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Sliding Scales by Alan Dean Foster
Review by Paul Haggerty
Del Rey Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0345461568
Date: 26 October, 2004 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Sliding Scales is the latest in the Pip & Flinx series of novels set in Foster's Humanx Commonwealth universe. It picks up where the previous novel ended, but gives the reader a bit of a diversion from the continuing plot line.

Like most of Foster's work, it's both fluff reading and a semi-serious study in sociology. While the plot is neither deep and complex, nor are characters in need of a Dramatis Personae to keep track of, Foster once again creates a brand new world with dozens of new types of plants and animals (and plants that are animals, and vice versa), all of which have evolved from a completely different starting position than our more familiar terran lifeforms. His ecology doesn't have to be fully fleshed out in order to give the reader a understanding of just how these creatures interact and compete with each other.

As usual, Foster paints an intriguing background and then allows his characters to interact with it so that the reader learns along with the hero.

This book revolves around the AAnn, a sentient reptilian species that is the traditional enemy of the Thranx (the relatively peaceful insectoid species allied with humanity to make the Commonwealth). In previous books, the AAnn have mostly been held at a distance, and were more or less an obligatory enemy for the Commonwealth to oppose. Sliding Scales introduces a number of individual AAnn, revealing that the apparently genetically war-like lizards are anything but one dimensional. Foster gives us a chance to see a predatory species that we can both dislike and yet also understand. While we have the normal callous, mean-spirited, "rip your throat out rather than look at you" types, the AAnn also have their scientists, bureaucrats, artists and soldiers that are just trying to live their lives, do their jobs, and get a good hot sand bath at the end of the day. The book shows us a slice of a culture which is both alien and yet logically consistent.

In this story, Flinx and his mini-drag Pip take a much needed vacation to the planet Jast, located outside both the Commonwealth and the AAnn empire, but claimed by both. The locals, a plant-like species known as the Vssey, have voluntarily allied themselves with the AAnn, but are still friendly towards other outsiders. Since it seems to be the only place where Flinx can go and not be bothered by his increasing retinue of enemies, he sets course with the intention of just doing nothing for a few days.

Of course, things never go right for Flinx, and the AAnn are justifiably suspicious of a Commonwealth citizen, with no apparent agenda, coming to a planet that they are trying to absorb into their empire. Just like humanity, promotion among the AAnn is based on making a name for yourself. Therefore, AAnn administrator Takuuna VBXLLW takes it upon himself to find out what Flinx is really up to (even if he has to make up a few things along the way). He figures once he can prove Flinx is a spy, he'll get a few letters taken off his name, a bigger office, and win respect and mating privileges with some hot lizard ladies.

Before long, Flinx is lost in the wilderness amid the predatory critters of Jast and a band of AAnn artists that would prefer to be left alone. Meanwhile back in the capital, a group of Vssey (who don't like the AAnn) begin making trouble, and soon AAnn and local politics come to a crisis point. All swirls around the one person who wants nothing to do with any of them, and who only came to the planet to get some peace and quiet.

As usual for a Foster novel, by the end of the story Flinx has made new friends and enemies, both the good and the bad have been injured, the world is changed, and Flinx is left to ride off into the starlight wondering why the universe seems to hate him so much.

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