I knew Alan Dean Foster was prolific, because I read and enjoyed a couple of his books back in the eighties and so tend to pick up his others when I see them in thrift stores or at library sales. When I have more than a three foot shelf of his books, I know he's prolific. However, I haven't dipped much into them since so was surprised to discover that the new Pip and Flinx book doesn't come right after the series of four that I owned back then. Apparently, the Humanx Commonwealth series has fourteen prior novels, along with a prequel trilogy and eight standalones, in addition to a bunch of short stories, so I felt that I should at least dip my toes back into that pond before getting around to the new one.
'The Tar-Aiym Krang' always seemed like the most outrageously titled science fiction novel on my shelves as a kid and it still seems that way now that I know what it means. Frankly, it doesn't matter that much because it's a MacGuffin, so the outrageous name was clearly deliberate. This book is ample evidence that Foster can't resist linguistic play, though some of it does make a good deal of sense. In a tabloid-driven world of 'Brangelina' and 'Bennifer' and their ilk, it makes sense to combine the two major allied races of the future, Human and Thranx, into Humanx. I get 'symbospeed' and 'doublekay drive' and a whole bunch of other technology, but there are a great deal of Xs and Zs in these names (hello Truzenzuzex, or 'Tru, of the family Zen, clan zu, the Hive Zex') and the fact that I have no idea how to pronounce the race known as the AAnn is surely the point.
We even have wordplay in the names of our heroes. They're Pip and Flinx, though they should be the more awkward Flinx and Pip, given that Flinx is the human half of that partnership and Pip is his pet minidrag, which is precisely what you imagine it might be. Both of those names stem from Philip Lynx, because Foster was presumably paid per use of the letter X. He even starts out as 'The Flinx' but that doesn't last more than a page or so.
Flinx and Pip live on the planet Moth, named because its spectacular rings look more like wings. Foster does a surprisingly comprehensive job of detailing this planet, its demographics and its peoples, far more so than ever was needed, given that the only reason we're on Moth is so that two former stingship partners (Tse-Mallory and Truzenzuzex) can find a suitably equipped merchant by the name of Malaika and, fortuitously hire Flinx as the guide they need to find him. Once all those preliminaries are taken care of, off they all chase into the wide blue yonder, whisking through the universe in search of the legendary Krang of the extinct race known as the Tar-Aiym.
What's also odd is that life on the planet Moth feels much more like fantasy than it does science fiction, with its traders, its thieves and its taverns. Then, roughly halfway through the book, when they shuttle up to the unfortunately named Gloryhole, it turns acutely science fiction. Just as Foster was happy to expound on the geography of the planet Moth, he's happy to explain all the technological details on board ship, whether we care or not. While he does so, he takes the opportunity to have some characters give a primer to others on galactic history as well, which can seem a little too much at points but is surely a solid grounding to the series to come.
Oddly, he doesn't dig deep into some of the things we do want to know about. For instance, what are the rules for personality chess? I'm intrigued, even if Amazon only throws up a 1963 textbook on the traditional version of the game when I search for it.
Ironically, it's some of the things he doesn't explain that are most dated. The 'doublekay drive' still makes sense, even if it's still imagined technology, but the full survival belts that Malaika dishes out aren't entirely consistent with our 2018 expectations. For instance, one neat item is 'a tent for two which was waterproof, conserved body heat, and folded to a package smaller than one's fist', which sounds like a fair extrapolation from today to future spacefaring tech, but another is 'a wonderfully compact minimicrofilm reader, with some fifty books on its spool.' Yeah, not quite so believable there. Foster apparently hadn't gone digital in 1972.
I am having fun with this because 'The Tar-Aiym Krang' lends itself to such treatment. I am, at least, having fun with it fondly. I did enjoy this book, though it felt somewhat inconsistent in its approach. It starts out like it's a fantasy, then it turns into good old fashioned space opera with heroes and villains and the works. Some aspects are drawn up in glorious style, while others seem forced. It sets up some fantastic characters, then fails to do all of them justice, not least Pip, Flinx's minidrag. Half of me wondered if Foster is a pantser, an author who starts a book without knowing where he's going to go, but keeps writing until he gets there. My other half wondered if he'd already mapped out an entire trilogy against a firmly defined universe and just couldn't fit everything into this one volume.
Certainly there's a heck of a lot here for a book that only runs two hundred pages. Foster doesn't just introduce Pip and Flinx, still the most abiding duo of his career, but a whole universe. Never mind simple worldbuilding, Foster lent his hand to universebuilding here. We find out about how the human race expanded into space, how it met its other half in the Thranx, how they learned to be true partner races, how they battled the Pitar together and... well, let's just say that it's pretty expansive stuff. What's more, the Tar-Aiym of the title are another race who have been extinct for half a million years, so there are angles to the angles.
Clearly, the Humanx Commonwealth struck a nerve, both for Foster as a writer and for his abundant audience, because we wouldn't be twentysome books in otherwise. However, this was his first novel and it shows. Those of his books that I've read naturally came later than his debut (though not too far, as this came out in 1972 and they were released later in the seventies and eighties). All of them seemed smoother and more consistent than this. The next couple of books, at least counted chronologically within the series, were released in 1977, so I expect those to be more polished than this one. Here, the passion that led to a hundred more books is already evident but Foster was still learning his craft as an author. ~~ Hal C F Astell