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Mammoth by John Varley

[This is a book review of Mammoth by John Varley, first published in 2005.]

Millennium and Mammoth are both time travel novels by John Varley, but they are completely dissimilar. Millennium is apocalyptic. Mammoth is more of a romp.

Basically, Mammoth is about a very rich and powerful man named Howard Christian who wants to Jurassic-Park himself a mammoth in order to create the greatest circus act ever. In the process of searching (or, more accurately, having his minions search) for good DNA to create it from, a frozen twelve thousand year old mammoth is discovered. But the mammoth is not alone. There is a frozen twelve thousand year old body of an old man beside it, carrying a time machine in a briefcase.

Christian hires a brilliant mathematician named Matt Wright to reverse engineer the time machine, and of course, wackiness ensues. No, that makes it sound silly, and it's not. Like all of Varley's novels, Mammoth is well-plotted, well-written, and an enjoyable read. It's obvious early on that the frozen man must be one of the present time characters in the book, but finding out who he is, how he got there and what happened to him is a lot of fun.

Mammoths are characters in the book, too. The main narrative about Matt, veterinarian Susan Morgan and billionaire Howard Christian is interspersed with what appears to be a children's book about one particular mammoth called Fuzzy, and how mammoths lived thousands of years ago. Which sounds a bit dull, but it's actually just as well written as the rest of the book and quite fun. Especially when we find out in the end who the author is and why it was written.

Most of the setting of Mammoth is Los Angeles, and as an Angelino myself, I've visited many of the places that are mentioned -- most notably, the LaBrea Tar Pits and the Page Museum on the Miracle Mile. I bet the inspiration for this novel was the Tar Pits, a place I've been to twice and found depressing and upsetting because I can't stop seeing it as a graveyard of really horrible death.

Much as with his novels set in the future, Varley does his usual good job satirizing modern life, specifically entertainment (perfect for a novel set in Los Angeles), extreme activism, and conspicuous consumption. And I like the characters of Matt and Susan. Matt feels like a genius; I particularly like the way he is introduced, as he is trying to figure out how to take a vacation. Susan is principled and passionate about her calling, which is a love of animals -- elephants in particular. Billionaire Howard Christian is also interesting, sort of likable, sort of despicable, and possibly both the hero and the villain of the piece.

This may be my least favorite of Varley's books, but I still think it's a fun read. Two out of four circus acts,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. Since you started reviewing his books, I put Varley on my list of authors to check out. Mammouth was the only one available when I looked last week and I totally enjoyed it. If this is your least favorite, I can't wait to read the rest!

  2. Anybody notice parallels between John Varley's Mammoth and the TV show La Brea?


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