Well, now I realise why the last few Pip & Flinx novels have felt a little insubstantial; they've been serving two masters. One is to do what series novels tend to do: to deepen the regular characters and progress the story. The other, which I've just realised, is to move towards a point that had already been defined.
You see, back in the early eighties, when I picked up my first stack of Alan Dean Foster novels, this series was a quartet: 'The Tar-Aiym Krang', 'Bloodhype', 'Orphan Star' and 'End of the Matter'. Looking back now from the perspective of a fifteen book series, three of those became a trilogy and 'Bloodhype' got shifted along down the line to what is currently eleventh in the series, if we read in chronological order of events. Unlike, say, Anne McCaffrey and her Pern series, where she kept on adding books in all sorts of places, Foster wrote chronologically throughout, except for one prequel and 'Bloodhype', so it's an anomaly. And I'll get to it next month, because this novel, the tenth in the series, finally decides in its closing chapter to specifically set up 'Bloodhype' as the next book.
Let me run that by you again. After moving into the future without apparent aim up until 1995's 'Mid-Flinx', the four novels written between 2001 and 2005 have each hinted at what I'm presuming 'Bloodhype' is going to be. 'Reunion' introduced a Tar-Aiym weapons installation masquerading as a planet. 'Flinx's Folly' brought in a vague form of vast sentient evil slowly emerging from the Blight in our direction. 'Sliding Scales' created a connection between Flinx and the AAnn.
And, here, well, I'm not sure what this one adds, other than an understanding that it's not a good idea to land on pre-spacegoing planets and interact with the primitive locals. While all the others above seem to add something to a future story (even 1995's 'Mid-Flinx' moved some of the sentient flora from the planet Midworld onto Flinx's ship, surely with future intent), this one doesn't until that final chapter when Flinx suddenly decides to stop doing what he's doing and go do something else. In book eleven, published over thirty years earlier. OK...
I may well be eating my words next month when I finally review 'Bloodhype', but, right now, 'Running from the Deity' feels like the holiday that Flinx aimed for and didn't really get in 'Sliding Scales'. Then again, he didn't really get it here, because it becomes a working holiday for reasons I'll explain in a moment.
This planet is called Arrawd, home to the Dwarra people (yes, that's the same word read in opposite directions for no apparent reason), and Flinx finds himself there because his ship, so stalwart a companion thus far, decides that it needs repairs. Arrawd is nearby and it has trees and sand enough to provide the carbon and titanium needed. Unfortunately, while Flinx tries to land in an uninhabited area, he's seen by a Dwarra fisherman and that sparks a whole chain of events.
This chain of events is a riff on 'Star Trek''s Prime Directive, Starfleet General Order 1, which prohibits starship captains (and anyone else) from affecting the natural development of civilisations, especially those who happen to be technologically inferior. In other words, leave the primitives alone until they're ready to look outward and find civilisations beyond their own to ask for help. Flinx doesn't leave the primitives alone and the jacket blurb highlights how far that gets out of hand. Some Dwarra start worshipping him as a god. He's the deity of the title.
For all that it may be a novel length aside, I liked how Foster built this book. It starts with Pip and Flinx, alone again on another alien planet with all the usual wild Alan Dean Foster flora and fauna to keep things agreeably alien. Then Ebbanai, the Dwarra fisherman, enters by dint of looking upward at precisely the wrong (or maybe the right) time. He rushes home in fear to tell his wife, Storra, who doesn't believe a word of his story. But the next day, when he insists she follow him to the site and they stumble upon the alien in question with a sprained ankle because he wasn't careful enough leaping around in the lower Arrawd gravity, she sees a potential windfall.
Suddenly, Flinx, now living with this couple while his ankle heals and his ship repairs itself, finds a trickle of other Dwarra wandering in to see if his magical healing ability could take care of their ailments too. A trickle soon becomes a flood and suddenly Flinx is earning a fortune as a doctor. Well, not quite, because he's doing this out of the goodness of his own heart and wouldn't be happy in the slightest if he found out that Storra has talked her husband into taking entry fees. He would be especially unhappy to hear that some are now worshipping him as a god, and, of course, that's precisely where this is going.
I'll stop there, while mentioning that it escalates a lot further than that and every attempt Flinx makes to get out of the fine mess he's got himself into backfires and only causes more escalation. Suddenly, we realise that we moved past 'Star Trek' and found ourselves in 'Monty Python and the Life of Brian' territory. This is never an overt homageFlinx never points at juniper bushes and finds himself having worked a miraclebut so much of this became eerily familiar and it carried an unintentionally humorous tone because of it. For instance, we're well aware that Flinx is on Arrawd on his own and Pip is never going to lean out of a window and shout, "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!" but that scene didn't leave my mind for fully half of this novel.
Behind that unintentional humour, there's some effortless substance here. Foster builds magnificently and does so with the aid of a few varied Dwarra who are worthy characters indeed. I enjoyed Ebbanai's battle with his own conscience, ever-subservient to his wife's ideas, and I really appreciated Treappyn, a key counselor to His August Highborn Pyrrpallinda of Wullsakaa, because his wisdom carried a lot of resonance. While the Dwarra are just discovering steam and so aren't remotely ready to think about a Commonwealth, let alone join it, Treappyn could potentially be a worthy character to move beyond Arrawd. Maybe he's in 'Bloodhype' and is therefore the entire point of this novel. I'll find that out next month.
And I keep coming back to 'Bloodhype' because Foster decided it was time. Once he clumsily set in stone at the end of this book that it was going to be next, it gained enough power to dominate everything that unfolded here. If 'Running from the Deity' turns out to have meaning in that book, then it'll become part of the progression of early 20th century contributions to this series, but, if not, it'll likely become an oddity sitting in the way of that progression. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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