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Drowning World
Humanx Commonwealth #21
by Alan Dean Foster
Del Rey, $7.99, 336pp
Published: January 2003

It's taken me over a couple of years at one per month, but I'm almost caught up with Alan Dean Foster's prodigious output of Humanx Commonwealth novels. I've reviewed all fifteen books featuring Pip & Flinx, two wildly different trilogies in 'Icerigger' and 'Founding of the Commonwealth', and six of the eight standalone novels. This makes seven of the latter, leaving me just one more for next month, which is 'Quofum'. It's been a fun ride.

'Drowning World' bears some similarity to the 'Founding of the Commonwealth' books because it throws intelligent characters from naturally antagonistic species into a confined space, prompting them to have to come up with a way to get along. It also reminds of 'Mid-World', as the confined space in this book is the Viisiiviisii, a vast jungle which sits on land secreted thirty metres below flooded rivers. As you might imagine from the title, the world known as Fluva is a little damp. It rains every day and for ninety per cent of the year. The only dry land to be found is way up in the mountains.

The two species at odds as we begin are the Sakuntala, the natives of Fluva, and the Deyzara, who were imported five generations ago by the Commonwealth, from their home world of Tharce IV. Initially a minority population, they've bred quickly and now number as many as the Sakuntala. There's no easy fix to the clashes between the two species, as anyone who knows anything about our own equivalent situations will realise. Think Jerusalem, Northern Ireland or even Native Americans.

There are humans on Fluva too, because the Humanx Commonwealth is evaluating it for admission. The Chief Administrator is Lauren Matthias and, when news comes in that another human is lost in the Viisiiviisii, she enlists the aid of a Sakuntala and a Deyzara to track him down. That human has the unwieldy name of Shadrach Hasselemoga, so he tends to go by Hasa. The search party is comprised of Jemunu-ja, the Sakuntala of the pair, and Masurathoo, who's the Deyzara. Needless to say they don't get along and, when they find Hasa, none of them get along with each other, as he's professionally obnoxious.

Anyone reading Alan Dean Foster knows that he loves to conjure up intriguing flora and fauna, which extends to those with sentience. Thus I should point out that the Sakuntala are two-metre-tall furred creatures with transparent eyelids and two meter long tongues. The latter are usually rolled up within a cheek sac but are brought out for greetings. The Deyzara are much shorter, bald and with two separate trunks, one with which to eat and one to breathe.

Hasa is just a regular human, but he's also a freelance bioprospector whose job is to search alien planets for flora and fauna suitable for medicines or other commercial applications. What he knows, but those about to embark on a search and rescue mission to bring him back do not, is that he didn't simply crash into the Viisiiviisii, his ship went down because of sabotage. Why, he has no idea and neither do we.

That search and rescue mission is the first of three plot strands here, one that soon intermingles with the second because, of course, the rescue vessel is also sabotaged, thus dumping Jemunu-ja and Masarathoo into the same, very dangerous situation that Hasa found himself in. Therefore they're forced to work together to the goal of mutual survival, a goal that has served Foster well in other books. It's no spoiler to extend that cooperation to Hasa, as it's included in the back cover blurb on my paperback.

The third plot strand is the flipside of the second because, at the heart of the communities we start the novel within, there's no requirement to combine forces in order to survive, so an extremist faction in the Sakuntala build a sort of terrorist approach to achieve their goals of kicking the Deyzala off their planet and making Fluva great again. Lauren Matthias's office is right there too and she has to not only figure out a way to solve the conflict but do so in a way that doesn't jeopardise wider goals of admitting Fluva into the Commonwealth.

There are a few other things going on too that I won't spoil but they're in line with what Foster has done in other novels, both to progress the series as a whole and to enhance its backdrop by continuing to diversify its worlds and what populates them, not just with the obvious but with the not quite so obvious. Again I can't explain that too much without venturing into spoiler territory.

While I've enjoyed the Humanx Commonwealth series as a whole, it's hardly a stretch to suggest that the quality of its individual volumes is variable. I have to say, though, that I've enjoyed the standalone novels more than many entries in the more popular Pip & Flinx track. This one is no exception, as it does what the others did on a fresh new world. I think it may be because Foster is more consistent with his worldbuilding when he can focus entirely on that and use the novel length story to enhance it.

I liked the characters here, even if they're not quite as memorable as some elsewhere in the series. I liked the flora and fauna too, even if they don't get as much detailed attention as elsewhere. And I liked the world, even if it tends to drive humans who have to live there insane. It goes far beyond a move from Phoenix to Seattle and a need to learn about rain. On Fluva, rain is such a constant that everything from buildings to clothing is designed in a very different way.

Perhaps above all I liked the way that Foster wrapped this one up. He really put Matthias up against it, but the solution that she finds, which naturally ties to the other plot strands, is an elegant one that I appreciated a great deal. I just wish I could talk about it!

And that's about it. Having run through all the different types of world he can think of, Foster's forced to combine jungle and ocean here for a sort of mix of Mid-World and Cachalot, but leaning more to the former. I'm eager to see what he comes up for the titular world in 'Quofum'. See you next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles in the Humanx Commonwealth click here
For more titles by Alan Dean Foster click here

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