Silverhair: Mammoth - Book One by Stephen Baxter (Orion Millennium, £16.99, 277 pages, hardback; £9.99 trade paperback also available; both published 21 January 1999. Mass market paperback, £5.99, published 13 January 2000.)
On an island in the far north of Siberia, the last of the mammoths eke out their existence, driven ever northwards by the warming world and the relentless spread of the race they know as the Lost.
The Lost rarely visit the island, and when they do they never venture far from a military research station the mammoths call the Nest of Straight Lines. That is, not until a storm leaves a group of the Lost shipwrecked on the island, an event that draws the mammoths into contact -- and conflict -- with the race they fear.
Yes, leading hard science fiction writer Stephen Baxter is spreading his wings. With Mammoth he's moved into the world of talking animals.
Whenever an author does this, the inevitable comparison is with Watership Down. In this case, in particular, the comparison is valid, because Mammoth follows a similar course of animals coming into conflict with humankind.
The level of the writing is similar, too: Mammoth falls into the often uneasy ground where young adult reading crosses over into adult. "Often uneasy" because books aimed at this level run the risk of missing both audiences, with both adults and teenagers preferring to read adult fiction -- or, perhaps more accurately, preferring not to be seen reading kids' stuff. Like Adams before him, Baxter gets it just right.
Like Watership Down, again, Mammoth makes for pretty grim reading at times: no whimsical flopsy-wopsy bunnies here, life for the mammoths is tough, encounters with humans are violent and cruel. Indeed, the relentless cruelty of some of the humans is one of the novel's weaker aspects: the only attempt to justify this comes very late in the story, in a conclusion over-burdened with explanatory backfill. Up to that point, the behaviour of the humans comes across as either woefully single-dimensional characterisation, or simply as something designed to fuel the plot, to give the mammoths something to struggle against.
The comparison with Watership Down is valid, again, in that -- as you would expect from this author -- the research underpinning the story is thorough. The geography of the tundra, the day to day details of mammoth life are all convincing.
Throughout this book Baxter writes like a naturalist: his careful and vivid descriptions explain the natural world to the reader whilst only rarely threatening to lecture. Baxter is clearly fascinated by the intricate mechanisms of the natural world and that fascination comes through powerfully in the writing.
And finally, the comparison with Watership Down stands up because, quite simply, Mammoth is a rich and very rewarding read, for adults and teenagers alike. Books like this should be part of the National Curriculum for science.
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© Nick Gifford 2 March 1999