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Trouble Magnet
Pip & Flinx #12
by Alan Dean Foster
Del Rey, $7.99. 304pp
Published: November 2006

Any series written over a serious length of time is always going to see stylistic changes because the author will have grown over that period. Alan Dean Foster started his Pip & Flinx series, indeed his career, in 1972, with a book called 'The Tar-Aiym Krang'. This twelfth book in the series, written no less than thirty-four years later, is as different as chalk and cheese from the first or even the eleventh book, 'Bloodhype', the anomaly of the series, which was written second, back in 1973. Reading eleven and twelve in succeeding months is a real trip, as Foster isn't only a very different writer but one who sees his characters in very different ways over time.

Unsurprisingly, he's keen to recap here, effectively splicing 'Bloodhype' into the chronology of the series, and a few paragraphs do that job in fantastic fashion. Two in particular, on the second page, crunch the past, present and future into a magnificently compressed summary. To cut even that short version down even more, he's on a mission to track down a half-million-year-old weapons platform created by a now extinct species so that he can wield it against a distant and vast menace threatening everything. We're given the names of the friends who sent him on this mission and the names of the groups who are searching for him, either to stop him or for other reasons. It's a great summary and it ably explains how massively important this young man is to the universe.

The problem is that Flinx isn't sure that he cares any more. 'Trouble Magnet' is yet another deferral of that long-promised story so that its hero can rediscover himself, again, and quantify his connection to the universe that he's tasked with saving. He does this not by going to another supposedly quiet planet to get away from it all, but by doing the precise opposite for a changes: going to the worst planet he can identify and throwing himself into a crime-afflicted city. We're never quite sure whether he's doing this in hope of finding some redeeming factor to humanity in the midst of the worst it offers, thus allowing him to get back onto his search with a refreshed soul, or in hope that he won't be able to find any redeeming factor, so allowing him the justification to give it all up.

This planet is Visaria and the city Malandere, where he soon finds himself caught up in local shenanigans. This happens in a park, when he telegraphs where we're eventually going to end up by demonstrating his innate decency, saving a thranx from being robbed by a gang of young ne'erdowells. He develops a connection to one of these thugs, a young man by the name of Subar, who presumably reminds him of his own younger self, a petty orphan thief on the planet of Moth. So we move along in rather inevitable fashion to replenish his soul and, of course, eventually collide once again with a bigger picture when he least expect it.

It's difficult not to like this book, though it's yet another diversion from a multi-book story arc. It's annoying for Foster to have done this once but for him to do it a few separate times really stretches our patience. Personally, I can't help but wonder if this isn't really about Flinx finding the justification to go on. Maybe it's about Foster himself, three and half decades into a series wondering if the direction he so carefully set up in earlier books is the one he really wants to pursue now. Hopefully, given that there are only two books left between this one and the much more recent 'Strange Music', which I reviewed new and out of order, he found what he was looking for in Flinx's time on Visaria and figured out how to actually get the bigger job done.

I quite liked the kids here, who are minor criminals but nowhere near evil. They discover this themselves when they try for something bigger than usual by robbing a warehouse of antiques from Earth that belong to a firm called Goalaa Endeavors, exotic items such as eighteenth-century glassware or twentieth-century fast-food containers, even a booklet made out of actual paper. Unfortunately, Goalaa Enterprises turns out to be a front for a smuggling operation run by local crime lord Piegal Shaeb and that means that the kids, who aren't very good at keeping out of the public eye, are in serious trouble indeed and Flinx is the only real asset on their side.

Foster's prose flows better with each book that passes, the shift backwards to 'Bloodhype' highlighting that in overt fashion. This is smooth, easy reading and the author clearly felt playful enough to conjure up memorable phrases like 'quest request' or 'in favor of flavor'. Maybe he felt relieved that he was no longer building up to a previously written book and could go wherever he wanted with this one. Of course, he does more than just the task he sets himself, eventually bouncing Flinx into something larger and even letting him in on some more of his own hidden past that he's so keen on discovering. Heritage is as important to Flinx as it is elusive.

So, yeah, it's an enjoyable book but it's a lesser entry into an increasingly inconsistent series, because it veers away yet again from the story we're waiting for Foster to recount to us. Maybe that'll show up in book thirteen, 'Patrimony', or maybe it won't, but, if it doesn't, there's only one more book left, 'Flinx Transcendent'. Let's toss a coin to see if we'll have forward momentum next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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