By my count, Alan Dean Foster had published sixteen novels set in the Humanx Commonwealth by 1999, over a span of a quarter of a century and change. He'd written seven of those around Pip & Flinx, his most abiding characters, who had visited a host of planets during that time, including Earth and Hivehom, the respective species homeworlds of humans and thranx. He'd also gone back to provide an origin story for the pair, as well as a first contact novel to define a moment in time when humans and thranx (and Aann) first encountered each other.
But that wasn't the beginning of the Humanx Commonwealth and, with all this achieved by 1999, Foster clearly felt the need to go there and explore how a pair of wildly different species came to realise their compatibility and so come together to forge an abiding union. He decided to do exactly that with a new trilogy, awkwardly, but accurately, The Founding of the Commonwealth, and this is the beginning of that.
It revolves around a pair of characters, Desvendapur and Cheelo Montoya, who don't meet until at least halfway through the book. After all, each species appears quite horrible to the other and so contact has been limited. Humans see thranx as giant bugs and their age-old revulsion has been codified in a lifetime of horror stories and movies. Thranx see humans as squishy monsters who keep their skeletons on the inside and have too few limbs to be remotely stable. Anyway, Des lives on Willow-Wane and Montoya on Earth.
They're also very different characters. Des is an ambitious poet thranx who doesn't believe he's experiencing the proper conditions to create the truly great art that he believes is in him. Montoya is a petty crook who dreams of the big time and may have finally stumbled upon it. They're different almost in every way. One is an artist who believes that he must suffer for his art, while the other will gladly make anyone else suffer if the art they have is worth something.
The first half of the book follows them separately as they move gradually to the inevitable point where they will meet. Most of that work is done by Des, who accordingly receives by far the most word count. He discovers that there may be a settlement of humans on Willow-Wane, part of an experiment to bring the two species together through frequent contact, and he decides that these horrible creatures may be the trigger for his latent artistic genius.
So he expends a great deal of time and effort into getting there, taking on a new profession as an assistant food preparator and under an assumed name, Desvenbapur, the subtle difference a highly important one. Thranx only have one name because it's really four in one. Desvenbapur is Des, of the family Ven, clan Ba, hive Pur. So that one letter difference places him in a whole new clan.
Foster loves that sort of manipulation of words away from our norms. I have no doubt that he adores throwing words at us that we struggle to pronounce. I had no trouble with Desvendapur, because it's almost naturally Hindi, but the early chapters on Willow-Wane include many local words that include the common exclamation mark. How we pronounce that, I have no idea, but perhaps with a click. Give them a go: !ccoerk and gentre!!m are birds, the cim!bu is a flowering tree, !eld is some sort of beverage and Jor!k!k is a series of poems by Wuuzelansem, who we met in Nor Crystal Tears and who is Des's tutor here.
After a year of patient struggle, Des finally gets his break only to find it all escalates way beyond his expectations. Instead of being sent to a human colony on the thranx homeworld of Hivehom, he finds himself one of four key participants in a grand experiment, a secret thranx colony on Earth, hidden underground within the Amazon jungle. Ironically, this places him in close proximity to the majority of the human race but he's unable to interact with any of them in any substantial way, so he chooses to escape the colony.
Montoya ends up in the Amazon too, of course, but much quicker and without a fraction of the effort. In the Costa Rican port of Golfito, he's given a big opportunity by a local crime lord, Rudolf Ehrenhardt, to run an operation in Monterey. All he has to do is raise a large but viable stake in a particular amount of time. The catch is that, in doing so, he accidentally kills a rich man during an attempted mugging and has to lay low for a while. The national park of Reserva Amazonia seems like a good bet.
So that's the grand setup, which I don't think really counts as a spoiler. I guess it's hard to spoil the first prequel to sixteen existing books anyway, because we know where we're going to end up at the end of the trilogy, but a lot still has to happen to get there. The real beginning of that story is in the second half of this book, when these two characters chance to meet in an isolated environment and warily team up for their own reasons.
I've been looking forward to this trilogy for a while because it serves as a sort of official beginning, a baseline for everything else I've already read within the Humanx Commonwealth. That said, I wasn't expecting any surprises and Foster hit me with a really big one very late in this book, almost as it runs out of pages. It makes total sense and I'm sure it's the proper ending, but it didn't seem like that at the time. It took me a while to really come to terms with what happens.
Oddly, for a book that starts out on Willow-Wane and stays there for quite a long time, I believe this one includes more time on Earth than any other in the series thus far. We've begun novels here and visited on occasion, but we always leave and spend most of our time out there in the universe. Here, the entire second half and some of the first unfold on Earth, albeit in a remote area populated only by dangerous animals: jaguars, snakes, huge otters and, not to forget the most dangerous animals of all, human trappers.
It's great to see Foster explore Earth as if it were an alien planet. We've enjoyed time on ice planets, desert planets and jungle planets, among many others, and thrilled at the wildly varied flora and fauna that Foster is so happy to detail for us. In real life, he's an inveterate traveller and what he creates on alien worlds is no wilder than some of what exists here on our own planet today. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed him taking his characters on a journey through another alien landscape that merely happens to be a paltry four thousand or so miles southeast of where I (and the author) live. I was literally born further away from my house than that.
Most of the value here, of course, comes in connecting two characters of two different species so that they can find some sort of common ground. While a novel like this can do many things, and this one does, that's the point. If it doesn't succeed in that one aspect, then it surely fails to even justify its existence. Fortunately, while I enjoyed the first half, the second half when all this connection happens is glorious stuff, perhaps the most natural time spent in the series thus far. Much of it is a look at human nature from an alien perspective, as in ‘Nor Crystal Tears’.
There are times when I've thought about how much Foster plots his novels in advance of putting pen to paper, because not all of them work and he's taken a number of wild sidesteps as if to avoid the point, especially late in the Pip & Flinx series. The second half of this book seems like his imagination just flowed onto the paper and, a hundred and sixty or so pages later, knew it was done. It's smooth but insightful and a perfect beginning to a series that, even for such a prolific author, still dominates his bibliography.
With 2001's 'Reunion' already read and reviewed, I'll be exploring the rest of this trilogy over the next couple of months. Next up: 'Dirge'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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