Last month, I finished up my run-through of Alan Dean Foster's fifteen books focusing on a galaxy-saving rogue talent named Flinx and his Alaspinian mini-drag Pip. I enjoyed all of them, to greater or lesser degrees, even though I was frustrated with their general story arc, which grew in fits and starts over Foster's entire writing career and was often ignored in those books.
This series constitutes a subset of what could and should be described as Foster's magnum opus, his numerous volumes about the Humanx Commonwealth at large. I've already read and reviewed one of these, 'Midworld', named for a planet on which Pip & Flinx spent one of their novels, 'Mid-Flinx'. I felt that I should start further exploration of the Humanx Commonwealth with one more book named for a planet on which Pip & Flinx spent time, Cachalot.
As the name might suggest, this is an ocean world, 'cachalot' being a word for sperm whale. There's precious little land, so little that the few human colonists tend to live on floating cities. There's little danger as Cachalot doesn't have a moon and so there are no tides. There are wild and wonderful creatures, as you might expect for an Alan Dean Foster novel, but these are mostly hidden away in the depths of the planetary ocean. However, someone or something is destroying these floating cities and the authorities call in an offworld expert to investigate.
That expert is Cora Xamantina, a fantastic lead because she's a middle-aged black marine biologist, hardly a stereotype in any direction. She's aching to talk with the whales but she knows that it's unlikely. Her daughter, on the other hand, may be a marine biologist too but one who wants nothing more than to play her neurophon, an intricate musical instrument that doesn't only produce notes but nerve sensations too. I wasn't particularly sold on this odd broken family relationship, but it failed to bother me the way it has some reviewers.
I should add here that the dominant species on Cachalot are whales. They're the descendants of the whales of Earth, hunted to near extinction but given intelligence and the ability to speak through application of technology. A millennium ago, a peace was forged through a Covenant and eventually, as a sort of apology, all the intelligent whales on Earth were transported over the light years to Cachalot. However, they don't forget and so they tend to want nothing whatsoever to do with humans.
The cetacea do fall into scales. On one scale, porpoises occupy one end as playful creatures who live entirely in the moment, while sperm whales occupy the other end as serious thinkers who spend their time swimming around and thinking their great thoughts. On a different scale, the sperm whales are also the least acknowledging of humans while orcas tend to be friendly and have started to build relationships with individual humans.
With the wildlife, whether native or transported, having little to do with the human race, it falls to the local populace to figure out what might be destroying floating cities like Rorqual Towne. Sadly the distances are vast and survivors nonexistent, so they're getting nowhere. Cora, as Rachael's heart really isn't in anything except her neurophon, is tasked with finding that out, in the company of Captain Sam Mataroreva, commander of the local equivalent of a police force, who's a jovial Polynesian, not unusual for a world of water.
I liked Cora and it's impossible not to like Sam, even when we learn about how his easygoing nature translates into relationships. I liked the mystery and the slow pace of investigation. I really liked how the majority of the novel is spent on or under the water, far from land and notably away from any sort of home base. In many ways, the novel feels like a journey so far from anything we know that we can't help but get away from it all.
While I might suggest that most science fiction novels, especially those set out in the wilds of space, ought to generate that sort of feeling, there's little here that's wildly different from what we know, except for the fact that whales talk. Most of us have been out on or over a large body of water, so far that land disappears from the horizon. There's little technology here that feels too different from what we have. The people are familiar and the language likewise. Foster has done a great deal of travelling around the globe and it's easy to see this as a consequence of some of that. The best scenes could have easily have been taken from his personal memoirs with fictional characters inserted into them.
And yet there's a grand mystery that we can't explain from our experience. I'm not sure that I buy into where it goes or why and I enjoyed the book a lot better as a mystery than as a solution. I'm also certainly at a loss as to how the Cachalot whales we encounter here tie to the Cachalot whales that help Flinx during 'Flinx Transcendent' and at odd points earlier, especially as 'Cachalot' tends to be listed after that book in the suggested reading orders of a number of sites. That doesn't seem to make sense.
It's a calm book for a mystery, but I don't see that as a flaw. The way the mystery plays out is and some would have trouble with the conversations that we witness between humans and whales. Anyone who's read Alan Dean Foster is going to be expecting wild names and some sort of language play to highlight how differently others speak. Here, the orcas are Wenkoseemansa and Latehoht and they say things like, "A ggood dayy to beee alivve, to swwim and to eatt and to thhinkkkk.” Whoever proofs Foster's books probably sends him coal for Christmas.
I tend to enjoy his novels, though some notably more than others, but what I keep in mind tends to be details: this planet, that encounter; imaginative creatures here, interesting concepts there. With 'Cachalot', the details are almost unimportant. What settled with me even while reading and what stayed with me afterwards is a feeling of tranquility. I've never wanted to visit a planet in an Alan Dean Foster novel quite like this one and, unlike Cora, I don't feel driven by a need to talk to whales. I can, however, totally grasp why Flinx retired to Cachalot. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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