Middle books in trilogies are often difficult ones but Alan Dean Foster handled the second book in his 'Founding of the Commonwealth' trilogy through what I'm tempted to call sleight of hand.
You see, it's been a couple of decades since renegade thranx poet Desvendapur met two bit human thug Cheelo Montoya in 'Phylogenesis' and, in an accidental fashion, sparked a real connection between the two species, but that connection hasn't really gone anywhere since. In fact, as this book begins, it's about to take a real backward step.
Enter the Pitar. They're another species but, unlike the buglike thranx, they look entirely human. In fact they look more human than us, because they're all absolutely gorgeous. They're friendly, polite, eager for a knowledge swap, and even have a wider selection of hair colours. Before you ask, yes, they're also sexually compatible, which opens up entirely new possibilities. The thranx are suddenly yesterday's news.
What's more, fanatics attack the thranx colony in Amazonia, which has expanded and opened up, killing everyone they can in the process, human or thranx, with no regard for their own lives. The experiment is sadly ended, though there's a fantastic scene during the massacre when a human chaplain questioning his faith and a spiritual thranx who describes his job as a "consulting physicist of the soul" meet and connect. The next thing we know, they want to found the United Church, which a philanthropist funds on a whim for amusement. Nice.
With the thranx ruthlessly sidelined, it's now all about the Pitar who found a new human colony on Argus V, a planet the colonists call Treetrunk, and popped in to say hi to the aliens, becoming media darlings in the process. By the way, it's on Treetrunk that we find how strangely this novel is titled. Sure, there is an English word that has appropriate application here but, the one and only time that word shows up in the text, it's in a completely different context.
Heather Wixom is a town planner on Treetrunk designing an extension to the town of Rajput, when she stumbles onto an example of the local wildlife: "From one of the larger boles directly below her rose the dirge of a gnarter." A gnarter turns out to be a "lumpy, eight-legged mass of slow-moving brown and dark blue fur that lived in selected tree hollows while regarding the world out of large, mournful eyes dominated by hourglass-shaped blue pupils. It had been suggested that it looked like the product of a union between a cuttlefish, a koala, and a caterpillar."
So this book is named after what I presume is the ass end of a hybrid weirdie, which shouldn't be particularly surprising for Alan Dean Foster, who conjures up strange flora and fauna for a living. However, we soon shift back to a more commonplace meaning because the entire Treetrunk colony is massacred, totally, quietly and very efficiently, all six hundred thousand people. What's more, no evidence is left behind of whodunit and nobody claims responsibility. It's not terrorists this time.
And so we leap into what we think is a completely different story, one of first contact with a new, culturally more palatable alien race, the Pitar. It's only when another alien race, the Unop-Patha, show up and accidentally discover one survivor from the Treetrunk massacre, hiding in his antique lifeboat on one of the planet's moons, that the case breaks. Not only have they found a clue, the first so far, but a witness. The catch is that his recording of it is missing, which builds some serious suspense into proceedings.
I loved this approach. Foster does much of what he usually does, introducing a new planet with its unique inhabitants. There are even new thranx words, like "pin!!ster", which highlights just how alien the thranx are when compared with the Pitar. It means "someone who grows edible plants in an aesthetic manner."
However, he realises that any future between the two species isn't going to be as easy as the chance meeting in 'Phylogenesis'. It's going to take something truly epic in scale and that turns out to be a technological team-up to avenge the dead of Treetrunk and to prevent any possible reoccurrence elsewhere. That is bold but entirely logical thinking and it moves on a relationship that had apparently stagnated in a believable fashion.
It might seem odd to say that I enjoyed this novel, with its massive massacres and a serious personal connection to some of the victims. Never mind that vast planet-eating cloud of evil that Flinx took on later in the Humanx Commonwealth series, we spend time on Treetrunk getting to know its inhabitants and bonding with them, before Foster cuts them all down. This is a traumatising novel and, well, that's kind of the point. But it's somehow enjoyable too. We care.
And we care even though there are few characters upon which to focus. The pair who start up the United Church here are memorable, but that's a tiny subplot in a big story. I would guess that Cirey Pireau and Shanvordesep may well be back for the last novel in this trilogy, "Diuturnity's Dawn", published two years on and which I'll review next month, as I've already covered the Pip & Flinx book, 'Reunion', that came in between.
But who else is there? There are characters we care about on Treetrunk but they all vanish pretty quickly in the worst way. Only Allwyn Mallory, who could well be the least sympathetic of them all, survives, and we certainly gain an amount of sympathy for him after the massacre. But he's not the lead here. Perhaps the point is that there is no real lead. 'Phylogenesis' was about individuals, who bucked the system and sparked something special anyway. Instead, 'Dirge' is a failure of that system to build on that until something so big and so horrible thrusts the species together in ways they wouldn't have expected. The point is that it has to be bigger than individuals.
I wonder what that means for book three, where Foster has to provide a viable conclusion to a trilogy that has so far featured two very different novels. It can't have been an easy task, especially given that he had already established the almost symbiotic relationship in his very first novel almost three decades earlier and built on that shared universe in so many others since. I'm eager to find out next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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