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Orphan Star
Pip & Flinx #3
by Alan Dean Foster
Random House, 240pp
Published: Originally 1977, Reprint 2004

I enjoyed much of what was in “The Tar-Aiym Krang'v” (click here for review), Alan Dean Foster's outrageously titled 1972 novel, a lot more than I enjoyed the book as a whole. It was packed full of interesting ideas, engaging characters and wild situations but its inconsistent flow made it feel like the debut novel it was. Foster had clearly found his rhythm by 1977, as this, his fifth original novel and his eighteenth book overall, contains a lot more interesting ideas, engaging characters and wild situations, but puts them all to work in a much smoother novel with a simpler flow.

Now, technically, the first of many sequels arrived one year later in the form of 'Bloodhype', but that's been gradually shifted down the chronology of the Pip & Flinx series to number eleven, while 'Orphan Star' and 'The End of the Matter', both from 1977, are generally seen as wrapping up the initial Pip & Flinx trilogy and they follow right after 'The Tar-Aiym Krang'. So that's where I'm going next to acquaint myself with these characters.

The lead is Phillip Lynx from 'The Tar-Aiym Krang', better known as Flinx, who truly becomes a protagonist here. While he was the lead in that first book, he often seemed to be along for the ride, but this book is clearly about him and it focuses in on a single detail of his background. You see, Lynx isn't really his surname, it's more of a status, explaining that his mother was a prostitute. Beyond that, he has no idea who she was, but he really wants to know.

And, finally, he gets a lead, albeit in a particularly odd way: he finds himself kidnapped. The what of the kidnapping almost seems like an afterthought, given that a rich pervert named Conda Challis wants him to do something esoteric with a precious stone called a Janus Jewel, and, when Flinx can't do it, Challis promptly leaves, along with Mahnahmi, his brat of a daughter. Flinx's pet mini-drag, Pip, quickly comes to the rescue, bringing a giant bartender ironically named Small Symm, and we're apparently back to our regularly scheduled programming.

What's really important is the why, because the reason Challis kidnapped Flinx, the reason why he thought the young lad could do something with his Janus Jewel, is because he believes that his peculiar mental abilities are inherited through his maternal line. And from the one carelessly dropped line of dialogue from which he gives that away, this entire novel finds its purpose. It's an extremely slim lead, as leads go, but Flinx is up for the challenge.

Typing it here, it sounds overly simplistic to suggest that the rest of this book merely follows Flinx as he follows that lead, initially in search of Challis to get his kidnapper to explain himself, then from further lead to further lead until... well, I'll let you discover that yourself. At its heart, it really is that simple, but there's a great deal more going on here and that has to do with Foster's talent for throwing far more into fewer pages than we might expect and spinning everything up into a single story.

What's more, Foster couldn't have done much better at building his original novel into a long-running series if he'd have tried. Flinx's quest carries him all over the place and I don't just mean on Moth. Merely his first item of business, tracking down Challis to find out what his kidnapper knows about his mother, takes him to two different homeworlds, Hivehom and Terra, and that's just the beginning.

Hivehom is the homeworld of the Thranx, the giant insect partners of the human race in the Humanx Commonwealth. Most cities there are underground, but the human population mostly lives on the raised Mediterranea Plateau. Foster uses this design well as Flinx does what he needs to do. If Hivehom doesn't sound remotely Alan Dean Foster-ish, by the way, with its scanty letter count and it's glaring lack of Xs, I should point out that the Thranx 'antiques dealer' who offers assistance, is named Bisondenbit, and the spaceport on Hivehom is Chitteranx. Then it's off to Terra, where the capital city of mankind is now Brisbane and the headquarters of the United Church comprise the entire island of Bali.

Of course, Flinx isn't merely sight-seeing. He's seeking out a truth and it isn't a simple quest. For a start, Challis, perhaps understandably, doesn't want anything to do with Flinx, on the grounds that he surely wants revenge for being kidnapped, and Mahnahmi is somehow repulsed by Flinx's presence. How Foster turns this into action is fascinating and original. Even after he obtains what little information Challis can give him, original action seems to be the concept of the day. I won't spoil what that is, but I will point out that a couple of minor characters from 'The Tar-Aiym Krang' get more to do here as Flinx's search progresses.

I'll also add that this originality isn't merely in the locations, races and technology, which are traditionally easy things to jazz up for a science fiction audience that relishes new depictions of what it means to be alien. It goes a little deeper; one example occurring in the headquarters of the United Church, where Flinx, or rather Pip, saves the life of a young Thranx padre-elect during an odd security breach. He uses Thranx culture to call in that debt and so elicit her assistance in the next stage of his plan, which is suitably wild, dangerous and illegal. She doesn't like it in the slightest, but is forced to assist because of culture. The fact that she's Sylzenzuzex, a niece of Truzenzuzex, the key Thranx in 'The Tar-Aiym Krang', is merely a bonus.

And so we go. There are lots of things I'd love to talk about here but can't on the grounds that they would provide spoilers. What I can say is that, while this Del Rey paperback original runs a mere 240 pages and is usually seen as the middle third of the original Pip & Thrinx trilogy, it can just as easily be looked at in different ways.

For one, while it follows on in a number of ways from 'The Tar-Aiym Krang', it's no direct sequel. This has nothing to do with the discoveries made in that book and most of its characters aren't present here. This is merely a fresh story set in the same universe with the same lead after that book happened. However, it leads directly into the next book, 'The End of the Matter', so this is really a duology with that book rather than the middle part of a trilogy.

For another, it often feels like it could have been broken down even more, elongating Flinx's search for his heritage into multiple volumes, just by taking parts of this one and expanding them out. The search for Challis could easily have been a book all on its own, as could Flinx's adventures under the United Church's headquarters on Bali. The final section, which I have avoided touching entirely, could have been its own novel too.

The same certainly could be said about 'The Tar-Aiym Krang', which began like a fantasy novel and ended as a science fiction one, and this speaks volumes, pun not intended, about the depth of Foster's worldbuilding. I've rarely seen something so short be so obvious a source for future expansion.

It can't be coincidental that the other obvious example from 1977 is the 'Star Wars' universe, given that Alan Dean Foster ghostwrote the original film's novelisation, which was released six months before the movie and differs from it in many ways, not least in providing many background details that weren't mentioned on screen. Foster also followed up with a standalone 'Star Wars' novel, 'Splinter of the Mind's Eye', which was released two years before 'The Empire Strikes Back'.

Just like 'Star Wars', where each culture, city or world we encounter is the obvious source of stories of its own, there are dozens of little stories here, handled as mere background, that ache to be spun out into their own novels. No wonder Foster has published almost thirty books set in the universe of the Humanx Commonwealth, even if they were written very much in phases in and amongst many other novels and series.

'Oprhan Star' is a vastly superior work to 'The Tar-Aiym Krang' and I'm keenly looking forward to wrapping up its story in 'The End of the Matter'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other books in the Pip & Flinx series click here

For other books by Alan Dean Foster here

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