I'm coming to the end of the Pip & Flinx series, this being the thirteenth of fifteen novels, the last of which I've already reviewed. I've enjoyed all of them thus far, to varying degrees, but I've become increasingly frustrated by one of the series' two major story arcs.
One of those arcs is handled reasonably well; if as an occasional afterthought. This is the one that follows Flinx's attempts to figure out his heritage. Over many books, his many searches highlight that he's an experiment, created by the outlawed Meliorare Society, carried to term by a particular woman but from the donated sperm of an unknown man. This story arc comes to a logical conclusion here, though not quite in the way he might have expected.
I have to withhold judgement on the other one until I read the one book that's left, Flinx Transcendent, because clearly that's where everything related to the Great Evil will finally be wrapped up. However, this story arc has been building since 1995's Mid-Flinx, the sixth book in the series, though building is an odd term to use, given that most of the books since have focused more on Flinx deliberately avoiding it than pursuing it.
Each book of late seems to be structured as: a) Flinx realises that he needs to take care of the Great Evil because only he can, b) that means seeking out the ancient Tar-Aiym weapons platform that he can activate and travelling over to activate it at some point where the vast Great Evil is seeping towards us, but c) he conjures up some reason to not do that and d) takes a vacation or escape or side trip on some new planet instead.
And, guess what, that's precisely what happens here. At the end of 'Trouble Magnet', an attempt by Flinx to find nothing of value on the worst planet in the universe to justify his ennui about his grand quest, he's given a clue to the identity of his father, which leads him to the planet of Gestalt, where he searches around for possibilities, finds one and sets off to investigate.
The catch, because there's always a catch in these novels, is that Flinx is a wanted man with a large price on his head set by the Order of Null, those wild and wacky pro-Great Evil nutjobs, and there's a bounty hunter, Norin Halversen, on Gestalt with a tap into the customs systems and an algorithm that generates a match. He's all for the large reward on offer, so sets out to track down Flinx and bring back the proof of his death.
For yet another distraction novel, this one is quite a lot of fun. Gestalt is an interesting planet, its landscape looking rather like a cosmic wildcat took a swipe at it and mountains erupted from the scratches. It's frontier country throughout, even in the couple of large cities such as Tlossene.
As we expect from Foster, there's a lot of world-building here that goes far beyond the landscape. The native intelligent species are the Tlel, who have no sense of smell (epitomising the old joke, "My dog has no nose." "How does he smell?" "Terrible.") but instead can sense the electric fields of living creatures, which they call 'flii'. Also as we expect from Foster, they have wild names and linguistic affectations: they pronounce words such as "do" like "du" instead. And, while they don't have a required structure to their naming, they do, erm, du come up with names as unwieldy as Payasinadoriyung or Zlezelrenn.
Physically, they're nonhumanoid. They're short furry creatures with one big eye, but that's more like Data's visor in Star Trek: The Next Generation than Mike Mazowski in Monsters, Inc. They have no teeth and no noses but collections of cilia instead of chins or hands. They're also fundamentally good people, who aid Flinx on his quest, their unique bodily structures prompting the use of innovative travelling contraptions called gaitgos.
There's actually a little more depth here than might be obvious. The innate goodness of the Tlel isn't just a moral goodness but an acceptance. This is a planet recently incorporated into the Humanx Commonwealth and their take on that world-shaking event is notably philosophical. I should add that not all Tlel feel the same way and there are factions that battle over the idea but this is an interesting take not on a species' first contact but the way that things develop afterwards.
Another interesting concept here is Flinx's searching of the Gestalt Shell, their planet's internet, through obfuscation. As we well know today, in a world where a search engine is always accessible, the quality of results is often determined by the quality of our search criteria. Here, Flinx finds a need to search for something without showing that he's searching for it. For instance, if he searches for "Meliorare Society", he'll flag up to the local authorities, so he has to search around it. How the device called a "mazr" works, I have no idea, but I'm intrigued.
In short, there's more in 'Trouble Magnet' and 'Patrimony' than there has been in this series for a while and these two books have a fair conclusion (or not) to Flinx's search for his heritage. However, both are distractions yet again from the Great Evil story arc, which surely has to wrap up in the next book because there's only 'Flinx Transcendent' left before the return to the series after eight years in 2017's 'Strange Music', at which point everything's been wrapped up.
What that means, of course, is that 'Flinx Transcendent' is the one we've been waiting for and, with little details pointing to it in at least eight novels, it kind of needs to be a doozy. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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