Books

The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler review – the mammoth risks of playing God with nature

Nayler's latest is a novella with real emotional heft that explores human, animal and AI consciousness in a dystopia

The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler is out now (Tordotcom, £22.99)

Speculative fiction can draw on the cutting edge of societal and technological change and extrapolate that into the future, making commentary on the state of the world right now. This week we have two books that do exactly that in very different ways. 

First up is The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler. The American author made a splash last year with his debut, The Mountain in the Sea, which examined human, animal and AI consciousness in a near-future dystopia. The Tusks of Extinction is a tight and focused novella which explores similar themes, this time with even more emotional impact.

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The protagonist is Dr Damira Khismatullina, the world’s foremost expert on elephant behaviour, in a near future when elephants are becoming extinct in the wild. Damira is killed by poachers, but her consciousness had previously been downloaded by her Russian bosses in an effort to preserve knowledge. Fast forward a century, and Damira’s consciousness has been uploaded into a newly resurrected mammoth, one of a herd that has been brought back from extinction by the Russian government.

But the mammoths are dying out, lacking survival instincts because their DNA was spliced with that of captive elephants. Damira becomes the matriarch of the herd, teaching the others how to be mammoths in passages that are heartfelt and funny at the same time.

But this is still only a small chunk of what happens in this short book, jam-packed with incident and ideas. There is also a storyline following a young poacher on the trail of the mammoths, and a wealthy billionaire intent on legally hunting and killing a mammoth. The fee he’s paying is enough to fund the whole mammoth programme for years, and it’s seen as a price worth paying for the stability of the species. But not by Damira.

Losing one of her herd is unacceptable, and Nayler brings the three storylines together in a nerve-shredding climax that manages to be part action thriller and part profound comment on the nature of existence.

Nayler covers a lot here – the nature of consciousness, the ecology of wildlife preserves, the vagaries of poaching, environmental collapse and much more. But he writes with a very light touch, bringing his disparate voices to life on the page and pulling the reader in emotionally where they might not expect. Open-minded and open-hearted throughout, this is speculative fiction at its very best.

Doug Johnstone is an author and journalist.

The Tusks of Extinction by Ray Nayler is out now (Tordotcom, £22.99). 

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