For those not paying attention...
Alan Dean Foster's debut novel in 1972 was 'The Tar-Aiym Krang' and, at the time, it seems to have been the first entry in what would become a sprawling collection of work set in the Humanx Commonwealth. Today, it tends to be seen as our introduction to Flinx and his mini-drag, Pip, who eventually became perhaps his most abiding characters.
Foster's follow-up novel, 'Bloodhype', published a year later, was never intended to be about Flinx and Pip, but they got shoehorned in at the last minute at the behest of his publishers. I haven't got to that one yet because it gradually got shunted down what would later become the Pip & Flinx series to currently sit in 11th place out of 15 novels and counting.
The author might have thought he wrapped up their story in 1977 with the last two books in a trilogy, 'Orphan Star' and the ironically titled 'The End of the Matter', but that idea didn't work out too well for him. Six years later, a prequel emerged, 'For Love of Mother-Not', which in part shows how the two characters met, and five years on from that, he wrote this book, which quite clearly is Foster acknowledging to himself and his public that he wasn't done with them yet and maybe he should conjure up a future for them.
In many ways, six books in, this is where it stopped being a trilogy with extras and became a series. Certainly the early chapters feel like Foster was wrestling with that concept. They find Flinx back on Pip's home planet, Alaspin, ostensibly to release Pip's flying snake offspring into the wild, but really to sit back and think about a whole lot of things, such as his past and his future.
He's nineteen-years-old, a man of various talents with a vast amount of experience crammed into his last four years. He's comfortably wealthy, with a uniquely appropriate companion and his own one of a kind spaceship. He's a part of a number of bigger stories, some of which are still being told, but he feels lonely and isolated, not happy with men or thranx (because he's seen both at their worst) and apart from women.
This is Flinx (and his creator) pondering on what he should do with his life. Fortunately, the magic powers of plot convenience promptly do what they do best, namely to throw something directly into his path which will, before too long, morph into the direction he needs. This something takes the form of an attractive young lady, whom he finds unconscious, gnawed upon by the local wildlife, and near death in the middle of the Alaspinian jungle, for which terrain she's clearly not remotely prepared. Naturally, he saves her, because he's a nice guy, taking her to Mimmisompo to nurse her back to a semblance of health. Soon after he finds out that she's Clarity Held, a noted gengineer, they're attacked by men in chameleon suits aiming to spirit her away and the adventure Flinx wasn't expecting is suddenly unfolding full force.
While that is a remarkably convenient way to set Flinx moving forward again, Foster catches us up easily in a whirl of adventure that takes us from planet to planet, danger to danger and intrigue to intrigue. Well over 300 pages, this is the fattest entry in the series thus far but it's still a quick and enjoyable ride. Everything we have come to expect from Foster is here: not just action and intrigue, but weird science, exotic species and fantastic locations too, with a side order of philosophy to keep us thinking while we're thrilling.
Most of this shows up within the remote planet of Longtunnel, in whose underground caverns and tunnels Clarity works for a small company by the name of Coldstripe and from which she was kidnapped by anti-science fanatics. As we and Flinx discover together, Longtunnel is a unique and fascinating place that contains unique and fascinating flora and fauna, which Coldstripe and others are exploring. They see the planet as a biological Aladdin's cave, full of natural wonders that they can translate into commercial products, like a creature that secretes chiton and could be gengineered to repair the broken exoskeletons of the thranx.
Of course, this backdrop of scientific discovery and eco-terrorists trying to take them down is a touchy one for Flinx and Clarity to become close in. As we know, Flinx is a product of gengineering himself, even if it was an illegal form of it conducted in secret by scientific fanatics. That makes the subject an awkward one for him, so he spends as much time pushing Clarity away as he does lusting after her. If the worst thing about this book is the plot conveniences, such as the one in which Flinx is given a new purpose and a love interest all at once, the saving grace there is that this is far from the obvious romance most authors would have made it.
That isn't the only plot convenience either. There's another major one late in the book, when Flinx discovers an odd species of sentient being, the Sumacrea, hiding in the dark as yet unexplored caverns of Longtunnel, which just happens to be empathetic like him. The technique by which they communicate, using descriptive emotions, greatly helps him to understand his own talents better and finesse them to a massive degree. What are the odds, I know? Well, Longtunnel is a wondrous planet for everyone, it seems, so it would be a little unfair to leave Flinx alone failing to benefit from its wonders.
The best thing is surely the way in which Alan Dean Foster's imagination continues to run riot without getting in the way of the story. 'Flinx in Flux' can easily be read as a mindless cross of science fiction and fantasy, but there are a dozen major ideas worthy of discussion for those willing to put in that effort. Nobody could accuse Foster of writing a dry treatise on the ethics of genetic engineering, but he's uncannily able to endow his action stories with that sort of depth, almost without the readers noticing unless they want to. That's a heck of a talent to find and he complements it with fantastic little details that never quit. There's a chronology of key dates in the evolution of the Humanx Commonwealth at the end but I'd love to see a bestiary that collates all the wild species that Foster has created, many of which are introduced here for the first time.
After this book, with the series set firmly in motion, Foster promptly put it on hold again, concentrating on an array of other books for seven more years before returning to Pip and Flinx. Perhaps he felt that he had thrown enough at the wall here for the fans to stay happy for a while. Next up, 'Mid-Flinx', from 1995. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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