My previous reviews of Alan Dean Foster's books ably highlight how difficult it is to figure out in which order to read them. This is the sixth book chronologically in the Pip & Flinx series, appearing seven years after book five, 'Flinx in Flux', though 'Bloodhype', published a decade and a half earlier, counts as book eleven. However, the real confusion factor is the fact that the Pip & Flinx books are a mere subset of Foster's output set within the Humanx Commonwealth, an output that began with a 1972 short story called 'The Emoman' and continued with a variety of other short stories and novels.
Well, until now, that hasn't mattered at all. So there's an 'Icerigger' trilogy that began in 1974, when Pip & Flinx were only two books in, and wrapped up in 1987, right before 'Flinx in Flux'? Shrug. I can read them later. And those standalone novels like 'Cachalot', 'Nor Crystal Tears' and 'Voyage to the City of the Dead'? I'll take a look at those later too. But hey, the 1975 novel called 'Midworld' would seem to be notably pertinent here, as it takes place on a planet that constitutes the backdrop for the bulk of this novel, written two decades later. I haven't read it yet, but the synopsis is eerily familiar. I'm expecting that its story serves as a background plot device here, suggesting that it probably ought to be the next on my Alan Dean Foster reading list. I wonder how often I'll need to pause Pip & Flinx to jump sideways.
Initially, Flinx isn't on Midworld at all, but another new planet to the series called Samstead. There's nothing of note on Samstead, which is why Flinx is there. He wants to get away from it all. After the eventful life that he's had thus far, he simply aches for peace and quiet and Samstead seems like a pretty good bet to provide it. Well, if that was the case, we wouldn't have a story, so it's hardly surprising when his peace is shattered by an entitled local douche by the name of Jack-Jax Landsdowne Coerlis. This character collects exotic animals and wants to add Pip to his zoo. Oh, and by 'wants to add', I mean 'aims to acquire by any means necessary'. He is entirely unable to comprehend the concept of taking no for an answer.
And so Flinx (and Pip) depart Samstead with the simple and admirable goal of avoiding trouble. He points his unique spaceship in a random direction and tells it to stop at the first planet in its general path. And that turns out to be Midworld, an apparently undiscovered (see that earlier novel for why that's not strictly true) world whose entire surface is taken up by a rainforest a mile deep. Its natives live in harmony with all the life around them, to a surprising degree; each of them forms a symbiotic relationship with a photosynthetic creature called a furcot and they have an empathic connection with the plantlife around them. The planet's name comes from the fact that they live their lives within the branches at the midlevel of the rainforest, avoiding both the ground below them and the air above.
The story that unfolds here is pretty flimsy: Coerlis wants Pip and he simply doesn't know when to quit. That's about it; the elevator pitch is the novel. However, one of Foster's most overt talents is his ability to create worlds and populate them with wild and wonderful flora and fauna. He's done some of that in almost every book of his that I've read thus far. What's more, his imagination never seems to falter, because each new one I pick up contains still more fascinating alien lifeforms, all the way up to the newest Pip & Flinx novel, 'Strange Music', written as recently as 2017, a hundred and some books into his prolific career. This makes Midworld an quintessential Foster planet because, frankly, it's all wild and wonderful flora and fauna.
For instance, it takes the planet less than a minute to attack Flinx after he leaves his shuttle. He's beset by a four-meter-wide aerial predator whose body is almost entirely transparent. He escapes not by killing it but because a tree sends out its cable-like tentacles quickly enough to decapitate it and haul its body into its own before it can reach him. Cliff Notes version: Midworld is dangerous. Flinx explores anyway, marvelling just as we marvel at the wealth of alien lifeforms on display. I should add that Clarity, his sort of love interest in 'Flinx in Flux', does not appear here at all, but she, with her genegineering background, would see Midworld as just as promising to her field as Longtunnel was in that book.
Of course, it doesn't take too long for Flinx to run into the local population, in the form of a young lady named Teal, her children and their furcots. They're trying to return to their home tree from a hunting expedition which claimed the life of her husband, Jerah, but he was the one who knew the way back so now they're lost. With an irony that's palpable, Teal and her companions become as reliant on Flinx, whose personal tracker is connected to his ship in orbit and can also find the other ship that arrived in the novel 'Midworld', a known location to the locals, as he is on them, with their inherent knowledge of where all the dangers lie in the rainforest around them.
In fact, the entire book is built around the theme of symbiosis. The natives and their furcots rely on each other as a sort of jungle tag team; when one dies, the other follows and, in a mystical connection, when one is born, the other is generated by the forest itself. They live off the forest, just as the forest benefits from their presence and there's an empathic link between them, known as 'emfoling'. Flinx finds himself naturally at home with this mindset, not only because of the reasons mentioned above but because he has his own empathic connection to Pip and thus understands it in others. And, of course, when his pursuers arrive, Coerlis and his small army still seeking Flinx's mini-drag, they fail not because of any character flaws they might have (and they have plenty) but because they have no connection to the landscape around them.
This pursuit and its inevitable failure is mildly engaging but it pales in comparison with the fantastic creation that is Midworld. The primary reason to read this book is to immerse yourself in Foster's fertile imagination, not to discover the next step in Flinx & Pip's progression. There are a few moments that highlight that Foster hasn't forgotten that there's a lot in Flinx's past that isn't yet fully resolved and surely plenty to come in his future. There's a hint here that the Krang, introduced in Foster's debut novel but never used, might find its time soon, just as there's a further connection to the AAnn, the alien race whose purpose isn't just to cause chaos for our omnipresent autocorrect technology that hadn't been invented at the time.
Next up for Flinx & Pip is 'Reunion', written six years after this book in 2001. From its synopsis, I believe it may well constitute the next stage in our heroes' stories that this book only hinted at. But hey, next up for me will be 'Midworld'. I want to know the background to the mission that played a peripheral part centuries later in 'Mid-Flinx'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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