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Midworld
Humanx Commonwealth #6
by Alan Dean Foster
Del Rey, 213pp
Published: 1975

I've been enjoying my monthly trawl through Alan Dean Foster's Pip & Flinx books but, after reading 1996's 'Mid-Flinx' in July, I realised that I had to divert from that series in August to check out 'Midworld', published a couple of decades earlier in 1975. You see, a logical order can be defined for those Pip & Flinx books, but that series only constitutes a subset of Foster's far wider collection of books set within the Humanx Commonwealth, and the majority of 'Mid-Flinx' is set on Midworld. So, here's a diversion.

Now, having read 'Midworld' and 'Mid-Flinx', I'm still unsure as to which way ‘round I should have approached them. In many ways, the latter is a retread of the former, merely told from the outsider's perspective; there are a lot of similarities. However, I'm leaning towards 'Mid-Flinx' being a better book if read before this predecessor, as it plays out with more mystery and discovery, both for us and Flinx, leaving questions in our minds that are generally answered with a trip back to this novel. Had I read 'Midworld' first, much of that wouldn't have been there for me, and Flinx's discoveries would have been lessened.

As we may well expect, Flinx was the protagonist of that later novel, landing on Midworld by accident but able to survive within its unique geography with help from the locals, not natives but humans isolated on the planet long enough to have evolved into something symbiotic with some of the local flora and fauna. The fact that he was followed to Midworld by a rich asshole who wants to steal Pip away from him is almost an aside, just a way to prompt movement within the jungle. My interest really wasn't on Coerlis but on the planet of Midworld itself and the fantastic imagination that Foster put to use in populating it.

Here, twenty years earlier for us but centuries earlier in Humanx Commonwealth time, we find a similar setup: a spaceship crashlands on Midworld and its two occupants, Jan Cohoma and Kimi Logan, only survive because of the help of the locals. They're not being chased by anyone, but they do need to travel through the jungle in an attempt to get back 'home' to their company's base, from which they're experimenting on the varied local flora, in a similar approach to how Coldstripe worked on the planet of Longtunnel in 'Flinx in Flux'. Needless to say, this provides a great opportunity for adventure and Foster milks that for all it's worth.

While I enjoyed Flinx's visit to Midworld, I appreciated this novel far more, because the protagonist is one of the locals, Born by name, and that helps to immerse us within his world rather than merely visit it like a danger tourist. What's more, for all that Born innately understands the bonds between his people, the Home Tree where they live and the furcots that accompany them throughout their lives, he's something of an outsider in his tribe, with ideas that they see as heretical. When Jan and Kimi show up, it's fascinating to watch him find a little bit of commonality with them but still see them as aliens in his world who don't understand it and often don't seem to want to.

If you haven't read 'Mid-Flinx' and so this is all new to you, I should mention that Midworld is a planet entirely covered by rainforest. Born and his tribe live on the third of seven levels, 450m above the floor, which they see as the Lower Hell; some of Born's heresies include visiting the Upper Hell, 200m further up, where he actually saw the sky. He, and Losting, his rival for the attentions of the gloriously named Brightly Go, the most comely girl in the Home Tree, find that they have to traverse more levels than ever as this book rolls on, more than the later 'Mid-Flinx' explored.

That means that they discover new flora and fauna, just as we do, and Foster's imagination is as fantastic as I'm finding it tends to be; even in his weaker novels, the problems are never with his imagination, which appears to never lose its fertility. In fact, it would seem that others are more than happy to steal from his creations. Quite a few people have highlighted how much James Cameron's 'Avatar' borrowed from 'Midworld', and I'm not going to argue with them, but I focused in on something else.

Every person on Midworld has his or her own furcot, a giant creature given to them by the rainforest, and Born has Ruumahum. Early in the book, his manner of speaking felt rather familiar to me. Try this out for size: 'So far, lucky be we, person Born. Soon though, others grazer to smell will begin. We will fight have to every step to Home. To Home go first.' Surely I can't be the only one to hear Yoda in 1975, five years before 'The Empire Strikes Back', in a book written by the man who would go on to pen the novelisation of 'Star Wars' and the first original novel set in the 'Star Wars' universe, 'Splinter of the Mind's Eye', both before Yoda showed up?

However much others have stolen, erm borrowed, from this book, Foster deserves praise for his originality. It's not just the world and the fantastic creatures and plants that populate it, but how closely they interact. Phrasing this as Born's story, into which a couple of regular humans fall, really aids that approach. We see what he takes for granted, enhanced by Jan's lack of understanding of what's going on and Kimi's growing respect for it. For instance, the Home Tree has its own border controls, a tangle of vines blocking the incoming pathways that can be temporarily opened by spitting into a particular type of flower. How Born puts plant and animal life to use late in the book falls into the same category. Even the diversion that is a rampaging horde of Akadi fits too. By the end of the novel, I felt like I'd spent six months in Midworld myself.

While it was written two decades earlier, I'd argue that 'Midworld' has more depth, interest and value than 'Mid-Flinx', even if it contains zero recognisable characters to the Humanx Commonwealth books at large. The world is its own character and it's a particularly fascinating one, much more enticing than Longtunnel, itself a notably imaginative planet, was in 'Flinx in Flux'. This can't help but make me think about 'Cachalot', another planet in the Humanx Commonwealth that was given its own standalone book, this time in 1980, but which showed up later in the Pip & Flinx series. I wonder how soon I'll need to take a diversion to that book! Next month, I'll be returning to Pip & Flinx, though, for 2001's 'Reunion'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other titles by Alan Dean Foster click here

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