Back in January 2018, I reviewed 'The Tar-Aiym Krang', the first in what was originally the Pip & Flinx trilogy. I was revisiting those books, which I'd read in my youth, ahead of reading the newest in what had become a full Pip & Flinx series, which I'd been sent for review. As it was the fifteenth book in that series in what amounted to forty-five years, I decided to review my way through the whole lot. Adding in some standalone novels set in the wider Humanx Commonwealth and a couple of trilogies, I discovered that I'd set off on a twenty-eight book journey, which I'm wrapping up with 'Quofum'.
Certain commonalities became quickly obvious during that journey. Foster has travelled extensively and kept his eyes well and truly open when looking at the wonders that Mother Nature has gifted to us. He indulges his passion for travel and wonders within his fiction too, taking us to no end of planets in the Humanx Commonwealth, with no end of different dominant biomes, populated by no end of fascinating flora and fauna.
The planet Quofum is the usual Alan Dean Foster planet but turned up to the max, on steroids and with a weird sense of humour surely attributed to its creator. In fact, humanxkind first takes notice of Quofum because it should not exist. For a start, it disappears. Sometimes it's there when a probe is in the vicinity to notice it. Sometimes it's not there when astronomers have the opportunity to verify it. Clearly it should be investigated.
A team of six is eventually dispatched: four men, one woman and one thranx, polymaths all to ensure the maximum amount of skills coverage across such a small exploratory mission. To remind us just how far science in this future has progressed, the captain of their ship, the Dampier, Esra Tellenberg, is a quadruple regenerate, meaning that he'd lost all four limbs in an accident but regrown them all successfully, even if the skin of those limbs is a bit darker than the rest of him. Also on board are the suitably diverse Nicholai Boylan, Mosi N'kosi, Tiare Haviti, Valnadireb and Salvador Araza.
Outside its odd habit of disappearing and reappearing, they find not unlike Earth, albeit only initially. Sure, it's a little bigger, its skies are pink and its oceans are 9% alcohol by volume, but it's similar enough, until they realise just how biodiverse it is. Many newly discovered worlds feature one sentient species, with some sporting two, but Quofum has at least four, just from the first few days of exploration. In fact, two of them are conducting a war against the other two and none of them are remotely like each other. Already, this is unprecedented.
Once established, they start to realise that this is only the beginning and there simply has to be a deliberate purpose behind the planet. Lifeforms are carbon, silicon or sulfate-based. Birds have two, four or six wings. There isn't even consistency in symmetry. Nothing seems to be related to anything else, as if evolution never happened and this world was populated by outside hands, like a zoo, a circus or an experiment. It's an example of biological anarchy.
It's hog heaven to xenobiologists like these, of course, who soon get busy gathering samples and documenting the insane amount of flora and fauna on a most outrageous planet. I'm picturing a huge grin on the face of the author as he wrote this, conjuring up newer, wilder, more unconventional creatures for our delight and pleasure. Larvae that travel in clouds and parachute to attack their prey? Sure. Protoplasmic aquatic creatures with a single eye at each end of their four-metre-long bodies? Absolutely. He leaves imagination running on full throughout and keeps the discoveries coming.
Perhaps, given such wild invention, the blurb writers had trouble summing up the novel because the back cover of my Del Rey paperback is very misleading. It hints at a mystery, a killer within the crew and their spaceship missing. It also mentions both the Great Evil and Flinx, the man who, at this point, had spent his last five books pretending it doesn't exist by indulging in a set of grand distractions, one per novel.
There is indeed a killer secreted within the crew, but there's no mystery to solve. That killer is a Qwarm and he's on the Dampier to do a job. With that job taken care of, he leaves, not caring that he's leaving the rest of these xenobiologists stranded. Ironically, he promptly strands himself by leaving while the planet isn't actually in our universe, so discovering its secret, unable to tell anyone else even if he wanted to. Not that it would have been any help to the rest of the Dampier's crew. It makes sense to us because we the readers remember 'The Howling Stones'.
Along with no mystery, there's no Great Evil and no Flinx. Technically, the book does factor into that wider storyline, but not in such a way that would prevent us from understanding it, from end to end, by simply reading the Pip & Flinx books, especially 'Flinx Transcendent', which was next up for Foster after finishing this.
As that factoring into the wider storyline takes place late in the book and it constitutes the purpose of this book, I'll shut up right now so that I'm not spoiling anything for you. I'm sure there's a recommended reading order for the Great Evil progression within the Humanx Commonwealth series, given that it trawls in so many different parts of the series, though I wouldn't want to try to create such a list. The Great Evil kicks in early on in the Pip & Flinx series but isn't the focus of all those books. Other novels do tie in, though, and this is the last of them before it all wraps up at last in 'Flinx Transcendent'.
I liked this book as I've liked most of the books in the series. It's hardly the best of them but it's a good one and it contains easily the wildest and most adventurous flora and fauna of any of them. That means that anyone who has enjoyed Foster's general approach to the series can't fail to adore this one. It's the most Alan Dean Foster of all twenty-eight books and that must count for something.
And I'm done. Well, technically there are at least ten short stories, three which I believe I have in his collections, 'With Friends Like These...' and '...Who Needs Enemies?' I'll follow up with those because one in particular will provide back story that I wondered about during the 'Icerigger' books, but I'll wait until the rest are collected rather than seek out individual magazines and anthologies. Hopefully that'll happen soon. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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