With all fifteen Pip & Flinx novels behind me and five standalone novels in the wider Humanx Commonwealth series behind me, I thought I'd take a slight pause before reading the sixth. Then again, Foster did too. Those five books were published during the decade from 1975 to 1985 and there have been three more since, but the next, 'The Howling Stones', wouldn't arrive until 1997. As one of Foster's trilogies set in the same universe wrapped up in 1987, I think it's time to dive into that.
So here's 'Icerigger', published in 1974, making it an early Foster, a mere two years after his debut with 'The Tar-Aiym Krang' and one after what's now the 11th Pip & Flinx book, 'Bloodhype'. In 1974, Foster was busying himself with novelisations, knocking out the first two of what would reach ten 'Star Trek Logs' and adaptations of John Carpenter's 'Dark Star' and a film called 'Luana', which was an Italian knock-off of Tarzan with a female lead.
The world introduced here is Tran-ky-ky which, as the title suggests, is an icy planet, its entire surface frozen. There are continents and islands and all that, but water is never closer than ten metres from the surface, so all transportation is done on ice. Temperatures reach 3°C at the equator, and a heck of a lot colder than that elsewhere. The only Commonwealth presence is a research base, appropriately named Brass Monkey. As the saying goes, it's cold enough to freeze the balls off one.
We arrive comfortably, aboard an interstellar liner, for whom this is just a whistle stop, and only one of the characters who populate our story had the intention of landing on it. However, circumstances decree otherwise, because an inept pair of crooks kidnap Hellespont du Kane and his daughter Colette off the Antares with the goal of demanding ransom. Du Kane is the insanely rich chairman of the board at Kurita-Kinoshita Ltd., a powerful company that makes interstellar drives like the one that powers the Antares.
Because they're inept, their plan to vanish on a lifeboat is complicated by the inclusion of two passers-by, schoolteacher called Milliken Williams and a salesman, Ethan Fortune, along with a drunken adventurer, Skua September, who's sleeping off the night before in the very same lifeboat. One of the crooks is killed as they blow their way offboard and the other is promptly captured, making for a group of six who crash onto the planet and have to quickly find a way to survive on a frozen world with arctic temperatures and chilly winds that can reach three hundred kilometers per hour.
This isn't particularly unusual for an Alan Dean Foster novel. I've already reviewed books of his that are set on hostile worlds of single topographical type: ocean ('Cachalot'), jungle ('Midworld'), desert ('Reunion'), crystal ('Sentenced to Prism') and the like, always setting his characters the goal of survival, even as another story unfolds. I'd actually have been surprised if he hadn't written a novel set on an ice world.
That said, there are some notable differences here to the Foster norm. Most obvious is that, for all that it begins with the crashlanding of a lifeboat from an interstellar ship, it's not really a science fiction novel at heart. It's more of a fantasy, with our characters lasting long enough to meet the Tran, the native population of bat/cat people, who live at a mediaeval level of technology, and help the city of Wannome fight off the Horde.
I imagined the local Tran population rather like Vikings, if Vikings were a feline race who walk upright and have evolved membrances between their arms and sides known as "dan", to catch the wind, and a retractable horn on their feet, a "chiv", to help them grip the ice. The Horde are Tran equivalents of nomadic steppe people, if they were more like pirates of the Caribbean. They move from place to place, looting settlements through which they pass if the locals play along or razing them to the ice if they don't.
I'm sure you can imagine how things go from here, which is that the Tran are fed up with the Horde, especially in Wannome, which is easily the largest of their settlements and so the most able to fight back. The arrival of strange aliens with more advanced knowledge prompts them to do so and our heroes are happy to help, especially if it'll get them on the good side of the Tran, as they're never going to get to Brass Monkey without their help. This was told before as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and A Princess of Mars and it would go on to be told again as Army of Darkness. It's not a new idea.
That means that you can probably imagine what most of the characters get up to as well, but Foster's always good at building character even out of sheer stereotype. The least well he does here is with the one surviving kidnapper, Walther. The Tran are more than happy to kill him, as they don't understand the concept of arrest, but the humans don't let them and that turns round to bite them in the ass later. I'm sure you didn't see that coming, right?
While Skua September is in his element on Tran-ky-ky, not just because he's tall and powerful and a natural for this sort of fight but because adventure is his entire mindset. He isn't the sort to enjoy living at home; he has to be out there, somewhere new, doing something newly dangerous. He's a larger than life character which is why I appreciated Foster not making a lead out of him. He becomes a sort of sidekick to Ethan Fortune, who is as surprised as anyone to find himself leading the group.
Part of that is because he was planning to establish trade on Tran-ky-ky and so has studied up on its people and customs. Without some of that knowledge, the group may not have survived first contact. More of it is because he's a good and capable man, not the best at anything but good enough at everything to be trusted as a leader.
More obvious is Milliken Williams's role because, on arrival in Wannome, he promptly hits it off with the local wizard, Malmeevyn Eer-Meesach, and what results breaks every aspect of the Prime Directive. Well, most of them, just in case there's a line in there about fraternising a little too closely with the native ladies. We don't quite go there but we may well do yet, given the two sequels.
Most disappointing is the treatment of the du Kanes, though I'm not entirely disappointed. It turns out that Hellespont du Kane is suffering from a sort of dementia, so he's alternately useful and burdensome. Colette is worthier as a participant. I wasn't as upset about her size (and the comments about it) as some have been, but she could have done a lot more than she did. The impression I got here is that Foster wasn't comfortable at this early point in his career with writing a strong female character. He kind of gets it but he kind of doesn't.
I liked this, as a fantasy romp. It's the most different of the twenty plus Alan Dean Foster novels I've read thus far, but that's no bad thing. It just seems wild to be reading a fantasy, even if it's a space adventure fantasy, and I don't think I've encountered fewer interesting alien species. Foster's habit of conjuring up wild and wonderful lifeforms everywhere isn't on hold here, but there's not too much out there on the ice of Tran-ky-ky except for the dangerous droom and the humongous ice whales known as stavanzer. I would expect more to come in the sequels.
Next up: the first sequel, in which our heroes go on a 'Mission to Moulokin'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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