John Varley was one of my favourite authors in the 1980s, and his Gaean trilogy (Titan, Wizard and Demon) is still among my twenty favourite SFF works. Somehow I've managed to miss reading anything by him since then, so I opened Mammoth with anticipation.
The time is the near future, and an intact mammoth is found frozen solid in Canada. Lying alongside the body are the equally frozen corpses of a man and a woman - the man wearing a wristwatch and carrying a metal briefcase. Not an original idea, but a good start for a time-travel mystery. We are soon introduced to the main characters: Howard Christian, one of the richest men on the planet and obsessed with the idea of using frozen mammoth sperm to breed a mammoth/elephant cross; Matt Wright, the brilliant mathematician he recruits to solve the puzzle of the strange device in the briefcase which he believes to be a time machine; Susan Morgan, the vet and circus trainer recruited to oversee the pregnant elephants; and Warburton, Christian's formidable fixer.
In the early chapters, the plot is interrupted by extracts from a briefing about mammoths aimed at young people; a device to fill in some of the background. Despite these interruptions, the story rattles along at a good pace, with Wright and Morgan transported back into the past and returning accompanied by some live mammoths. So far, an entertaining and gripping adventure. Then, about half-way through, the story grinds to a halt. It picks up after a five year gap with a twenty-page infodump with scarcely a word of dialogue, followed by an even longer section largely concerned with the characters bringing each other up to date with what had happened in the intervening years. It seems that Varley is fascinated by circuses, as he devotes a whole chapter to an account of a performance featuring mammoths, and also describes a second performance in some detail. With all of this, it's only in the final third of the book that the action gets moving again, with Morgan, Wright and a mammoth being hunted across North America.
As the action proceeds, the key question begins to trouble the characters: the identity of the frozen bodies found at the beginning of the tale. This is finally resolved in an unexpected and satisfying way.
Varley's approach to time travel is idiosyncratic and somewhat unfashionable. The mechanics of the process turn out to have as much to do with philosophy as technology. He also sticks with one time-line rather than the nowadays more common parallel worlds, and blithely accepts the paradoxes which result, one of which (clearly signalled early on) is a real whopper.
All in all, an enjoyable light read despite the uneven pacing, but this one won't be making it into my top twenty.