KIRINYAGA: A FABLE OF UTOPIA by Mike Resnick
reviewed by Barry Ergang
Among all of the highly readable, intelligent and well-crafted novels Mike Resnick has written, I have three favorites: Walpurgis III, The Dark Lady, and the book under consideration here: Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia (Del Rey/Ballantine, 1998).
Although Resnick considers it a novel, it developed from a short story he was asked to write by Orson Scott Card for an anthology about future Utopian societies. “Because of my love for Africa,” Resnick explains in an afterword, “and my knowledge of East Africa in particular, I chose to write about a Kikuyu Utopia. The story was ‘Kirinyaga,’ and I handed it to Scott at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, England, where I stopped for a few days on my way down to Kenya for another safari....
“...Even before Scott let me know he was buying it, I took my Kenya safari--and a strange thing happened. Maybe it was because I had just written ‘Kirinyaga’ a couple of weeks earlier and it was still fresh in my mind, maybe it was because my subconscious is a lot smarter than my conscious mind, but whatever the reason, I realized that ‘Kirinyaga’ was not a stand-alone story, but rather the first chapter in a book....
“I decided to write the book a chapter at a time, and to sell each chapter as a short story...but never to lose sight of the fact that these stories were really chapters in a novel, which, when completed, would build to a climax as a novel does, and have a coda after the climax, as so many of my own novels do.”
Spanning the period from 2123 to 2137, Kirinyaga is narrated by Koriba, a man of Kikuyu descent who was educated at Cambridge and Yale, who reveres what Kenya and his culture was and has come to reject what it has become:
“In the beginning, Ngai lived alone atop the mountain called Kirinyaga. In the fullness of time He created three sons, who became the fathers of the Maasai, the Kamba, and the Kikuyu races, and to each son He offered a spear, a bow, and a digging stick. The Maasai chose the spear, and was told to tend herds on the vast savannah. The Kamba chose the bow, and was sent to the dense forests to hunt for game. But Gikuyu, the first Kikuyu, knew that Ngai loved the earth and the seasons, and chose the digging stick. To reward him for this Ngai not only taught him the secrets of the seed and the harvest, but gave him Kirinyaga, with its holy fig tree and rich lands.
“The sons and daughters of Gikuyu remained on Kirinyaga until the white man came and took their lands away, and even when the white man had been banished they did not return, but chose to remain in the cities, wearing Western clothes and using Western machines and living Western lives. Even I, who am a mundumugu--a witch doctor--was born in the city. I have never seen the lion or the elephant or the rhinoceros, for all of them were extinct before my birth; nor have I seen Kirinyaga as Ngai meant it to be seen, for a bustling, overcrowded city of three million inhabitants covers its slopes, every year approaching closer and closer to Ngai’s throne at the summit. Even the Kikuyu have forgotten its true name, and now know it only as Mount Kenya.”
Along with a group of like-minded people, Koriba leaves Earth to live on a chartered, terraformed planetoid called Kirinyaga, where he reverts to the old ways of the Kikuyu. As their mundumugu, he’s the repository of the collected wisdom and customs of the tribe, living alone and apart from the rest but participating daily in their lives, the most feared and venerated among them--feared even by Koinnage, the paramount chief. Only Koriba possesses the computer that allows him to communicate with Maintenance, which can change the orbit of Kirinyaga to maintain or alter climatic conditions. Koriba uses this facility, unknown to his people, to his own advantage, bringing rain or drought as he sees fit, often to fulfill his own prophecies and prayers to Ngai.
Each chapter presents Koriba with a new problem that threatens the Utopia he and the others have created. Invoking tribal laws with a fanatical stringency, he tries to find solutions. Not all of the solutions are happy ones, but Koriba is determined to prevent any change that will corrupt tradition, even if it means bettering his people’s lot--by what he sees as European standards. Ultimately he is forced to realize that change in a society is inevitable, that inherent in the concept of Utopia is stasis and stagnation, and that one man’s idea of perfection can be another’s agony. Resnick’s artistry lies in portraying Koriba’s fanaticism so that the reader is simultaneously repelled by and sympathetic to it. He and the other characters, and the problems that befall them because of the society they’ve created, will resonate in the reader’s mind long after the book has been put down.
Easily Mike Resnick’s finest work, Kirinyaga is, to date, the most honored book in the history of science fiction. Read it, and you’ll understand why.
Originally published in Maelstrom, Vol. II, Issue 2, 1999
Barry Ergang © 1999, 2007