Saturday, August 30, 2008

Book Review: Exceptions to Reality

Alan Dean Foster is the most important sci-fi writer--scratch that, the most important writer period--to me in terms of my development as a writer over the years. Since my best friend, T, introduced me to his works back in the 9th grade, I've been an ardent follower of everything this man has written. And he's written A LOT!

Exceptions to Reality is not Foster's first collection of short-stories (he's compiled six prior to this one), but it is perhaps his most mature. And what I mean by mature is that each story in this collection is succinct and masterfully composed, trimmed of almost all the fat that new writers struggle to excise from their own works. Here is a maestro at play, expertly weaving indelible tunes through the reader's consciousness, setting to print fourteen brief tales that run the gamut of far-future sci-fi to urban fantasy, and back!

Among my favorites:

  • Chauna -- One of the richest men in the known galaxy, Gibeon Bastrop lives in the very lap of luxury. But the one thing his money cannot buy is a chance to glimpse a legendary beauty unseen by an intelligent species for over a thousand years. The Chauna is rumored to be myth, a creature of legend like the fabled Phoenix, inhabiting only binary star systems. Delta Avinis is one such system, but Bastrop's crew is restless. They want to go home. Some are planning outright mutiny, until a chance encounter changes everything.

  • The Muffin Migration -- Jamie Bowman and Gerard LeCleur are planetary surveyors assigned to the bucolic, though boring, temperate world of Hedris. As the first humans on the planet, their job is to catalogue and scout out suitable locations for corporate investment. They befriend the local, friendly natives and are introduced to Hedris's most prolific lifeform -- hairy, short balls of harmless herbivores nicknamed "muffins" by the pair. The muffins are precocious, cuddly . . . and taste great broiled on the grill! But when the muffin migration begins, Bowman and LeCleur discover there is more bite than bark to these adorably tasty little pets.

  • Basted -- Ali Kedal is tired of his life as a second-rate baggage handler for a tour guide operator in the Egyptian city of Zagazig. He entertains loftier dreams that do not include his bothersome, overly plump wife. While riding his favorite (and only) camel through the desert one night, he stumbles across a chance encounter that will change his fortune forever -- if he can survive becoming the local wildlife's dinner.

  • The Last Akialoa -- The Alakai swamp, formed in the caldera of Kauai's highest volcanic peak, is the rainiest place on Earth. And also one of the most dangerous. Those who travel too far into its boggy center are rarely heard from again. To the ornithologist, Loftgren, such danger is inconsequential to the chance of the lifetime: spotting the elusive Akialoa, a native bird to Hawaii and possibly now extinct. No one has seen an Akialoa on record since 1973, but rumor has it that a flock of the birds has been living in the Alakai for years. Two of Loftgren's contemporaries, Kinkaid and Masaki, went in looking for the birds. They never made it out. Now's his turn. But Loftgren soon discovers that his field expertise and carefully chosen native guide will not be enough to deal with the Alakai's most fearsome obstacle -- the swamp itself.
These stories and many more display Foster's intricate imagination and knack for colorful description. While some of the offerings are perhaps a little too brief (the Pip & Flinx short, Growth, from his popular "Flinx of the Commonwealth" series comes to mind), ultimately the collection left me firmly in the belief that Foster writes the kind of stories I want to read. Moreover, he writes the kind of stories I aspire to write myself. Lean, quick-witted, and full of fun and adventure.

Longtime fans of Foster's will no doubt recognize some of these stories, as a few are reprints from previously published editor anthologies. But the tales are just as good, if not better, the second time around.

Rating: B+

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