The river wild: Voyage to the City of the Dead (1984) by Alan Dean Foster [Review]
For scientists of the Humanx Commonwealth, the planet Horseye is the site of many unexamined wonders. Its unique and dramatic topography has given rise to three distinctive sentient species, who each occupy a specific ecological niche. When a pair of bickering, married human scientists set out on an epic journey of exploration, what they find could make their careers - if they survive.
Voyage to the City of the Dead is the fourth standalone novel in the Humanx Commonwealth series by Alan Dean Foster. It combines some aspects of the previous three books; the deadly fauna of Midworld (1975), the aquatic settings of Cachalot (1980), and the interspecies relationships of Nor Crystal Tears (1982). While on one level the book is a relatively straightforward science fiction adventure, it also features interesting speculations about geology, ecology, and alien cultures. What initially seems like a minor side-story in Foster’s fictional universe ultimately ends with some major revelations of galactic significance.
The novel is set quite early in the history of the Humanx Commonwealth, only 106 years after the union between the mammalian human and insectoid Thranx species. The novel opens at Steamer Station, a facility established by Commonwealth scientists. The station is crewed mainly by Thranx, who are quite content there - but for human scientists Etienne and Lyra Redowl, the situation is frustrating.
The Commonwealth has given Horseye the planetary designation of Class IVb, which forbids any exploration of the surface without approval from local leaders. Because no such approval has been given, geologist Etienne and xenologist Lyra are stuck at the station, unable to proceed further. When permission is suddenly granted, the scientists are thrust into an epic journey that pushes their skills, their technology, and their marriage, to its limits.
Using a sophisticated hydrofoil boat, the Redowls venture out from Steamer Station. Their journey takes them up the vast river Skar, which flows through an immense chasm, the largest in Commonwealth space. Along the way, they plan to study the planet’s geology and its three sentient humanoid species - the competitive Mai, the ostensibly pacifist Tsla, and the brutal Na. It is from these peoples that the planet takes its local name, Tslamaina.
To a large extent, Voyage to the City of the Dead is an adventure novel. Its basic structure is an epic journey over dangerous terrain. It could be called Foster’s counterpart to earlier river-based stories like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) or Forester’s The African Queen (1935). One difference is the enormous scale of the setting, and its impacts on the characters that the Redowls meet along the way. The three alien species are diverse in their physiology, culture and in the way they relate to humans. Here, Foster again explores a recurring theme of his; that a creature should not be judged merely by the way it looks. Similarly, no group can be judged by the actions of any one individual.
The characters were not the strongest aspect of earlier Humanx Commonwealth books, but Etienne and Lyra are an engaging pair of leads. Their dysfunctional relationship and differing goals feel believable, and they are far from an idealised couple. The aliens are a little less compelling, but Foster makes up for this with intriguing descriptions of Horseye’s unique environment. Also, there are some compelling action sequences on and off the water, as the explorers encounter aggressive locals and some lethal fauna that recall the vicious creatures depicted in Midworld.
The story makes a fairly abrupt shift in its final pages. While some might find this change of direction to be jarring, it greatly expands the scope of the story and invokes a powerful sense of wonder. Suddenly, the book encompasses something far larger than the ambitions of Etienne and Lyra, and which ties into the wider Commonwealth universe. If Foster’s intention was to hook readers into the wider story, then in this case he succeeded.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.