REVIEW: “The Great Beast of Kafue” by Clotilde Graves

Review of Clotilde Graves, “The Great Beast of Kafue” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 193-205 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Some science fiction themes are perennial: And in the case of this present story, the theme which feels just as current now in 2019 as it must have in 1917 when it was originally published is dinosaurs. Modern SF dreams of extracting dino DNA and splicing it in to eggs to create new dinosaurs; and apart from science people still dream of one day finding the Loch Ness monster or her cousins. In “The Great Beast of Kafue”, the narrator, tells us of an incident that happened when he was a young boy, living with his Dutch-descended father in Rhodesia, some years after the death of his Irish mother, concerning the titular Great Beast, whom newspaper reports had said had been sighted in the wild depths. A mysterious, fantastical beast, that few had seen — and in fact, seen by only one white man, and the narrator dreams of the day that he might find the beast himself, and with his father’s elephant gun kill it. But when he tells his father this, he finds himself drawn into a story he’s never heard before, and being asked to promise something that would mean forfeiting those very dreams.

In a weird way, this is almost a love story, more than anything, and its strengths lie in the timelessness of its topics (both dinosaurs AND love). But it’s not entirely timeless: It’s unreflectively colonial in a way that would’ve been unremarkable a century ago but which is somewhat uncomfortable now. I liked the way that Graves incorporated the narrator’s father’s Dutch heritage so seamlessly into the story, even while my appreciation of that warred with how problematic the framing itself was. It’s hard to know what to say about a story like this: I don’t want to excuse the author, but I also don’t want to say “don’t read it”. So I guess the best thing to do is to flag the issue, and let the next reader make an informed decision for themself.

(Originally published in 1917.)