brilliant" and indoctrinated masses following like sheep?

    1. I find it humorous that people like you find liberalism and environmentalism synonymous when they are clearly separate. To your point, to say that the West is doing the greatest job of protecting the Earth is naive. Sure, we have national parks and environmental regulations, etc., etc., while second and third world countries produce vast quantities of pollution and consume vast quantities of resources. But in what name is the pollution produced and resources consumed? Some is naturally for local concerns, but predominantly it is to fuel the Western commercial engine. What percentage of the goods you consume were made in America? Which leads to the question: would the American environment be as clean, healthy, and cheap if they were manufactured in the US? And I believe the West holds some responsibility in this. Likely you will disagree with a "free market economy" and "it's out of American hands" mentality, but the West is complicit by default. When you sell a person a gun illegally and they use it to kill someone, you take part of the guilt. In the US you cannot manufacture goods the way they are manufactured in China, yet the US has no problem allowing the Chinese to do it on US behalf. Short term gains traded for long term sustainability, it's sadly not a good plan.

      You did not state it clearly, but are you blaming the left for the "takeover of education by entertainment"? The slow, painful death of education in the US is not the result of leftist politics, its the result of financial cuts. Look at who proposed said cuts if you want answers there.

      Though I have never met you, I can say a few things with certainty. You are older than 40, American, introverted, middle class, consume a great deal of news media, have never traveled extensively outside the US, if ever, and consider yourself an informed conservative. It's time to step out of that box. Go see the world you believe you have an informed opinion of, not to view said news media with skepticism - the left and right. Have a read of Noam Chomsky, as well. Therein ye shall find real answers.