Wednesday, 22 July 2015

With Friends Like These...

Alan Dean Foster With Friends Like These... (1977)
My recent reading of Splinter of the Mind's Eye didn't exactly get me foaming at the mouth for more Alan Dean Foster, but as soon as I saw this collection I recalled its cover as having been endlessly reproduced in a thousand books of my childhood as representative of either science-fiction novels or the aliens which tend to populate them. I'm pretty sure the same Michael Whelan painting turned up in the book of Carl Sagan's Cosmos and a few of those history of science-fiction type affairs which were always otherwise full of Amazing Stories cover art. Anyway, intrigued by the realisation of Alan Dean Foster once having written fiction which wasn't tied into some film or television show, I coughed up the readies and here we are.

It seemed logical to assume that Alan Dean Foster's writing must have once been of a higher standard than is found in the aforementioned Star Wars novel, otherwise he would never have been asked to hack out the more generic stuff in the first place; and thankfully my assumption is borne out by at least half of the material here. What is surprising is how good the early Alan Dean Foster genuinely was, and how closely his writing represented a slightly more acerbic version of Clifford Simak. The themes were often pastoral, or spun upon significantly pastoral details - note the rustic folks on the cover sharing chocolate ice-cream cones with their extraterrestrial visitors - although lacking quite the same ecological angle. Oddly, these stories seem, if anything, politically a little rightwards leaning compared to those of Simak, although thankfully not so much so as to present significant appeal to assholes, I wouldn't have thought.

This is undeniably the sort of thing people mean when they talk about the pulps, particularly with the pacing, the inevitable twist endings, and the Gernsback-style futurism, and I say that mostly as a good thing; and it should probably be noted that the writing is poetic and quite lovely, abrim with pleasing images without quite tipping over into self-conscious parody; or at least it is up until about 1974 at which point I gather Foster began turning his hand to tie-in novelisation with greater frequency. That said, it should probably be noted that his taking to churning out adaptations of Star Wars, Dark Star, Star Trek and others didn't seem to mark any noticeable reduction in the copious output of his own original material. Nevertheless for some reason I just found those short stories written after 1974 mostly unengaging, not bad but lacking the sparky invention of Why Johnny Can't Speed or The Emoman or even the somewhat creaky Space Opera, a story which makes even Tharg's Future Shocks seem refined and ingenious. Still, there's nothing terrible here, and some potential clunkers which may conceivably improve with a second reading; and for a book I picked up with no expectation towards any of it being any good, I've been very pleasantly surprised.

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