Silverhair by Stephen Baxter (1999)

BaxterMammoth1Cover blurb

For forty thousand springs, Silverhair and her kind, the last of the woolly mammoths, have lived in a remote tundra, rimmed by ice and sea and mountain. Soon to be a mother, Silverhair looks to the future with hope. But even as her life begins, the world she loves is ending. A new menace, more vicious than any enemy, is descending upon the snowlands—a two-legged creature that kills for joy. Desperate to save their kind, Silverhair and the matriarch, Owlheart, must travel across the glacial torrents, beyond the saw-toothed mountains. There they will seek the help from distant cousins who found their destiny in the sea, and from an enemy-an ice-faced menace known as… the Lost.

My thoughts

English author Stephen Baxter is best known as a writer of “hard sci-fi” space operas, but he has also dabbled in paleofiction. In 2003 he wrote Evolution, a collection of stories recounting the rise and eventual extinction of humankind. Before that, he penned a trilogy of novels about woolly mammoths told from the point of view of the animals, starting with Silverhair.

The main character, Silverhair, is member of a mammoth herd that survived the extinction of their species by hiding on an island in the Arctic Circle. In the world of the book, mammoths have human-like intelligence and a rich mythology based on racial memories stretching back to the time of dinosaurs. Silverhair is a bit of a loner and unusually curious for her kind. This curiosity leads to her discover of a group of two-legged creatures called “the Lost” because they are disconnected from the natural rhythms of the planet. The encounter doesn’t end well and soon the mammoths find themselves in conflict with the Lost, who hunt the animals for their meat and ivory. If Silverhair and her herd fall, then the last of mammoths will have disappeared from the Earth.

Silverhair will remind many readers of Richard Adams’ Watership Down, and not just because the publisher deliberately splashed the name of the latter on the book’s back cover to draw a comparison. At a superficial level, both novels are stories about intelligent animals trying to survive the depredations of humankind. But while Watership Down featured rabbits, Adams’ story was actually a commentary about how best to organize human societies. Baxter isn’t aiming for any deeper meaning in Silverhair. The novel is a somewhat bare-bones adventure tale about survival in a harsh environment, with the difference being the characters are mammoths. Even the author’s message about the harm humans cause the environment is negated with a sci-fi twist at the end that literally comes out of nowhere. That said, Silverhair remains an entertaining tale elevated by Baxter’s descriptions of mammoth society and the tundra landscape.

The book may be a tad too long for what the author sets out to accomplish—one could argue that shaving off good 50 or so pages would have improved the pacing—but this is a story most people will enjoy.

Trivia

  • The plot was likely inspired by the discovery that a small population of mammoths survived until 4,000 years ago on an island off the coast of Siberia. To put that into perspective, the pyramids in Egypt were built around the same time.
  • Give Baxter an award of creative cursing. One of the characters, Eggtusk, is constantly spurting out corny profanities based on the mammoths’ belief system, each different from the last: “By Kilukpuk’s snot-crusted nostril!” and “By Kilukpuk’s oozing scabs!”
  • A second extinct species makes an appearance in Silverhair. I won’t spoil it here, but you can learn more about the species on its Wikipedia page.
  • All three books in the Mammoth trilogy were collected in the 2004 omnibus Behemoth.
  • The author’s website is Stephen-Baxter.com

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