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Reunion

by Alan Dean Foster

(Del Rey, $24.00, 328 pages, hardback; June 1 2001.)

Because of his prolific production of movie novelizations -- some pretty good, some, to be honest, pretty dire -- it is often almost overlooked that Alan Dean Foster has created a significant body cover scanof other fictions. These are often very enjoyable entertainments, and at their best can be something more than that.

Among the most popular of these independent novels have been those in his Pip and Flinx series, set in the far future when the Galaxy is divided up between the Humanx Commonwealth and a fairly limited number of alien cultures. Flinx is Philip Lynx, an empath who owes his erratic talent to his genetically engineered origins as an experiment by a now outlawed eugenicist cult, the Meliorare Society. Pip is his lifelong pet and ally, an alien creature that resembles a miniature dragon, spits corrosive venom and is capable, like Flinx himself, of a high level of empathy. Because of his abilities, Flinx feels -- and in fact is -- an anomaly in humanx society, and thus devotes his life to a quest for an understanding of his origins and hence of himself.

This episode of that quest starts on Earth, where he discovers that a computer file containing details of his origins has been stolen from a central human databank, with the sole copy being expropriated to the remote desert world of Pyrassis, which lies within the region of the Galaxy governed by the AAnn, a hostile reptilian species. During a lengthy sojourn on Pyrassis, Flinx discovers that a mountainous ridge there is in fact a vast alien transmitter, half a million years old. Sparked into activity during a gunfight between himself and a couple of AAnn xenarchaeologists, this device transmits a signal, its content unknown, to the gaseous moon of the Pyrassis system's outermost planet (which seems to be the sixth world if you go by page 86 or the tenth world to judge by pages 201 onwards). Still pursuing the stolen file, Flinx heads for this moon and discovers that all is not what it seems there. As he engages in a three-way struggle between himself, a vengeful AAnn military mission and a human party led by his infinitely evil yet also infinitely beautiful alter ego, he gets answers of a sort.

During the course of this entertainment there are flashes of early Harry Harrison and of Eric Frank Russell, yet Foster's telling lacks certainly the slickness, verve and humour and arguably the wit of either of these authors. In place of these attributes he deploys -- or, more accurately, invites us to wallow in -- an excessive vocabulary. Occasionally his logophilia runs rampant to deliberately amusing effect, but more often it leads him into linguistic booby-traps or to produce tracts of hugely over-adjectived narrative that feel consciously padded and are, not to put too fine a point upon it, a bit dull.

As an example of over-adjectiving, we find on page 181 that Flinx "followed his excited former reptiloid captors", which has at least one adjective too many because of course the beings concerned were not former reptiloids. Again, on page 243 we discover that a membranous construct "looked like a razed segment of electrified soap bubble", a description markedly difficult to construe. Similarly hard to understand is this, from page 281: "Warm particles trickled from her tail where it emerged from the soothing sand, as it did from those of her staff." Or, on page 300, "Mahnahmi had moved so rapidly that the ... escort she had coldly and efficiently liquidated still lay where they had fallen in the corridor" -- the corpses hadn't had long enough to crawl deadly off, one assumes. (The word replaced by an ellipsis in that sentence is actually "stunned". No, Mahnahmi didn't stun her escort: she killed them. Foster's meaning is that they had been stunned she should suddenly turn on them and kill them.)

There is really rather too much of this sort of stuff.

The whole central section of the book, in which Flinx wanders about the desert surface of Pyrassis to no particular purpose except to have brushes with death -- thirst, hunger, cunningly camouflaged alien predators, pursuing AAnn, etc. -- seems uncommonly overextended. All that happens of any real importance during the course of 120 pages or so is that Flinx learns of the existence of the alien supertransmitter, alerts the AAnn to the presence of a human intruder in their territory (so that they can start chasing him), and in conjunction with a couple of AAnn inadvertently triggers the supertransmitter into activity. This portion of the book ends somewhat perfunctorily: suddenly, inspired by quasi-intelligent plants aboard, his ship's AI decides to send down a shuttle to rescue Flinx -- and, whoosh, away he goes.

This anticlimax could be more disappointing to the reader were it not for the fact that, during those preceding 120 pages, the pulse has largely failed to pound. The great disadvantage of throwing vocabulary into a text by the bucketful is that all possibility of dramatic tension is smothered under the verbal scree. Here is just an abridged part of the description (pages 110-11) of those quasi-intelligent plants coming to the conclusion that Flinx needs rescuing from the Pyrassian surface:

His emboldened convictions were not matched by certain growths he had left behind on board the Teacher [his ship]. In ways that could not be explained by contemporary biology, physics, or any other branch of the familiar sciences, they sensed that something had gone seriously wrong with the warm-blooded vertebrate in whose charge they had been placed. When his absence persisted, they grew quietly frantic. Leaves twitched imperceptibly in the windless confines of the Teacher's lounge. Petals dipped under the influence of forces far more subtle and less obvious than falling water. Unseen roots curled in response to wave patterns that had nothing to do with the subtle movements of soil and grit.
The situation was analyzed in the absence of anything Flinx or any other chordate would recognize as a brain. It involved a manifold process of cogitation far more alien than any propounded by AAnn or thranx, Otoid or Quillp. Among the known sentients, only the cetacea of Cachalot or the Sumacrea of Longtunnel might, upon exerting a supreme effort, have glimpsed an intimation of the process, but no more than that. It was not possible for compartmentalized organic brains deliberating by means of sequential electric impulses to fathom what was taking place among the plants of Midworld. [...]
In silence broken only by the whisper of air being recycled through the hull, envisionings sprang lucent and undiminished among the alien flora. What inhered among them inhered among every other growing thing on the world from which they had come. It was not a discussion in the sense that subjects were put forth for disputation and debate. Did clouds moot before resolving to rain? Did atmosphere argue prior to sending a breeze northward, or to the east? When a whirling magnetar blew off overwhelming quantities of gamma rays, was the direction and moment of eruption a consequence of cognizant confutation?

And so on. A later piece of description (page 154) seems curiously apropos in this context: "Like black pudding, the maze threatened to congeal around him..." Maybe it's all intended to be a parody of E.E. "Doc" Smith. Or Lionel Fanthorpe. Or Michael Innes...

The net effect of such overwriting is to turn what should have been a fast-moving romp -- as per Harry Harrison's Deathworld (1960), shall we say -- into something rather sluggish and tedious. Although the abrupt removal of Flinx from his Pyrassian hazards is, as noted, anticlimactic, certainly this reader greeted it with a heartfelt sigh of relief in that it signalled the end of an extended section in which it seemed that the author had lost his way -- as if his schema insisted that 40% or so of the book should consist of Flinx's adventures on Pyrassis but that, once Foster had got his protagonist there, he discovered there was a paucity of adventures to be had.

And the telling does indeed improve a bit thereafter, as we head towards the final confrontation between Flinx and his alter ego, although still there is never any great suspense because of the plethora, even though reduced, of unnecessary vocabulary. (The first section of the book, set on Earth, is much more plainly told and hence much more enjoyable and effective.) The ancient artefacts display their wonders, as ancient artefacts do; the greatest wonder of all is that Flinx has, at some stage in the past, encountered something just like one of them, and so knows what to do with it even if unclear as to its actual function. No real surprise for the reader here: what it does is zap the AAnn who have been malevolently hunting him down.

The conclusion of the book, alas, leaves much unresolved, thereby allowing for the inevitable sequel.

Foster is a very much better writer than this book portrays him -- novels like Icerigger (1974) and Midworld (1975), while hardly heavyweight classics, are memorably enjoyable, even if the latter is perhaps a bit too redolent of Brian Aldiss's Hothouse/The Long Afternoon of Earth (1962). Reunion, by contrast, comes across as a romp that doesn't romp or a space-operatic Sense of Wonder tale that lacks the Sense of Wonder. It is reasonably entertaining in parts, but lacks either the vivacity or the central driving idea to pull the reader delightedly forward. Its blurb describes it as "a roller-coaster ride into the unknown", but the car -- although occasionally trying to hiccup itself into motion -- stays fixed in its place at the start of the rails, while the ideas and imaginings of the book seem to stick only too resolutely to the known.

Yet Foster can never be discounted, as far too many people do on the basis of all those novelizations. In the past he has often enough followed an unsatisfying novel with one that is tremendous fun. Dedicated followers of the adventures of Pip and Flinx will doubtless enjoy Reunion as a minor entrant in a series that began as long ago as 1983. Other readers might wish to wait until the next volume.


Review by John Grant.

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