In a previous article and podcast episode, we looked at Midworld (1975), the first standalone novel in Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth fictional setting. His next books within that setting were two entries in his Pip and Flinx series, but Foster went on to spend much of his time working on novelisations. In particular, he wrote book versions of three hugely important SF films - Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It was a full five years before Foster wrote another standalone Humanx Commonwealth novel, but Cachalot eventually saw release in April 1980.
As with Midworld before it, Cachalot is set within Commonwealth space. Of all the standalone novels in the series, it is also the one set latest in the chronology. It’s an intriguing SF mystery, set on a planet covered almost entirely by a vast and barely-explored ocean. This novel is another showcase for Foster’s love of travel and knowledge of biology and ecology. Another key theme is the relationship between humans and other intelligent life. In this case, that means a thriving population of cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises - which have been transplanted from distant Earth.
The novel is named for its setting, the ocean planet Cachalot. The Commonwealth - a starfaring union of the human and insectoid thranx species - designates it a Class IX world. Few humans, and barely any thranx, live on Cachalot. The ones that do are based in a small number of floating towns, which they use to extract the raw material for various luxury items, such as fragrances, sold on other Commonwealth worlds. To a large extent, Cachalot is a kind of vast nature reserve. Hundreds of years earlier, most of Earth’s remaining cetaceans were evacuated from the planet and transported by starship to Cachalot. There they have thrived alongside the planet’s own vast variety of aquatic life.
The inciting incident for the book is the mysterious, sudden, and violent destruction of a series of floating towns. These disasters leave behind very little in the way of usable evidence, and no bodies are recovered. Local authorities want to keep the situation under wraps, fearing the commercial implications of a widespread panic. Theories begin to fly - could the attacks be the work of a previously unknown local creature, of enraged cetaceans, sophisticated human pirates, or even the warlike alien AAnn Empire?
The main character is Cora Xamantina, a marine biologist with experience on numerous worlds. Together with her teenage daughter Rachael and the oceanographer Pucara Merced, Cora travels to Cachalot - a planet she has never visited before - in order to help explain the attacks. There, the group is joined by local “peaceforcer” Sam and later by a pair of talkative, intelligence-enhanced orcas - with whom they can communicate using special headsets. From this point, Cachalot becomes a kind of SF detective story, starring the curious combination of three scientists, a cop, and a pair of friendly killer whales.
Midworld was essentially a survival story, but Cachalot has a very different feel. Surviving on the planet isn’t particularly difficult, because of the advanced technology possessed by the characters - including powerful “suprafoil” surface vessels and “gelsuits” which allow them to survive underwater for days at a time, if need be. Instead, the emphasis here is on the mystery at the heart of the story. Solving it requires the characters to grapple with Foster’s central theme: the difficulty of communicating and establishing trust between different species.
Crucially and unusually, Cachalot is mostly about bridging this gap not between humans and extraterrestrials, but between humans and animals from Earth. From a technological standpoint, it is easy for Cora, Rachael and their allies to speak with orcas, blue whales, and dolphins. But to speak and listen is one thing; to be understood, and to establish trust, is another thing altogether and without it the characters cannot prevent further deadly attacks. The cetaceans living on Cachalot are the descendants of creatures that were ruthlessly exploited and abused by humans on Earth for thousands of years. Whaling and pollution drove these intelligent creatures close to extinction, so it’s hardly surprising that many of them want nothing to do with human visitors to their new home.
The various species have different attitudes to humans, and have different speech patterns. Transliteration of orca speech, for example, features a lot of repeated consonants. Foster’s attention to how the cetaceans view each other is equally fascinating. Many whales, for example, see dolphins as foolish creatures who waste their lives in frivolous play when they should be pondering deep, philosophical questions. The interactions between humans and various cetaceans are easily the highlight of Cachalot. The friendly, loyal orca characters - Latehoht and her mate Wenkoseemansa - are brilliant examples of intelligent animals in SF who light up the novel every time they appear. Amusingly, they even give Cora her own orca name which translates to “The-One-Who-Has-To-Know-Everything”. Presumably, the fact that Cora is an anagram of orca was not an accident on Foster’s part.
Cachalot works very well as a mystery story. Early on, several different possible causes of the attacks on towns are raised and each of them seems deeply plausible at least once. Foster continually keeps the reader guessing, and the final resolution is intriguing and satisfying. The novel’s human characters and their interactions aren’t particularly strong, but they are likeable and serve to move the story along. What makes Cachalot such an interesting book is its rich themes about communication, trust, ecology, and guilt. In the book, Foster raises a range of fascinating questions about how people treat their environment, how they view other forms of intelligence, and about how - and if - they can make up for their past mistakes.
While this is, like Midworld, another story set on the fringes of the Humanx Commonwealth, it is also another example of how adaptable and engaging the setting is. It’s also further evidence of Foster’s many strengths, and an argument that he should be better known.
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