Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

Artful anthropological sci-fi short
Mike Resnick’s science fiction story “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” was originally published in the October/November 1994 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Though the publisher Phoenix Pick is packaging and selling this work on Amazon as if it were a novella, it’s really not long enough to qualify as one. In Resnick’s 2012 collection The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures, “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” only takes up 47 printed pages. So it’s really only a short story, or perhaps a “novelette,” which is fine, as long as you know what you’re getting before you spend your money. Fortunately, it happens to be a very good short story. It won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella of the year and was nominated for a number of other international sci-fi prizes.

Resnick has repeatedly traveled to Africa and frequently sets his science fiction stories there. For anyone who doesn’t know, Olduvai Gorge is a valley in Tanzania where many of the earliest specimens of human remains have been found. Much of our knowledge of the evolution of mankind has come from the fossils dug from the soil of Olduvai Gorge, which have fleshed out the human family tree with such progenitors and relatives as Homo habilis, Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus, and early Homo sapiens. Resnick’s story thus falls into the category of anthropological and archaeological science fiction, a subgenre I always enjoy, though good examples of which are infrequent and hard to find.

The story takes place thousands of years in the future. The narrator, a member of an alien species, informs us that mankind is now extinct. While they lived, however, humans ruled the universe, mercilessly conquering millions of worlds and reigning over their interplanetary empire with an iron fist. Now, almost 5,000 years after humanity’s demise, an archaeological expedition made up of scientists of a number of extraterrestrial races makes a pilgrimage to Olduvai Gorge to learn what they can about mankind’s origins. The narrator, known as He Who Views, has the special sensory power of feeling the history of artifacts that are subjected to his examination. As members of the expedition uncover objects from the Gorge, the narrator reveals the stories behind the items, thus sketching out the history of humanity in the region from the prehistoric past to the far-off future.

“Seven Views from Olduvai Gorge” is hard to get into at first. The narrative’s unique time-travel device is admirably innovative, but the first few vignettes, taking place in the past, are more historical fiction than sci-fi, leaving the reader to wonder when Resnick is actually going to venture into speculation about the future of mankind. In its latter half, however, the story really takes off, and Resnick’s dystopian future brings into focus mankind’s destructive propensities for violence, avarice, and environmental degradation. The story succeeds both as mind-expanding science fiction and as thought-provoking social commentary. Resnick has the ability to render extraordinary concepts and events in a way that grounds them in the realm of the realistic. His writing reminds me of the work of Clifford D. Simak, which is one of the best compliments I could give any sci-fi writer. Whether a work of fiction this short is worth the cover price may be up for debate, but there’s no denying that “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is a worthwhile read.
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