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Sliding Scales
Pip & Flinx #9
by Alan Dean Foster
Del Rey, $7.99, 288pp
Published: 2004

Working through the Pip & Flinx series, I often wonder just how much of a long term vision author Alan Dean Foster had. Sometimes it feels like he's setting things up to bear fruit six books down the line, but other times it feels like he just wants to immediately change direction away from the direction he just changed into. This, the ninth book in the series, is a great example. 'Flinx's Folly', the previous volume, saw Flinx wanting to reconnect with a human being from his past, Clarity Held. 'Sliding Scales', on the other hand, sees him wanting to get away from it all, human beings and everything else he knows. So, on the advice of his ship's computer, he goes on holiday.

Of course, this is Flinx so he isn't going to simply book a flight to Majorca, he's going to Jast, a world so far out there that it counts as AAnn territory, and one that may never have seen a human visitor before. It's the home not only to the AAnn, enemies du jour to our species and especially that of our closest allies, the Thranx, but to the Vssey, who are the indigenous species. As you might imagine for an Alan Dean Foster novel, they're rather imaginative, an odd race that somewhat resembles tentacled jumping mushrooms. They don't really like the AAnn but, as they can't make decisions outside of committee, they generally get along with them for now.

Enter Flinx to just wander around like a tourist seeing the sights, a concept that the AAnn powers that be can't grasp. Surely he's here to cause trouble, to reach out to the Vssey on behalf of the Humanx Commonwealth, to subvert the goals of the AAnn? Well, it doesn't help that there are Vssey rebels who really want the AAnn gone and one in particular, Qyl-Elussab, decides to kick off a terrorist campaign just as Flinx shows up. After all, it's said that timing is everything and Flinx, a perpetual trouble magnet, has never seemed to have good timing.

Just as we're wondering if Flinx will connect with his AAnn-appointed tour guide, Administrator Takuuna, and spark some sort of unwitting revolution of his own, Takuuna accidentally knocks him off a cliff and leaves his presumed corpse somewhere in the valley below, thankful for an apparent resolution to all his worries. Yeah, it doesn't end there. Flinx is alive, of course, though hardly in the best of shape either physically or mentally. His struggles through the local landscape are done through sheer will alone because amnesia has struck him and he ends up in an uncharacteristic artist colony of AAnn called the Tier of Ssaiinn, almost a heretic group because their beliefs are anathema to those of most of their species.

And here's where the purpose of the book really shows. This is the Flinx gets on with the AAnn book, through his inability to explain who he is or why he's there and their willingness to help him and look after him. We see him recover under Chraluuc's care until he becomes part of this strange community in ways that really surprise everyone involved. Meanwhile, Administrator Takuuna tries to quell the apparent Vssey rebellion against the AAnn, gradually coming to believe correctly that Flinx isn't dead and erroneously that he's behind everything that plagues him like some harbinger of doom. Much of what follows isn't as surprising as it could be, but Foster is able to put amnesia, that overused trope of genre fiction, to good end. As soon as it became apparent that Flinx had lost his memory, I sighed aloud in apprehension but my worst fears were not borne out and I ended up not upset at all about the entire amnesia angle.

This is a relatively smooth Pip & Flinx novel, not particularly complex but with a couple of tracks of plot that move along nicely and wrap up well. The best and worst parts are the usual best and worst parts of any of Alan Dean Foster's books, it seems: xenobiology and linguistics.

Foster truly shines at the former, clearly relishing every chance to flesh out a new and wild world with a new and wild creature that does what it does in new and wild ways. He was on top form here, generating all sorts of creatures that are emphatically but agreeably alien. I'm not just talking the Vssey and the AAnn, but all the odd non-sentient creatures that populate Jast.

The downside is the way in which we just know he came up with all the requisite names for his creations by using one of those MS-DOS alien name generators. I've attended convention panels with people who invent languages for a living and Foster clearly doesn't do that. He just presses go and hey, there's choluub and satubvwo, blohkbaa and ouvomum, jwoyourn and pwalakum, ad infinitum.

He goes overboard on the language here too. AAnn speech adds extra S's to words, resulting in 'firsst', 'insside' or 'ssand', not to mention the 'Ssemilionn of the Ssaiinn' who govern that artist colony out on the 'Ssmuldaar Plateau'. To AAnn, there's a double S in the word 'ssingle'. Vssey speech, on the other hand, drops the letter D from the end of words, even when it doesn't make any sense, like with the word 'would', which somehow brings the silent L back into play as 'woul''. With the AAnn having a double capital and particularly unwieldy names like Takuuna VBXLLW (the number of letters in the second name denotes status) or Lwo-Dvuum, this novel must have been an absolute bitch to spellcheck!

Fortunately, that really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things and anyone who's read this far into the Pip & Flinx series has to have become completely used to it by now or they'd have left long ago after being given Truzenzuzex and Abalamahalamatandra, among others. Sure, it's easy to pronounce Flinx and he surely must have given his Alaspinian mini-drag the name of Pip just to be anomalous. There are precious few names to be found in Alan Dean Foster novels that don't have eight syllables, three Xs and a silent Q and a random collection of characters in hot pursuit.

Joking aside, I liked 'Sliding Scales' quite a lot. It's a relatively calm ride, but it's an enjoyable one. There's a lot more substance than could be found in say, 'Reunion', two books earlier, and the flow is more consistent than in the prior volume, 'Flinx's Folly'. It also sets something new into motion, namely a powerful connection between our already isolated human hero and his species's sworn enemy, the AAnn. I'm sure that this  will have meaning going forward, whether it's in the next book (there's no mention here of the impending doom we heard about last time out), the one after or six books down the line. I'm looking forward to seeing how that plays out. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other books in the Pip & Flinx series click here
For other books by Alan Dean Foster click here

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