In this Author Spotlight, we take a look at Orson Scott Card’s career and life leading up to his story “The Elephants of Poznan,” which first appeared in Fantastyka in 2000.
Most SF readers are no stranger to Card and his successful series of Ender novels, several of which have won Hugo and Nebula awards. Card writes more than just SF—he’s authored over forty books, including fantasy novels, biblical novels, poetry, plays and scripts. The successful online magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show, which he began in 2005, regularly showcases his works, as well as other quality short stories. He also writes a good deal of nonfiction, including columns in The Rhinoceros Times, an online journal of Greensboro, NC. So how did the “The Elephants of Poznan,” an apocalyptic short story set in Poland, fit into this author’s busy life?
“As with most of my stories,” Card says, “this one came from two unrelated ideas that came together. I visited Poland for the first time and was intrigued by the architectural misfit in the main square, and I read Caitlin O’Connell’s The Elephant’s Secret Sense, which filled me with the intriguing possibilities of elephant musth as a source of change in their own species and others.”
Those intriguing possibilities are showcased in this story as Lukasz, our narrator and one of the few survivors of the plague that wiped out humanity, watches the elephants for some time, trying to understand their actions, which include knocking down an old Communist building. “The elephants are communicating with each other constantly,” Card adds.
Not surprising for Card, this story also touches on political and ethical issues, given the Communist building at the center of the story. Yet by the end, Lukasz decides to restore the building. Why did Card decide on that?
He keeps it simple in his answer, explaining only this:
“When I was in Poland a few weeks ago (my second visit) several people from Poznan told me that yes, those old buildings were ugly, but they were actually rather proud of them (the way Chicagoans have developed an affection for the appallingly ugly Picasso angel). The reasons why the narrator rebuilds the building are particular to him, and this story.”
Although he lets us draw some of our own conclusions with this story, Card is vocal about his opinions on many political issues, including the environment. You can find many of his arguments in “World Watch,” a column in The Ornery American, where he touches on volatile issues like Darwinism versus Intelligent Design, and global warming. Keeping his political activism in mind, we asked if he thinks of “The Elephants of Poznan” as pure fiction, or something more.
“This is science fiction,” Card answers. “As far as we know, it is not only not true, but probably impossible. Most SF ideas fall into this category. It’s simply a cool idea, and who knows? Maybe there is some version of this idea (i.e., genetic alteration from outside a species) that is true, or truish.
“I explain that the elephants, at need, can consciously alter the composition of their musth, creating a virus that spreads genetic change into the target species. The idea is that they have changed themselves at need—mammoths, mastodons, modern elephants—and also change other species. Humans were the result of elephant genetic manipulation in the first place, creating a cooperative primate that could control predators that elephants did not like. But then humans became far more dangerous than the predators they were designed to control, so further genetic change was needed. The human race, as was needed, could be wiped out.
“Science fiction exists in order to construct other realities, where changed rules alter the nature and meaning of the things people do,” Card adds. “Ultimately, we care about science fiction because of the lens through which it lets us look at ourselves and the world around us.
“I’m not predicting that elephants will destroy the human race and then replace it with a weird crossbreeding between human and elephant. But, like Noah’s flood in Genesis, it is possible to look at human beings and ‘repent’ that we exist, at least as we are now. Wiping the slate clean and starting over is a possibility contemplated by every Jew and Christian who has read Genesis; this is a story about how and why it might happen in naturalistic terms. Along the way, we get to have fun with true information about elephants, a real-world setting, and the completely understandable feelings of a man who has lost his family, even though his son is still alive. If a science fiction story does not ring true with human beings now, it’s hard to know what value it could have.”
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