Mike Resnick’s Kilimanjaro: A Fable of Utopia

There are two ways to read Kilimanjaro, Resnick’s slow-following successor to the award-winning Kirinyaga.

The first takes the novella at face value, giving the reader an Arthur C. Clarke-like read of intelligent people confronting serious issues with intelligence, conversation, and compromise in the best interests of all. There’s very little shouting, almost no violence, and the butchering of a rhinoceros is the most heinous crime committed anywhere within the book’s pages. It’s a scientist who ultimately gets elected, sensibly, to the presidency of the artificial asteroid inhabited by the Maasai, and the sorts of issues that have too often provoked bloody constraint on Earth (cultural vs. genetic identity, tradition vs. modernity, and so forth) are resolved in debate, with the backwards-looking party retreating with comic grace in every instance.

So there’s that, then, a pleasant, ‘60s-style read that will warm the heart of old school science fiction fans yearning for something Olaf Stapledon would have approved of.

Then there’s the other way to look at it. In his introduction to The Gray Prince in The Jack Vance Reader, Resnick noted that he was mildly boggled by the fire leveled at Kirinyaga over racial issues. At the time, that approach struck me as somewhat ingenuous; even with the best of research and intentions, it’s hard to see how an intelligent writer would fail to understand how a white author’s story cycle about the futuristic social evolution of the Kikuyu away from “traditional” Kikuyu ideals might be fertile ground for discussion of racial issues

Seen in that light, Kilimanjaro can be read as a dare to the critical community. It is respectful, well-researched, and impeccably written, and halfway through a white guy in a marriage of convenience to a Maasai woman is elected president of the whole shebang. He then proceeds to govern well and wisely as Maasai society lurches inevitably toward the Western capitalistic ideal. Violence is avoided, change is smoothly integrated into society, crises are resolved, and so on and so forth.

Seen from that angle, one might suspect Resnick of, for lack of a better way of putting it, getting cute. It’s easy enough to deconstruct Kilimanjaro’s narrative as a Western imperialist fantasy, and easy enough to challenge that reading as seeing race issues where none may exist. What critical firestorms may or may not then ensue are left as an exercise for the reader.

That being said, it seems a bit much for the story itself. Kilimanjaro is a gentle book with a hopeful attitude and a somewhat dated moral, deeply concerned with good people in conflict for the best of reasons. For some readers, that may be enough, or it may be nothing at all.

(Subterranean Press, 2008)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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