Reviewed: July 8, 2007
By: John Varley
Publisher: Ace Books
341 pages, $10.99

Mammoth begins with a not very complimentary reference to Nunavut. Of course, this comes from a man with very little interest in the world except as it pertains to expediting his employer’s affairs, and Nunavut was an inconvenient place from which to do that. But that’s where they found the mammoth, so that’s where Warburton had to go.

His employer, the richest man in the world, had the notion that finding a completely intact mammoth would enable him to harvest enough genetic material to clone one of the beasts, so the news of the Nunavut discovery meant that Warburton had to go look at it.

He wasn’t expecting the bodies curled up next to the mammoth. he wasn’t expecting the wristwatch on the man, or the battered briefcase next to him. He wasn’t expecting much of anything that would happen over the next five years, but them Warburton was a man of limited imagination.

Howard Christian was the richest man on Earth. His ability to take little sideways leaps of creativity had enabled him to revolutionize the way the world worked - twice. He could afford to indulge himself. He could collect comic books, build enormous buildings, waste money on profitless R&D projects, or on even stranger obsessions. He knew what the wristwatch had to mean.

Matthew Wright was hired by Howard Christian to invent, or reinvent, time travel. It was hard to say which. The watch and the briefcase argued that the man who had them had not been native to the era in which he died. Matt was the sort of mathematical genius who might be able to figure out how that happened. Matthew had lots of imagination and a gift for seeing patterns and relationships where no one else could. In time the patterns he began to see scared the bejesus out of him, but he didn’t see everything.

Susan Morgan also worked for Howard Christian. By training she was an elephant handler, one of the best, and that qualified her to oversee the artificial insemination that Christian hoped would produce his mammoth. All her life Susan had been in love with the circus, with elephants, and with the things she could get them to do for their adoring public. If never occurred to her that she would one day want to run away from the greatest show on Earth.

Neither Matt not Susan had any intention of time travelling themselves, and when they did most of their attention was focussed on surviving the experience and somehow getting back home. That they ended up bringing a small herd of mammoths with them into the middle of downtown LA traffic was sheer happenstance.

By then we’re a bit more than a third of the way through the book. We’ve learned a lot about Matt, Susan and Howard, and even more about the origins of Big Mama and Little Fuzzy, the two survivors of the LA mammoth stampede.

Much of the latter comes from a delightful children’s educational book called Little Fuzzy, a Child of the Ice Age, chapters of which are interspersed with Varley’s main story. I have to say that these snippets of historical recreation, packed with information but slightly tongue-in-cheek, are nearly as much fun as the main story itself, and I was sorry there weren’t more of them.

Mammoth itself is several different kinds of novel. Unlike much of Varley’s fiction, it is set on Earth and seems to have no connection to the future history he has been giving us by installments during his career. It’s not all that far in the future at all, but it covers either five or six years in time, a man’s lifetime or over 15,000 years, depending on how you want to look at it.

It has science, mystery, romance, adventure and intrigue. It has a cast of interesting people, most of whom mean well according to their own lights. It is a great read, and my only regret is that it wasn’t longer.