Cover image of "Mammoth," a novel about time travel

The concept of time travel as it’s typically treated in science fiction is a straightforward affair. You’ll find that in almost any novel about time travel. Somebody figures out how to build a “time machine,” steps into the chamber, and—presto, change-o—ends up somewhere back or forward in time. Maybe a hundred years in the past or future, maybe 100,000. In any case, it’s all a matter of finding a way to locate a particular spot on the continuum of time and violating the laws of physics to get there. Well, if you’re skeptical, as I certainly am, you’ll find an entirely different view of time and time travel in John Varley’s supremely entertaining novel, Mammoth. And along the way you’ll learn a good deal about the spectacular fauna of North America in the Pleistocene Era more than 12,000 years ago. Oh, and by the way, there’s also hidden in the text a novel explanation for UFOs, or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

A mystery from the start

Mammoth opens in Nunavut, an independent Inuit region, “810,000 square miles of nothing much, one-fifth of Canada’s land area.” There, a small team led by an eminent archaeologist is digging out of the ice an extraordinary find. It’s the well-preserved carcass of a mammoth. Nestled underneath the animal is the body of a man. And the man is clutching a briefcase and wearing a wristwatch. How’s that for a mystery to start the day?


Mammoth by John Varley (2005) 376 pages ★★★★★ 


Image of a woolly mammoth, one of the megafauna of the Pleistocene Era, like those that figure in this novel about time travel
Artist’s rendering of a wooly mammoth. The largest of this species measured 13 feet at the shoulder and weighed eight tons. Image: Darryl Brooks – Dreamstime via National Geographic Kids

The characters we meet

Howard Christian

In short order, we learn that the excavation in Nunavut is financed by an eccentric billionaire named Howard Christian. We then meet a physicist named Matthew Wright, “a scientist on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” He’s trying to work his way back to sanity through trout fishing, and making a mess of it. Howard has sent his “fixer,” Warburton, to recruit Matthew for the job of figuring out how to fix the time machine unearthed in the frozen wastes of the Canadian north. For that is what the briefcase found there surely must be.

Matthew Wright and Susan Morgan

Howard sets up Matthew with all the scientific equipment he could ever need in a massive warehouse, along with a staff of machinists and metallurgists to help him make copies of the time machine. But they’re not alone in the facility. Howard has also recruited Susan Morgan, a brilliant elephant handler from the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus (which he owns). And she’s there in a separate section of the warehouse with a string of elephant cows. Howard has assigned her to carry out in vitro fertilization for the eggs implanted with sperm from the frozen mammoth. Howard is determined to recreate the first mammoth to walk the earth in 10,000 years—and put the beast to work in his circus. (Actually, mammoths lived until at least 4,000 years ago and may have still been extant when the Great Pyramid of Giza was under construction.)

Big Mama and Little Fuzzy

Meanwhile, Varley spins out a children’s story in tiny segments, interspersed among the chapters that recount the action. It’s a tale of an extended family of mammoths as they wander through what is today North America in search of food. There’s Big Mama, the leader of the herd. And Little Fuzzy, a baby. Both will figure in a big way in Varley’s story. But that comes later.

Meanwhile, catastrophe strikes.

About the author

Image of John Varley, author of this novel about time travel
John Varley in 2021, before the emergency quadruple-bypass heart surgery that saved his life. Image: GoFundMe

John Varley (1947-) is the author of 14 science fiction novels and five collections of short stories. He came of age in the 60s, living rough for a time in the Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love and attending Woodstock in 1969. He has won the Hugo Award three times, the Nebula twice, and the Locus 10 times. His writing is often compared to that of Robert Heinlein. He writes with a light touch, his stories abundantly sprinkled with humor. That’s certainly the case in Mammoth.

For more reading

Check out The best time travel novels.

You may also enjoy a sci-fi novel with a different twist on elephants: Eugene Linden’s Deep Past (Is homo sapiens the only highly intelligent species ever to walk the Earth?).

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