BIRTHRIGHT: THE BOOK OF MAN
by Mike Resnick
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven and Robert Heinlein charted out their future histories, they created notes and timelines to help them keep events straight. When Mike Resnick created the future history which serves as the background to so many of his novels, he did it in a way which would earn him extra money: he wrote a book. Birthright: The Book of Man tells the history of human exploration and expansion throughout the galaxy. Originally published in 1982, Alexander Books has recently republished Resnick's novel with a forward by Raymond Feist and a timeline of all Resnick's published works which fit into Birthright's framework.
Birthright isn't quite a novel in the traditional sense, nor is it a collection of short stories. Rather, the twenty-six chapters of Birthright form a series of vignettes which, taken together, form something which is much more than the sum of is parts. In total, Birthright is a fable of European conquest, setting the tone for many other fables and allegories Resnick has created based on the histories of Zimbabwe, Kenya and other countries.
The scope of Resnick's book means that he can not focus on a single character. Rather than focus on a family throughout the timeline in a Micheneresque manner, Resnick elected to have each of his vignettes star separate individuals. Although each of these individuals are given distinct personal characteristics, they form a conglomerate character, highlighting the various personality traits which Resnick views as Man.
Resnick's Man is shaped by an understanding of the history of European colonialism. Man has the need to feel superior to alien races he comes into contact with, either subjugating them outright or reducing them to remnants of their former glory. Like a street dog, none of the other alien races can be permitted to stand shoulder to shoulder with Man. Similarly like a street dog, Man must continue to fight when he is no longer at the top of the heap.
While many of Resnick's novels are filled with individuals who are larger than life (Santiago, Jefferson Nighthawk, Koriba) few of the characters in Birthright manage to acquire the same mythic proportions. However, because of Birthright's format, characters of this type are not necessary and would probably detract from the work as a whole.
As originally published, Birthright was a good and interesting book on its own. Republished now after being out of print for 15 years, Birthright provides an interesting look at Resnick's early career and the ideas which he originally wanted to explore. His history is large enough in scope that it can easily accomodate, without conflict, the many and varied stories he has chosen to set among the same background.
Birthright is a good starting place for those who are not familiar with Resnick's work. At the same time, it serves as a recap for those who have already read significant amounts of Resnick's writings. While Alexander Books generally publishes Resnick's non-fiction "Library of African Adventure" reprint series (itself worthwhile), it is nice to see them bringing some of Resnick's older works back into print.
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