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Quofum by Alan Dean Foster

Well, for those of you who are regulars, I’ve taken the decision to postpone reading the third brick. It really is too big and heavy for me to want to hold for long periods of time. Since it’s an omnibus, I’ll probably treat it as separate volumes and read the individual parts on and off over the next month or so. This leaves me to fit in a couple of retrospectives alongside some hopefully good new books. I’m kicking off with a look back at Alan Dean Foster whom I read extensively when younger. He’s another of these prolific writers who has one excellent feature. He’s got one of these simple, yet highly readable, prose styles. While the content may not always be anything more than competent, it’s always a pleasure to read the books. This time, I’ve picked up Quofum (Ballantine, 2008) which is, for those of you who like to fit things into an overall chronology, the seventh in the Humanx Commonwealth series. Perhaps more importantly, the plot line which begins in this book, is brought to a conclusion in Flinx Transcendent (Del Rey, 2009). The good thing for those who have never read any of either the Humanx Commonwealth or Flinx books, is Quofum is a perfect standalone. There are no character carry-overs from other novels and you don’t have to know anything about the Commonwealth itself to understand what’s going on.

Well, the continuing good news is that Alan Dean Foster remains highly readable. The slightly less good news is that the story itself is not one of the most original nor is it terribly exciting. Instead of this being one of the Big Dumb Object novels, it’s a Big Dumb Planet novel. The way these things work is now one of the standard science fiction plots. In this case, astronomers discover an anomalous planet which seems to appear and disappear. This is registered as unusual and so, with the usual penny-pinching approach adopted by all bureaucracies, a Captain, support technician and four scientists are sent to see what’s going on. Naturally, this elite team of expendables is told they must call for back-up if they discover anything of interest. Yeh, like that’s ever going to happen. Within ten seconds of starting this book, you know the team will land and then the planet will disappear again with them “on board”. The rest of the book will be them dealing with the consequences of being cut off. Except, this isn’t quite what happens.

Alan Dean Foster and Pip captured by Michael Melford

This world turns out to be one giant laboratory for testing out different evolutionary possibilities. Wherever they look, our four scientists find one anomaly after another as different life forms exist side-by-side with no common evolutionary source. Each species seems to have appeared relatively spontaneously and is randomly based on carbon, silicon or other elements. Some are sapient. Indeed, there’s historical evidence of at least one highly advanced civilisation at some time in this planet’s past. But none of the current examples of intelligent life have risen much higher than stone age levels of tool use. So all this sets us up with a big mystery and the scientists themselves are speculating this is an experiment of some kind, a leisure resort without any obvious tourists, or a circus of the kind where all the different interactions between species are viewed remotely for entertainment. This is all quite interesting but we then have a rather curious diversion which wastes quite a lot of time and fails to advance us very far. I’m not against subplots per se. Handled well, they add an extra dimension to the main narrative line. In this case, it just turns out to be redundant padding to make a thin story go the distance in terms of pages. Indeed, after the halfway point, the narrative dynamism dies away and we move at a glacial pace to the big reveal at the end.

All this would be tragic without the readability factor. Even though boredom threatened, I actually remained sufficiently interested to read through to the end. So where does this leave us? The early Flinx stories are actually quite good with the first, For Love of Mother-Not, probably the best. The Humanx Commonwealth Universe is also interesting in the opening volumes, but the later books like Sentenced to Prism and Cachalot are distinctly weak. This leaves Alan Dean Foster the king of the film novelisations with some individual standouts in the science fiction field. If you have not already tried him, Quofum is not the best place to start.

  1. June 5, 2012 at 4:20 am

    The first ADF book I read was Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (one of the better Star Wars books) back when I was in middle-school, but I did enjoy Foster’s Humanx/Flinx books, his early Spellsinger book and others, and you’re right about his readability. In fact I think he may have strongly affected my own writing-style (spare writing, short explanations/descriptions, etc). He’s on the other end of the spectrum from Tolkien, Susanne Clarke, and other writers who love the language itself.

  2. June 5, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    Until I gave up completism, I had first editions, including the hardbacks, of everything Alan Dean Forster had written. I even managed a fine copy of Luana which is quite difficult to find. It was the Spellsinger series that killed my interest. It was expensive to buy the Phantasia Press editions and I considered them poor at best. The Paths of the Perambulator signed ADF’s death knell. I just couldn’t find the intellectual justification to read any more — until now, that is.

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