Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia
By Mike Resnick
Audio Edition by Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Read by Paul Garcia
When I first read Kirinyaga, I enjoyed the story of a stubborn old shaman or mundumugu in his own language and his struggle to create a world that would be ideal for his tribe, the Kikuyu, formerly of Kenya. It is Koriba’s job to interpret and enforce the laws and traditions of the Kikuyu on the world of Kirinyaga and, by so doing, maintain the unique Kikuyu utopia they all left Earth to find. However, while this novel, which is actually a collection of stories, has won numerous awards, I found that this time around I really did not enjoy it as much.
This time around I saw where Koriba was wrong. It was not so much a matter of my Western point of view conflicting with his. I have two degrees in anthropology. While I may not have known of the Kikuyu’s specifics when I first read the book, there were no customs described within to which I had not been exposed to in my studies. This was Antropology 101… well, actually it was Anthropology 201… At Case Western Reserve University there were no 100 level anthro courses when I was there.
The first real story of the book, after the prologue is the original short story, “Kirinyaga” in which Koriba must deal with the outside influence of Maintenance, a department of the Utopia Council who granted the Kikuyu their planetary charter and who maintain the planetary orbit and conditions on Kirinyaga. The problem here is that in keeping with Kikuyu custom, Koriba has performed his duty as mundumugu and killed an infant child, who by the traditions of the Kikuyu was born a demon. I do not condone infanticide in any case, but I could see where it was all headed. If the Kikuyu were to be allowed their version of Utopia, alltheir customs must be allowed. Okay, I get it. The point was driven in with a sledge hammer so I would have had to be particularly dense not to get it.
Then there is the story of Kamari; “For I have touched the Sky.” Kamari is very intelligent Kikuyu girl who wants to learn so much she teaches herself, against all custom, to read. Koriba is angered when he learns she has done so but when forbidden to communicate with his computer in any known language, Kamari invents an entirely new language with which to do so. The tragic conclusion of the story is sadly predictable.
I think Mister Resnick meant to shock his readers with the vast difference between Kikuyu culture and that of the civilized nations and to touch them with these poignant tales. They are well written, but not particularly subtle nor unpredictable. However, they were a lot more interesting to read than most of the dry ethnological monographs I was forced to read as a student.
However, while the Kikuyu world is certainly not for me (I would still want a flush toilet in my shamba) I understand the basic cultural precepts that go into its being. It is a world that runs by the laws of the Kikuyu; not any other tribe or nation. Okay, I get it. So with my anthropological training I can look at it in its own cultural context at least as well as any other outsider might.
In Mister Resnick’s favor, I must say he kept to the Kikuyu culture most consistently and does tell a compelling story in the process. My problems are with the protagonist, Koriba, himself who narrates these tales in the first person. Koriba is a Kikuyu who, when on Earth had been educated in European and then American Universities. He knows of the Western culture, having experienced itself, but for one reason or more, he has rejected Western culture for his own native one. I have no problem with that. To do so is his right and he would hardly be the first.
However, Koriba, is also headstrong, stubborn and a hypocrite. I think he would admit to the first two with a simple, “Am I not the mundomugu?” and expect me to respect that… I probably would, but the maintenance of Kirinyaga as a Kikuyu Utopia is done via his computer. He communicates with Maintenance via that computer, uses it for his own research and even “calls down the rains,” or drought, using that computer. He continually talks about keeping to the simple Kikuyu life but even so he is reliant on that computer to keep his own people in line. Would a shaman use a computer like that to perform his “magic” if he had one? Yes, probably. Shamanistic magic is as scientific as a computer, and maybe more so, considering most people use one without ever knowing how it works, but he never seems to admit to himself that even as he supposedly rejects “European” technology, he uses it himself on a daily basis. Of course he does… Is he not the mundumugu? Sorry that one I don’t buy. If he is so adamant on rejecting the “European” values and technology, surely climate control should not be an exception.
The concept of Utopia is thoroughly explored in Kirinyaga. Each story shows us a different aspect of the ideal life. In “Bwana,” the Kikuyu insist, against Koriba’s advice, on hiring a hunter to kill the hyenas that are preying on them and their animals. The hunter, a Masai tribesman, does kill hyenas and then promptly tries to establish himself as the king of Kirinyaga. Only Koriba’s machinations foil the Masai, but the point was, I think, that the Kikuyu Utopia is not that of the Masai.
The point is sledge-hammered in repeatedly in other stories. In each case Kirinyaga is not ideal for the person involved and whether they die or leave, Koriba is always right; always steadfast in his belief that he alone knows the proper way for his people. Eventually we must decide that Kirinyaga was probably only a Utopia for Koriba himself and that he is as guilty of forcing his people into his sort of Utopia as the Masai hunter had been. As the stories progress more and more of his people, including his own chosen acolyte, reject his vision of a Kikuyu Utopia.
Koriba makes two basic mistakes, as I see it. First, he assumes that a tribesman or woman can only be a true Kikuyu if they believe the things he does and behaves as he thinks they should. Indeed, his worst condemnation of an erring villager is that he or she is not a true Kikuyu. The longer he and his people are on Kirinyaga, the more individuals are disaffected and in the end Koriba alone truly desires the unending simple Kikuyu lifestyle that never truly existed on Earth in the first place.
Koriba’s second basic mistake, I think, is that in spite of his education he is adamant in maintaining the Kikuyu in what we might call the “Anthropological Present,” that state at which a culture existed at the time an ethnographer studied them. When you read a monograph it is easy to believe that the culture discussed is precisely like that today even if the study was done a century ago. That is never the case. Follow-up studies have always found changes in a culture. The whole image of a people living in the same unchanging lifestyle for thousands of years is false. People always change. The changes are not always evident from the material culture, which might be why archaeologists can point to the ruins of ancient cities and tell us a certain ancient culture lasted a few centuries. But personal interactions change frequently and people change depending on who they are with, what they need vs. what they have and even with the weather. Most of these changes might be small ones but they add up.
Later in the book it turns out that while the Kikuyu colonists wanted to return to their lifestyles as they were before European influence, their choices were flawed. On Kirinyaga they live in villages, whereas they never did so before the Europeans forced them to. In what is now Kenya, there were several competing tribes with whom they had to contend. They were never an isolated people. And even without these influences, beneath it all, people are people. There are always those who will want something that will conflict with the wants of others. It is inevitable.
Well, I think a lot of that was precisely what Mister Resnick was trying to say, but Koriba, the lone educated man in the crowd, is blind to it all even though he is the one who should have seen it coming. Had he not rejected all that he had learned in Europe and America, he might have realized that the perfect society is almost always one that existed in the past. Most people think of the way things were when their parents were young and see it as a simpler, more innocent time. Utopia is a condition that existed at least ten years before you were born and even when recreated is transitory at best.
To sum up; the story is technically well-written, and I enjoyed it the first time through. On second reading I wanted to throttle Koriba for his stubborn blindness to the fact that his Kikuyu are people like any other and his failure to understand them on their own terms.
The Audio Edition
Paul Garcia reads Kirinyaga well. Listening to him I can imagine myself in the scenes, feeling the hot savannah breezes on my skin, and imagining the flies and other insectile pests that are a matter of course in such locales.
My one complaint is that Mike Resnick has written these stories in the first person. It is Koriba himself telling the stories. Actually I do not mind the stories being in the first person, my complaint is how they are narrated. Mister Garcia is not consistent in his portrayal of Koriba’s voice. When Koriba talks to another person in the book, he sounds like a Hollywood witch doctor, which in some ways he is. His voice is deep and gruff, the ultimate irascible elder. In a different situation, I can imagine him shouting, “Hey you kids! Get off my lawn!” However, when Koriba is telling us the story as the narrator, Garcia’s voice is higher and less in character with Koriba himself. The shift back and forth is jarring. Whether Koriba is speaking to us or to his people his voice should still be the same. One could argue that this was done to differentiate dialogue from narrative, but other readers have managed this without confusing the listener. I think it could have been done here as well.
In conclusion; Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia is an multiple award-winning collection of stories. Resnick writes them well and even though I felt a great animosity to his protagonist on my second reading, these are still good stories to read once. Besides, isn’t good fiction supposed to affect us emotionally? Paul Garcia reads the stories well and if you’re a Resnick fan I do not think you will be disappointed.