11 November 2005

The Light Years Beneath My Feet and Running from the Deity by Alan Dean Foster

a guest review by Finn Dempster


If the volume of Alan Dean Foster's output is anything to go by, I'm probably the only one here who's not heard of him until now. These engaging little tales were a nice way to meet him.

Marcus Walker was a commodities stockbroker until alien slave-traders the Vilenjji plucked him from the familiar streets of Chicago and dragged him an unknown distance across the galaxy (for further details, see the first novel in the trilogy, Lost and Found). By the time The Light-Years Beneath My Feet begins he's been rescued, as have three fellow prisoners (a dog, likewise from Chicago, a haughty, squid-like creature named Sque, and the imposing but gentle Braouk) by the advanced Sessrimathe race. Comfortable but homesick on the Sessrimathe's world, the story tells of the group's quest to return to their respective home-planets -- an undertaking aided by Walker having transformed himself into a much sought-after novelty act by mastering the aesthetic/savoury art of Sessrimathe cookery.

Soft SF of a benign, gentle breed, this is nonetheless no mere whimsy. Science in the technological sense may be thin on the ground, but this is because the speculative focus is instead on the social. The bulk of the novel concerns the political structure of the race Walker and his companions meet after they leave the Sessrimathe's world, and the transmutative, sometimes disruptive effects caused by their arrival. The Niyyuu, a technologically advanced race, have developed a novel and surprisingly successful way of accommodating disputes between different countries without adverse effects on their race as a whole. War, when unavoidable, is fought by planet-wide consensus only with primitive, non-technological weaponry (roughly the equivalent of, say, medieval Europe's) and only between armies of volunteers on specially designated battlefields deliberately remote from the planet's areas of civilisation. This system owes its centuries of success to the whole Niyyuuan race's belief in the unassailable sanctity of these restrictions, and it is here, you might say, that the narrative begs your kind indulgence. It's likely there are more than a few holes in this idea -- mean-spirited anthropologists would no doubt have a gas picking the concept apart -- but, as stated, it's precisely here that the speculative element of the novel is to be found. What if a race could conduct war in this way... and what if an "alien" intelligence with a background in the brutal, gloves-off realities of wall-street stock trading happened to be thrown into the mix?

The results of Walker's arrival are something best left to the reader to discover, but a morally challenging by-product of this system of war-in-moderation is its effect on the non-combative, civilian majority of the planet. War becomes sport, more or less literally; coverage provided by reporters immune by law from attack is screened constantly around the Niyyuu, the bloody conflicts eagerly absorbed by civilian spectators. Is this voyeurism at its most bloodthirsty, or is it healthy channelling of aggression by proxy, another facet of the Niyyuuan's policy of acknowledging and controlling its race's capacity for violence rather than denying it?

Character-wise, Foster scores more often than he misses. Having missed the first novel in the trilogy, this is the first time I've met Walker, but he was a guy I was happy enough to root for. Conspicuous by his redundancy is the giant Braouk who, physical size notwithstanding, makes the smallest impact on the narrative. But memorable characters abound, particularly the squid-like Sque, whose habitual, haughty assertions of intellectual prowess she is routinely able to substantiate, and whose self-imposed position of lofty isolation from the group leads to internal conflict as she gradually becomes aware of her emotional dependence on these cerebral inferiors.

Foster has a fondness for colourful description which, on the whole, he keeps in check, never allowing it to become overly florid, or to impede the clarity of his prose. True, his flashy adjectives can be punishing ("Was she only typically curious about the strange alien who had addressed the gathering, or was her intensity reflective of the preternaturally perspicacious query she had so transiently posed?"), and his penchant for alliteration can occasionally grate (see above). But for every descriptive black hole there's a galaxy of good ones; Foster has fun with the free hand the softer end of the genre tends to grant authors, and his multi-coloured, multi-limbed characters are clearly the product of a gleefully unrestrained imagination.

The Light Years Beneath My Feet is no page turner. You won't be kept up till three in the morning, refusing to put the book down until you know how the group survives to the end of the chapter. You probably won't laugh out loud at the jokes, either; these things just aren't on the menu. But you'll look forward to returning to it, you'll grow fond of the characters, and you'll enjoy the mild but pleasing humour that permeates the prose. Undemanding and occasionally thought-provoking fun.

Clearly not finished with culture-clash concepts, Foster shifts the technological development aspect of the Walker-Niyyuu equation around a bit, throws in some theology, and builds Running from the Deity upon the resulting thematic framework. Here again is the human outsider whose presence disrupts the social landscape of an alien society; in this instance, however, the human is the technological superior, the alien society he encounters not amused by his novelty but awestruck by his apparently magical powers.

The eleventh book in a series that's been around for nearly 30 years? Too late to join in now, surely? Don't worry, this is a novel that stands perfectly well on its own. A few opening pages of inevitable exposition aside, back-story is fed to the reader only when necessary and in convenient, bite-sized nuggets, never damming the flow or making you feel like you've arrived at the cinema half-way through the movie. These need-to-know facts include the main character Flinx's surgically-wrought abilities as an Empath; a curse rather than a blessing which leaves him overwhelmed with second-hand emotion on populated planets and forces him to remain solitary much of the time. The reason for the above-mentioned surgery? It seems the Commonwealth (a human-alien confederation of civilised planets), and indeed the whole galaxy, is under threat by a vast, malignant entity approaching from an area of space called the Great Emptiness, consuming whole star systems along the way. Flinx's quest, and the reason he's been burdened with his unique ability, is to find the means to stop it.

Epic stuff indeed, essentially mere background to a self-contained, well crafted tale. Forced to land his ship for repairs on a class ivB world (that's Primitive, to you and me) called Arrawd, Flinx's initial commitment to Commonwealth regulations regarding contact with developing cultures is rapidly eroded by his ever-present loneliness. (If these first contact rules sound familiar to those of us who regularly watch a certain star ship going boldly where no one has gone before, let us cite as a mitigating circumstance that Foster's warehouse-sized back catalogue includes fully ten Star Trek novels.) Unable to resist using the higher technology at his disposal to help the sick and injured among the small rural populace he finds himself in, Flinx unwittingly creates first a cult and then an embryonic religion... with himself as the titular deity. Flinx the well-intentioned amateur doctor over-prescribes; planet Arrawd develops a bad case of socio-political upheaval.

The Light Years Beneath My Feet gave us the Vilenjji -- enjoyably evil characters of an old-fashioned type we could have fun booing at. Running From The Deity is a subtler offering, in which simple characters such as the above-mentioned slave-traders would feel awkward and out of place, so don't expect to meet their equivalents on Arrawd. As the international crisis precipitated by Flinx's arrival snowballs, most of the characters act for what they feel to be the best. No two-dimensional bad guys here; greed, fear and bureaucracy are the real villains of the piece.

The novel works because you care about Flinx (as a Tragic Hero, he could have a worse Fatal Flaw than kindness), and because the novel's central theme -- good intentions leading to bad consequences -- has a universal resonance. It also works because Foster is skilled enough behind the narrative wheel to avoid the bog of pathos in which his novel might otherwise have become mired; the darker elements he injects -- and there are a few -- make sure of that. But whilst this is certainly an example of Foster in Melancholy Mode, the novel won't have you reaching for the antidepressants; a sadder tale than that discussed above, it's nonetheless infused with the same pleasingly dry wit. True, there's a certain something about the dialogue, as there was in The Light Years Beneath My Feet, which doesn't quite work in places -- the best way of articulating it I can come up with is that sometimes Flinx appears to be reading prose out loud -- but this is a minor and occasional flaw about which we need not get into a flap. And at an economical two hundred pages of tight, smoothly written chapters, it never outstays its welcome.

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