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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Ivory by Mike Resnick

Ivory was up for the Nebula and Clarke awards.


See the source imageThe novel opens telling how the Kilimanjaro elephant tusks were lost by a Maasai in a card game (more or less tricked). And then it alternates between private detective, Duncan Rojas, was hired by Bukoba Mandaka, the last Maasai, to track down the legendary ivory tusks lost some 3000 years earlier—so long ago that the information trail is fragmented at best. Rojas finds stories showing how museum curators fought to protect them from being sold into private hands.

Slowly, Rojas builds an idea of not just where the tusks are located but also what the tusks have meant to the possessors, the Maasai, and this last man who is finally hunting them down, no matter the cost.


The best thing about the narrative is figuring out its shape. It becomes clear that Rojas is finding these stories we read—apart from the first that appears before Rojas is put on the case. It isn’t clear who observed the first story.

More apparent on the second reading is that not all of the stories involving the tusks are equally compelling. The novel may have been stronger if some of the weaker chapters had been cut—ones not building the legend of the Maasai, the elephant, and Mandaka. This would have made a slender volume, which might have persuaded fewer to buy—those who are motivated by how heavy it is, but a slender volume might have created more rereadings and made its fans more avid.

Now comes the flaw that reveals the strength. When the last Maasai has to be destroyed, not only does it render that character’s life meaningless, but also his peoples’ and the tusks themselves (if they are said to derive their true meaning from the Maasai)—not to mention Detective Rojas himself who has absorbed himself in this mysterious pursuit without knowing the end goal. The tusks become the ultimate MacGuffin.

We cannot allow our lazy reading to stop there, however, as the penultimate chapter describes the meaning of life (since everyone’s going to die, anyway) as being one of a worthy pursuit, even if it is ultimately a MacGuffin. Rojas could be said to be pursuing money, which he was initially, but even money is a MacGuffin if we consider that it cannot be taken with him into some afterlife. He knew less than Mandaka about the end goal.

The opening chapter, the gambling chapter, shows the Maasai trying to talk the poker-game victor out of taking his people’s tusks. He tells her the monetary value of the tusks is less than other items “she” could take. She says it is the value that he invests in them that makes the tusks more valuable.

The tusks change in value as they are transported from setting to setting. In one, they are thought to be invaluable as part of an exhibit, but lose all value (except monetary) when they learn that the tusks don’t belong in said exhibit.

The novel becomes a lens to examine the meaning of life—an intriguing perspective.

It might be useful useful to look at the novel through biological conservation back when biologists held up animals near extinction for protection as opposed to ecosystems.. 

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