Those of you who have been following along with my reviews of Alan Dean Foster's series of novels about Pip and Flinx know that everything has appeared to lead up to this point. While this was the second book written in the series, way back in 1973, and the rest of it was mostly written in chronological order, this turns out to be the eleventh when reading through them as the author recommends. What's weird isn't that it has trouble fitting into the flow, which it does, but the particular ways in which it's clearly a square peg in a round hole.
A little bit of history helps with some of that. When Foster wrote it, he clearly intended for it to be a book in a series he planned to expand about the Humanx Commonwealth at large rather than any particular ongoing characters. Flinx only made it in at the request of his publisher and, while most people will read 'Bloodhype' today for him, it's really not his story. He shows up about a third of the way in and remains an outsider throughout, because hey, that's exactly what he was.
The lead character is Lt. Kitten Kai-Sung, a human working in the Intelligence Arm of the United Church, and her sidekick is a Tolian called Porsupah. I like both of them, though the fact that they haven't made it into another book in four and a half decades suggests that they're not likely to. That's a shame. Kitten kicks ass in ways that would have felt rather ahead of her time in 1973 but wouldn't now, as times have changed considerably.
The book is oddly structured, because it has two apparently separate stories, both of which unfold on the planet Repler, a sparsely populated human planet that also features an AAnn base, and we do wonder if they're ever going to connect.
The first has to do with the Vom. This is a gigantic sentient black blob that obeys its own laws of physics, being impervious to pretty much everything. It's insanely old, given that the long extinct Tar-Aiym were unable to kill it half a million years ago and so rendered it dormant instead on a planet that it's stripped of all sustenance, with one of their Guardians left in orbit to ensure that it doesn't escape. Of course, it does, after an AAnn commander discovers it and finds it justifiably fascinating but stupidly thinks it'll be a bright idea to transport it to a populated planet to perform research on it.
The second has to do with the drug of the title. Bloodhype is the most addictive substance known to humanxkind but it had been thought to have been wiped off the problem list, partly because its unparalleled high is countered by a pretty guaranteed death sooner rather than later. Word has reached the United Church that an amoral criminal mastermind has resurrected the trade in bloodhype and the inevitable string of corpses followed in its wake. The Church sends Kitten and Porsupah to figure out who's behind it all and stop him before many more people die.
For much of the book, we wonder which is going to prove deadlierbloodhype or the Vombut with a general expectation that it'll be the former for two reasons. For one, the book is called Bloodhype not Vom. And, for the other, those of us not reading in 1973 have been working through a series of books in which a gigantic sentient black blob somewhere way out there in the universe is about to pose an imminent threat. It seems fair for us to assume that that gigantic sentient black blob is this gigantic sentient black blob which Foster had set up so long ago and realised that he had to shoehorn his series to tie into.
Well, it isn't. It turns out that the various component parts that Foster was clearly building up for a long overdue spectacle at the end of a multi-book arc do not lead up to this one. That moment will surely still come and it has only three books left in which to do so because that's all done and dusted by book fifteen, 'Strange Music', but it isn't here. Maybe 'Bloodhype' will turn out to contribute one more thing to that list of various other things, in all likelihood the drug of the title. Who knows? We'll find out at some point during the next three months.
Back to the story at hand, all roads lead to a gentleman named Dominic Rose, and it's at his villain's lair that all the characters converge. Kitten is captured and sent there to be tortured, ironically by the same over-privileged henchman that she memorably bested the moment she arrived on Repler. Captain Malcolm Hammurabi (ah yes, we have a Captain Mal three decades before 'Firefly') seeks him out because he's not happy to discover that the bloodhype is being smuggled onto Repler in cargo on his ship, the Umbra, without his knowledge. And Flinx is already there, working for Rose as an 'apprentice sanitation engineer'.
By the way, this makes precisely no sense at all when we read the books in chronological order. It serves mostly to highlight just how much Flinx, or just Philip as he's named here throughout, has evolved since Foster created him a book earlier than this one in 'The Tar-Aiym Krang'. This Philip isn't wildly incompatible with the Flinx of latehe's still the same capable, somewhat detached and oddly uncomfortable hero we know and lovebut the details don't fit. In 1973, he was working for Rose because that's the job that came up when he arrived on Repler. After ten books, we know he doesn't need one. Also, his love life (or lack of it) in those ten books doesn't gel well with his getting some from Kitten here as a reward for saving her life.
The Humanx Commonwealth clearly evolved a great deal too and over more books than just the ones I've read thus far. The AAnn having a base on Repler seems strange, even though there's agreeable conflict between them and the local humans, especially Maj. Orvenalix, in charge of keeping some semblance of order on the planet. I got a kick out of how much trouble they found themselves in when they tried to experiment on the Vom, though that's really not nice of me. The Vom is a creature of simple need"I eat, therefore I am" is the opening line of the bookand it's hard to feel for or against it. The AAnn, however, are the enemies of the Commonwealth and so it's easy for us to be on whichever side they're not.
I found 'Bloodhype' to be a better written novel than its predecessor, 'The Tar-Aiym Krang', but it's still clearly early Foster and he improved a lot from here. It's a terrible fit for the Pip & Flinx series and I'd be surprised if he saw in hindsight the inclusion of those characters to be a good one. However, it's still a worthwhile story with some agreeable action and adventure and it has the added bonus of allowing us to realise quite how differently Foster envisioned his most famous character early in his career.
Next in the series is 'Trouble Magnet', published in 2006, which will hopefully put us firmly back on the track of the gigantic sentient black blob that is not called the Vom. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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