The fifth of eight current standalone novels that Alan Dean Foster has set in the Humanx Commonwealth, 'Sentenced to Prism' is a quintessential Foster story. Like 'Midworld', 'Reunion' and other novels, it's a survival story at heart: a character finds himself (it's always been "himself" thus far) on an alien planet wildly hostile to humanxkind, even if their technology ought to keep them safe. It doesn't. There's also a friendly alien with an outrageous name because, of course, there is, and a glorious array of imaginative flora and fauna.
This time, the lead is an arrogant, unpopular and highly effective corporate troubleshooter, Evan Orgell. He's quietly sent to a newly discovered planet, known as Prism, because it's made of jewels and his company wants to bypass Commonwealth rules by getting a foothold on there before its competitors are aware of its existence. The potential profit is incalculable. Even the fauna are often crystalline, many of them silicon-based living jewelry, photovores who live on light.
The problem is that Orgell is not the first person his company has sent to Prism. They want him to find out what happened to their twenty-six scientist survey team and fix whatever that was so that they can get back on track. He has a reputation of fixing problems. Well, here's a doozy!
To keep him safe, they have a special suit for him. Orgell is used to suits, because he lives on Samstead where everyone's used to suits. They allow folk to survive in any environment, take care of most needs and effectively serve as a protective and intelligent interface with the world at large. This suit is the most advanced suit there is and it can't possibly fail. Which, you'll surely be shocked to discover, it does. When it does, we're told that Orgell has only been outside without a suit twice in his entire life. Now he has to do that on an alien planet made of prismatic crystal and reflective glass.
And here's where the real story begins, with Orgell somewhere in the outback of Prism searching for the 26th scientist, Martine Ophemert, because all the others are dead and she's merely missing. He's forced to use all his problem-solving powers just to stay alive, let alone track down Martine and complete his mission, in a hostile alien environment, even though he has almost zero experience interacting even with his home environment. What's more, he needs to change as a person, to overcome other fears and prejudices, to even make it out alive. Oh, and if the sheer amount of light consistently reflected off every surface is enough to make him blind, there are creatures here in fractal space that he needs Hausdorf lenses to even see.
Anyone who's read a few Alan Dean Foster novels knows how damn good he is at conjuring up alien ecosystems and the flora and fauna to populate them. It's a talent that comes, I think, from his fascination with our own world and an understanding that whatever outrageous creation someone creates out there in the infinity of space is probably very similar to something already here on our own planet. I've admired his skill at creature creation for a long time indeed but this may take over from 'Midworld' as the best example of that in Foster's ever-increasing bibliography.
Also, as anyone who's read a few Alan Dean Foster novels knows, he outright refuses to give aliens simple names. I'll only name one here, but the alien who befriends Evan and helps him is even more outrageous than usual. It's an opaque meter-long telepathic caterpillar with ten yellow legs, a cilia coat of hair and silicate shades covering its green eyes. It figures out how to communicate with a non-telepathic human by exuding tendrils, slipping them through Evan's ears and plugging them directly into a specific unused plug in his brain. And its name is A Surface of Fine Azure-Tinted Reflection with Pyroxin Dendritic Inclusions. Orgell calls it Azure.
It feels like I could write a book on the Prism ecosystem though, of course, I don't have to because Foster did. Let's just say that Azure is part of an incredibly specialised hive mind. If a new need arises, they change to meet it. They live in complex structures and use advanced science, but without a single tool. And, as well-adapted as they are to their environment, it's not entirely friendly to them either.
I'm not sure what my favourite alien creature is here. It might be the one that takes down Orgell and destroys his suit. That's a sentient hedge, five metres deep, ten high and several kilometres wide. Oh, and it's a photovore too, so it takes in crazy amounts of energy from the sun, which it can then store and expel in the form of a seriously dangerous laser when threatened. Somehow I think it's the one that nearly kills him, after the hedge took out his suit. That's the community of silicate worms that link to form nets, all the better to bring down Orgell and feast on the mineral salts in his blood.
There's really not much plot here, just an opportunity for Foster to let his imagination run wild. Orgell has a simple task to do but he's diverted from it quickly by the need to survive. As he almost fails to do that, Azure sets a whole new story of discovery in motion, which leads to other stories that link together almost like those silicate worms. By the end, we reconnect to the original plot and get closure on the wraparound, but it's everything in between those bookends that's most worthy.
I liked this a lot, even though Orgell isn't a particularly sympathetic man for quite a while. He's not bad, but he has a very accurate measure of what he can do and what he can't, which leads him to be perceived as arrogant. I like how he developed. I like how he changed. I like what he became. Within a framework so clearly designed to allow the author to create another alien ecosystem, Evan Orgell is a real and frankly surprising success.
Then again, Foster was a well-established author at this point and he'd been exploring many of these themes for a while. Sentenced to Prism was released in 1985, after five Pip & Flinx novels, four other standalone Commonwealth novels (and two such short stories) and two thirds of the Icerigger trilogy, also part of the wider Humanx Commonwealth fictional universe. I think I'll tackle that trilogy next, because it ended in 1987 with 'The Deluge Drivers' but the next Humanx Commonwealth standalone novel, 'The Howling Stones' was another decade in the waiting. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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