Silverhair Summary
by Stephen Baxter

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A nominee for a Hugo Award for The Time Ships (1995), one of his previous science fiction novels, Stephen Baxter presents in Silverhair the conflict between the last of a species of animal thought to be extinct (wooly mammoth) and its worst enemy, humans (or the “Lost,” as the mammoths call them).

The story centers on Silverhair, a young cow in a small family of wooly mammoths on an island off the northern coast of Russia. Once a missile site, the island was safe from intruders, but when the site is abandoned, and a gang of smugglers is ship-wrecked on the island, the mammoths face a greater threat than their dwindling gene-pool.

The mammoths spend much of their time scrounging for food and water in the harsh landscape. But Silverhair has a curiosity most of the others do not, and she makes several forays to the coast facing the mainland. Because of this, the smugglers become aware of the mammoths and hunt them down. Led by a bald drunk Skin-of-Ice, as Silverhair calls him, and less for food than ivory, they kill the matriarch of the family, Owlheart, the senior bull, Eggtusk, and Silverhair's aunt Snagtooth, and capture Silverhair's older sister Foxeye and her calves Croptail and Sunfire, and the young bull Lop-ear, the father of Silverhair's unborn calf Icebones.

The Cycle, the fifty-million-year-old memory of the mammoths, teaches them how to survive, but it takes the likes of Silverhair to figure out new ways to do so when new challenges arise, such as modern humans, with their guns and oil refineries. Impelled by the moral underpinning of the Cycle, which states, “the sole purpose of your life is the calves,” Silver-hair, with the help of a sea cow, an ancient cousin of her kind with whom she shares a language, swims to the mainland from the island to rescue her sister and her calves.

Here she sees the ruin humans have imposed on the landscape with a giant refinery and faces an enraged Skin-of-Ice. She also finds, with the help of Lop-ear, that some humans have the power and will to help preserve her species. The end of the story shows how this might be accomplished, and how it is played out in the lifetime of her own calf.

Silverhair ascribes a human perception to animals (the “pathetic fallacy,” to use John Ruskin's term), but in Stephen Baxter's hands, this makes the environment the mammoths dwell in real, their purpose meaningful, and their plight moving.