(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 of
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
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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