After experiencing first contact between humans and Thranx in last month's Alan Dean Foster novel in 'Nor Crystal Tears', I could easily have jumped forward to his trilogy about the founding of the Humanx Commonwealth, which began with 'Phylogenesis' in 1999, but I felt like continuing through in as close to publication order as I could. Without embarking on a side trip to the 'Icerigger' trilogy, which started in 1974 but didn't finish until 1987, I thought I should move forward a couple of years to 'Voyage to the City of the Dead', originally published in 1984.
It's a fantastic set-up for a novel. We find ourselves on the planet called Horseye (Tslamaina in the native tongue, after the three species living on it: the Mai, the Tsla and the elusive Na), which is a neat little exercise in worldbuilding. Horseye is so called because it rather looks like one, the product of being hit by an immense meteor, large enough to crack the surface of the planet. Hundreds of millions of years of erosion later, it features a vast river that drops eight thousand meters from the polar north to the huge ocean thirteen thousand kilometers later. Translation: the geography is more than unique.
The catch is that Horseye isn't a member of the Commonwealth yet and so it took a couple, Etienne and Lyra Redowl, years to obtain permission to visit it with the goal of travelling up the Barshajagad or "Tongue of the World". They're a bickering couple, Etienne a geologist eager to examine the unique sights ahead and Lyra, a xenologist fascinated about how the three species interact, each occupying not a different continent but a different altitude. Most of the novel is taken up with their journey, on which they're accompanied initially by a couple of Mai and later some Tsai.
Foster keeps himself admirably focused here. One of the joys of his books is the way he creates worlds not just as places but as homes for a multitude of alien lifeforms. His imagination as a xenobiologist is one of the reasons I keep coming back to his work but, on occasion, this sort of thing takes over to the detriment of the plot. Here, he keeps himself in check, focusing more on the dominant species than the odd non-sentient creatures that might have evolved here too. Don't worry, though, there are some and they're great.
Like 'Cachalot', it's often a science fiction book for diehard travellers. The conflict between our central married couple is mirrored in the conflict between the native species. The Mai occupy land at sea level, fishing and stealing what they can from each other. The Tsla live at higher altitudes, where they've evolved differently and have a notably different society. The Na exist further up still, so far that it's a rare Mai that's ever seen one, prompting them to be considered similarly to our yeti. The Tsla know better.
One way in which this conflict is explicitly tied is in the mission at hand. When the Redowls reach far enough north for the local Mai to be traders with the Tsla, they trek inland, up into the mountains to stay in a Tsla village. Lyra is enamoured with their culture, getting far too close to her subject for her own good. Later, she's rudely woken up to less savoury aspects of their culture, but it takes a while. Travelling up the Barshajagad with Mai and Tsla is complicated enough but Lyra going native substantially adds to that.
Of course, there's something else going on here, because it's an Alan Dean Foster novel, and that something is the Mai's belief that, at the very head of the river, which Etienne plans to reach and might just with the benefit of advanced technology in the form of a hydrofoil, is treasure in the City of the Dead. As you might expect, there is and there isn't, but there is a discovery to be made that has meaning to the wider series of books. And no, I'm not going to spoil it, given that it's right at the very end, even if it has little actual importance within the context of these pages.
What matters is the adventure, which often feels very Edgar Rice Burroughs in style. We have two humans on an alien planet rather than one, but they have a grand quest, which tangles them up with the natives of more than one species, who in turn have their own drives and animosities. The scenes with the Na are right out of the John Carter or Carson Napier books, being grand adventure and conflict with heroism and sacrifice and the whole nine yards.
At the end of the day, all that doesn't help the consistency of the novel, but I enjoyed this a lot. There's certainly a lot more here than there was in 'Cachalot', not least an apparently autistic Tsla who nonetheless plays an important part in proceedings. Oddly, while it starts out very Alan Dean Foster and spends a while being very Edgar Rice Burroughs, the other overt influence I saw here was 'Fitzcarraldo', the Werner Herzog movie inspired by real events. If you know what happens in that film, you'll know what's going to happen in this book at that point to link the ADF to the ERB.
I liked this one, which is a relatively quick and enjoyable read. Next up is what looks like a companion piece, 'Sentenced to Prism', in which a human is tasked with surviving on a unique alien world. Thinking about it, this is a common plot for Foster, given that it could also describe a number of other Humanx Commonwealth books, including 'Midworld', 'Mid-Flinx' and 'Reunion'. Let's see how that holds up to its peers next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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