Thursday, September 21, 2006


Well, THIS one was JUST PLAIN INSULTING. Written by Alan Dean Foster and published by Ballantine Books (Del Rey division) in 1980, this was on the dollar rack at the used bookstore, and I can certainly see why. The story centers on the intellectual fixations of a marine biologist named Cora Xamantina who is finally going to study the Holy Grail of her ilk, an all-ocean planet called Cachalot long since invaded by her own species. The planet is jealously guarded by its few landscum colonists because of the tremendous resale value of its lifeforms and minerals.

STRANGE TO SAY, the planet is also the sole refuge of all of Earth’s surviving ceteacean species, who have long since gotten some kind of shots to MAKE THEM INTELLIGENT. That's what I said. This led the Rubbery Ones to get in touch with their feelings of rage at humanity for the centuries of slaughter they went through, and they called it quits with the Monkey People. (How they arranged to move here without working in cooperation with humans is less than clear. Foster states in so many words that whales have smarts now, but no technology. They have an inexplicable desire to pod together in the rolling waves, under the stars, and think things over. To the Monkey People, this is SHEER MADNESS.)

Oh, yeah, BACK TO THE STORY. Cora not only wants to study the local fauna, she wants to study some whales, knowing it can’t be allowed. Actually, she won’t get to study much of anything fun, because she’s been assigned to hurry up and find out why the floating cities of Cachalot are disappearing without trace and without any survivors. THEY CALLED IN WHO? AN OFFWORLD MARINE BIOLOGIST AND HER DAUGHTER, THE DISGRUNTLED MUSICIAN? DON’T THEY WANT SOMEONE A LITTLE BETTER EQUIPPED? I’D SAY IT’S A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT TO CALL IN THIS HALF-BAKED TEAM COUSTEAU, BUT WHAT DO I KNOW? I’M JUST A CATFISH. DON’T ASK ME ANYTHING. CARRY ON. I’M SURE YOU’LL DO FINE. YOU ARE AFTER ALL THE MOST INTELLIGENT SPECIES ON ANY PLANET, ANYWHERE.

You already know the background to this one. It’s the same as in any novel populated by humans. Cora is in a power struggle with her daughter, who is bored with her advanced degree in marine biology and only wants to play her 'neurophon' all day long. Cora wants her to get serious and make with the scalpels and the jellyfish. She also grapples daily with her unresolved issues about her husband, a philandering no-good who went out and got himself killed somehow, leaving Cora devastated. She’s fought hard all her life to make it here, to the pinnacle of a marine biologist’s career, and she’s not about to give up now even though she has no idea what she’s up against and blah, blah, blah. Her only recourse is to seek a forbidden audience with the unwilling spokesman of the Sperm Whales, the most likely feller to know what’s going on here. WILL HE BREAK THE SILENCE OF A THOUSAND YEARS AND SOLVE THE MYSTERY?


>> I know we are never going to break the landscum of his fixation on cetacean intelligence until we’ve turned the last human into a Bream. But somehow the particular wording of this story just fries me in butter. It takes a lot to render me speechless -- you know that, heh heh heh -- but reading Foster's bland statement that humanity had found a way to medically bring out the intelligence in Whales put me into such a state that it took several sharp raps on the side of the tank, delivered by one of my air-breathing assistants, to snap me out of it. Foster says in so many words that Whales had NO real intelligence until the shaved monkeys came along and gave them some kind of hormone shots – with their cooperation or consent, we can never know – and twisted them into a new form that allowed said monkeys to communicate with them for the first time, using headsets as if they were in waterlogged translation booths at the United Nations. NEVER does it cross a human’s mind that the mind of the tiniest Blind Cave Fish is superior to any human’s, partly because of its REFUSAL to truckle with humanity.

>> It braces me, just a little, to see that the lot of them responded to the mass drug experiment in this sickening story by signing a non-alignment pact with the whole hairy species, and leaving the planet to get away from them.

>> Too much monkey talk in this story, not enough undersea exploration. For Scrod sake, man, you take us across the vast, lightless gulf between the stars and set us down on an ocean planet, and then you don’t even let us look around? You have us padding down carpeted hallways, looking for the microfilm room. I can do that in Detroit.

>> Too little access to the forbidden Whale civilization. I guess I see the literary reasons Foster could not let us in, but it was still maddening, like the half-glimpsed Mermaid civilization in the remake of She Creature. Against my will, the author drew me in that far -- AND THEN HE LEFT ME HIGH AND DRY.

>> We get only a little glimpse of why shaved monkeys even want to live here. He sort of tosses you an "of course they want to be here" racist bone by pointing out that the settlers are largely Polynesian – it’s in their blood, of course they want to live on a planet without land! Dude, even the Hawaiians come ashore sometimes.

>> I find the idea of a wetsuit that you can live in for WEEKS a little unsettling. Wouldn’t you start to itch all over after a while? Humans generate so much grease and drop so much hair. And they get pruny so fast. Yeeeeeccccccch.

>> I have to like the TERRIBLE SECRET they uncover that solves the mystery. Of course, they have to invalidate the whole thing by painting it over with that gaudy, tinpot requirement of every sci-fi story: HUMANLIKE INTELLIGENCE. If THAT lifeform has a humanlike intelligence, I am a fighter jet.

>>I really, really do not like where the story seems to be heading as the book closes.

Read it if you dare and tell me what you think. This is a true horror story for the Fish reader.


Blogger Ur-spo said...

I'll stick with Will Cuppy thank you.

10:31 PM  

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