July 2005

Mammoth
A Novel by John Varley
Ace, June 2005
ISBN: 0441012817

Hardcover, 364 pages

What can you do with billions of dollars? Howard Christian, multibillionaire, enjoys investing in scientific experiments. This time he’s seeking to clone a frozen wooly mammoth discovered in Canada. He hires elephant expert Susan Morgan to oversee the project of impregnating an elephant with sperm from the Mammoth. Howard soon has more on his plate than he bargained for when a frozen man is found with the mammoth . . . and the man is wearing a wristwatch. Also in the man’s possession is a metallic case. Assuming the case to be a time machine, Howard brings in Matthew Wright, genius mathematician, to unlock the secrets of time travel. Wright seems to be making little progress until the machine activates and sends both he and Susan into the distant past, when mammoths roamed the grounds of California. Things couldn’t get any worse, right? Then the machine activates again, returning the scientists to their own time, along with a herd of mammoths. And here we meet baby Fuzzy, perhaps the true hero of the tale.

John Varley has been a star of SF for nearly three decades, and his new novel, Mammoth, is a shining gem in his much adorned crown. While the scientific principles behind the story are interesting, the characters keep the book alive. Taking center stage may be little Fuzzy, a wooly/Columbian mammoth hybrid from the stone-age who, after traveling through time and loosing his herd, becomes a circus star the likes of which we have never seen! Varley transforms this Mammoth into a real person – like Lassie with tusks, but you wouldn’t want this Lassie sitting in your lap. Matthew Wright and Susan Morgan serve as the characters with whom we are supposed to identify. Matt, while being a genius, discovers that all of his learning is insufficient to answer life’s big questions. Or can it? Varley opens the door to discussion through Matt’s philosophical pondering and invites the readers to take the next step. Susan becomes so attached to Fuzzy that she no longer looks upon him as an animal but as a family member. Who hasn’t done that? Her love for Fuzzy leads her to take desperate measures. And Howard Christian, the powerful billionaire, isn’t nearly the bad guy we first think he is. Varley wisely develops Howard into an individual with honest motives, giving him a sympathetic back-story so we understand how he matured into the man we see in Mammoth.

Besides the great characters, Mammoth is a joy because of Varley’s mastery of tone and language. He doesn’t allow the weight of science or metaphysics to slow the story or sap the humor. With a light hand, he presents abstract subjects, helping the reader to visualize the principle in question while staying in touch with the humanity of the characters. There is also a great sense of humor throughout the book, and I found myself laughing on more than one occasion. The result is a unique piece of work: a book that makes you think critically while keeping it enjoyable and fun.

Varley also employs a fascinating structure. The book actually begins on chapter five, with chapters two through four beginning in the middle of the text. You can probably guess where chapter one ends up. Scattered throughout are clips from Little Fuzzy: A Child of the Ice Age, a children’s story about Fuzzy. These sections provide essential information about Fuzzy and his background while being witty, informative, and enjoyable. If you have never read John Varley, this is a good place to start. The novel stands alone and will give you a thirst for more.

Copyright © 2005 by Shaun Farrell. All rights reserved.