Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

“Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novella from 1994, that was produced as an audiobook two years ago by Audible Frontiers.  I read the story when it came out and remembered being impressed, but I just couldn’t remember the details, so I listened to audiobook version, beautifully  narrated  by Jonathan Davis, and now it’s etched into my brain again.  I wonder how much I’ll remember about the story in 16 years?  I hate that my mind is a sieve.  And maybe, since I’m writing a review here, that will further reinforce my memory.

“Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is available to read online at Subterranean Press, and reprinted in these anthologies.  “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” is a fantasy allegory in science fiction drag about alien anthropologists finding seven artifacts at Olduvai Gorge that tell the story of extinct mankind.  Mankind had conquered the galaxy and the aliens both admired and hated us.  They wanted to know what drove humans to destroy everything we touched.  You can think of the recent film Avatar as an eighth story about homo sapiens’s impact on the galaxy.

I really hated the way Avatar painted humanity so thoroughly brutal and selfishly uncaring.  When I tell friends about this, they tell me that’s how they see humans too.  It’s certainly the way Mike Resnick paints us in “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge,” but he does it with more finesse than James Cameron.

The audio production of “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” runs two hours and twenty minutes and is seven short stories encased in a fictional frame.  Resnick infuses his firsthand knowledge of Africa into this tale, and uses Olduvai Gorge as the touchstone setting for the seven visions and the frame.  It works fantastically well on audio, and reminds me of a shorter version of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man.  I’ve always considered Bradbury the anti-science fiction science fiction writer because he fears the future, and sees so much horror in the nature of man.  “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” could be a homage to Bradbury.  I always like Mike Resnick’s prose because he’s better than most science fiction writers at blending emotion into his stories.  One of my all-time favorite short stories is his “Travels with My Cats.” [Also on audio at Escape Pod.]

I review a lot of science fiction, but the story review that gets the most hits is “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.  My guess is the story is often taught in school, and if it wasn’t so long, I’d suggest teachers should replace “The Veldt” with “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge.”  Both are cautionary tales about the evil side of humanity, a perfect Rorschach test for young minds to contemplate our reality.  How do you judge humanity after reading “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge?”  Are we inherently flawed?  Are we evil?  Not only do we threaten all other life forms, we lean towards the self-destructive.  And if we’re not evil, are we just stupid, aggressive and unrelentingly unaware?

Robert A. Heinlein used to brag that mankind is the most dangerous animal around and any intelligent life on other planets should get out of our way.  There’s a lot of extinct species on this planet that would agree with him.  “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” agrees with this sentiment, but who is Mike Resnick warning?  I don’t think his message is to aliens from outer space.  Are we merely meant to accept this story at face value?  Or does Resnick expect us to smarten up?

JWH – 2/2/10

4 Responses

  1. That sounds like a really interesting story, thanks for the online link, I’ll check it out.

    I’d love it if you could track down Chad Oliver’s Between the Thunder and the Sun. I think you would enjoy the balance it takes between the two extremes that Avatar features.

    I don’t mind reading stories that have the Heinlein attitude if they were written in that time period. With the Cold War and all the fears of nuclear war it makes sense that stories reflected a certain pessimism sometimes and were perhaps also a way to show man in a light that would make us say, “wait a minute, it doesn’t have to be like this”. I’m not such a big fan of that kind of blatant black and white attitude in more contemporary fiction, especially not when done the way it was in Avatar.

    • When you gave “Between the Thunder and the Sun” 5 out of 5 stars at your site it made me want to track it down and read it. It hasn’t been reprinted that often, see http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?56967 – although NESFA has published a collection of Chad Oliver back in 2003. But I just hopped over to ABE Books and ordered the The Best of F&SF #7.

      • Cool, I hope you got it for a good price. I was disappointed that I could only find one of the stories in that collection online, I would have loved to point people in the direction of that story and many of the others in that collection. Give Edmondson’s story, Rescue, a read right away as well and Fredric Brown’s very short story is a fun, non-pc shot to the male ego.

  2. I’ve got to say that I was really surprised this story won both the Hugo AND Nebula Awards. I just didn’t think it was that good – not terrible, but nothing very special, either. Award-winning? Really?

    I couldn’t identify any new ideas or new insights. If anything, it was rather simplistic. And it didn’t make up for that with a great story or setting (I don’t expect characterization in short fiction). But THIS is considered to be award-winning science fiction these days?

    I must admit that I liked “Travel with My Cats,” but I also thought it an odd choice for a Hugo Award. But it was a nice story, if not one of my favorites.

    On the other hand, Resnick’s Kirinyaga stories, some of which have also won awards, are so unrelentingly bleak, so depressing, so soul-destroying that I can hardly stand to read them. The mindset he depicts is so disturbing, so frightening, so repulsive,… well, let’s face it, I read science fiction primarily for enjoyment. Much as I might recognize his technical achievement, there’s NOTHING enjoyable about those stories for me.

    Bill

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