Having thoroughly enjoyed 'Orphan Star', I was eager to leap headlong into 'The End of the Matter', the third in Alan Dean Foster's initial trilogy featuring his best known characters, Pip & Flinx. Well, Flinx & Pip, as the Del Rey paperback appropriately describes them. After all, Flinx is the heroic lead of this story and he does a lot of things in this book and the wider trilogy, while Pip, his mini-drag, is emphatically relegated to the role of quiet but intimidating sidekick.
Flinx spent 'Orphan Star' trying to figure out who his parents are, but he only got halfway. As this volume starts, he knows the name of his mother but he also knows that she's dead. Any connection to his past is going to have to come through his father, about which he still knows nothing. This book begins with him following long shots: the tax records from his sale as a slave and then the sales records of the actual slavers. What that gives him is an image of a man who bid for him against Mother Mastiff but vanished mysteriously into the crowd before he could win: a very tall man with a gold earring, a man who had a mini-drag of his own. And so, as we might have expected all along, Flinx has to go to Alaspin, the home world of the mini-drags, to try to seek this man out.
Before he does so, Foster makes us aware of two other subplots, all three of which will eventually collide in the surprisingly short finalé. Both of these are pretty brutal but they apply on completely different scales.
The first is the imminent destruction of three worlds. Humanxkind has discovered a collapsar moving through the galaxy, a mobile black hole eating everything in its path. By their calculations, there are eighty some years before it'll devour the populous twin worlds orbiting Carmague-Collangatta and a couple of dozen more before it will add Twosky Bright to its menu. That's a lot of time but not much to evacuate three entire worlds.
The second appears in the form of Foster's latest mouthful of a character, Ab. Well, that's what people call him, because his real name is apparently Abalamahalamatandra. How they know that, given that he talks in a wildly rambling stream of consciousness poetry, I have no idea; but Ab it is. He's a truly weird little creature, happy as a clam but shaped like a gourd with a trunk on top and an eye, an arm and a leg on each corner. What's more, he alternates blue and green stripes. No wonder he shows up in a comedy routine. What else is he useful for?
Well, that's something that Flinx ends up trying to figure out, because his intermittent psychic ability flags up a surprising assassination attempt. It's not the 'animal trainer' on the Drallar stage that the Qwarm plan to kill, it's his latest exhibit: Ab. Flinx takes down the pair of Qwarm and ends up with custody of Ab for his trouble. After all, nobody messes with the Qwarm and that animal trainer immediately wants out. And that's even though he's blissfully unaware that someone is paying a cool million credits to see Ab dead, an amount that the Qwarm see themselves as an 'absurd sum'.
Now, for a legendary clan of assassins armed to the teeth, the Qwarm don't seem to be too effective. Flinx kills two himself and gradually discovers more and more Qwarm corpses cropping up in his path, even when they're armed with fantastic weapons like phonic stilettos. Clearly someone is helping him from the sidelines who doesn't see fit to identify themselves at this time. Sure enough, we discover who later and that may or may not be a shock, depending on whether you've read the rest of the trilogy.
Following the trend of the prior two novels, 'The End of the Matter' isn't interested in remaining for long in any one place, with Alaspin the longest stay. That's another fascinating world to add to the many others in the Humanx Commonwealth. The local population is long-departed, leaving the remnants of their civilisation in the form of a surfeit of temples and relics. It's heaven for miners and archaeologists, who naturally don't see eye to eye on a single subject. And, somewhere out in the field, is the tall man with the golden earring and, of course, a heck of a story for Flinx to discover. Foster does not disappoint.
Foster also doesn't disappoint when it comes to ideas. While 'The Tar-Aiym Krang' was wildly inconsistent, it was packed full of ideas and 'Orphan Star' contained even more. There are plenty here too, including favourites like the simiespin, which is a sort of holodeck. I remember the latter well from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' but a little research highlights that it predates that and, indeed, this. Simiespins are not used in quite the same way though, appearing here more like an immersive acid trip.
Flinx finds himself inside one on Alaspin that mimics the environments on the truly bizarre planet of Quofum, 'where the sky was as clear as a virgin's conscience and the wine-coloured seas tasted of everything from Ouzo to Liebfraumilch'. Incidentally Foster's aside that seas comprised of 9% alcohol prompting fish that are never unhappy feels like a proto-Douglas Adams line. What's weird is that the environment changes frequently, the simiespin not trying to convince you that you're somewhere else but reminding you that you aren't while letting you revel in the strangeness anyway. It's an experience machine here. With added murder, because Flinx finds that he's never too far from a Qwarm in this book.
I have to say that I enjoyed 'Orphan Star' a little more than 'The End of the Matter' but only a little. This surely ranks much closer to it than the weaker opening to the trilogy, 'The Tar-Aiym Krang'. I understand now why the three books are seen as a trilogy, but the second and third books are clearly a duology within it, following a very particular quest on the part of Flinx.
Foster was on a roll in the late seventies and, after I leap forward to the new Pip & Flinx book (because 'The End of the Matter' naturally wasn't the end of the matter), having acquainted myself with them as they began to develop, I may pop back to explore some of Foster's other books of the late seventies, starting perhaps with 'Star Wars' and 'Splinter of the Mind's Eye'. From there, who knows. Foster wrote enough to keep me going for ever, I think, and he's still writing today. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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