This week on Down the Stacks, we’re moving away from Fantasy and into the realm of science fiction. This week’s selection is a trilogy written by Alan Dean Foster, an author who has written a large number of science fiction stories with a wide range of themes. Foster’s best works deal with humanity’s interactions with the galaxy at large, including first contact situations, interstellar war and politics, and discovering mind-screwing mysteries of the universe. The Taken Trilogy, consisting of Lost and Found, The Light-years Beneath my Feet, and The Candle of Distant Earth, is a story of alien abduction that takes an atypical direction from the usual plots.
Lost and Found concerns one Marcus Walker, a commodities trader from Chicago who has a decent life. He’s good at his job, has lots of friends in the office, still maintains some of his strength and athleticism from his high school football days, and has mastered the art of picking up girls in bars. We meet him not in Chicago, but on the road to some corner-of-nowhere town in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. He’s out there to win a bet with his coworkers that he can’t survive a week of camping out, and he’s having a wonderful time of it. After a near-disaster in the local, bar, Walker returns to his campsite ready to just shrug off the day and get on to the next one. In the middle of the night, however, he’s ambushed by aliens that are best described as seven-foot tall walking eggplants with tentacle arms and, despite putting up a fight and making it to his SUV in an attempt to escape, is knocked out and abducted.
Walker awakens in a roughly 40 by 40 foot cell that is a perfect facsimile of his campsite, including illusory wildlife in the trees and near-perfect images of the lake and mountains beyond the boundaries. Electrified forcefields keep him from wandering too far or from walking out through the only area that seems to open out into the spaceship of his captors, the Vilenjji. The Vilenjji seem to be a race built around corporate capitalism, with every member of the ship’s crew also being a shareholder in their enterprise to capture sentient and semi-sentient creatures from worlds outside the Galactic Civilization and sell them as pets or novelty entertainment pieces.
After a few days of good behavior, Walker is rewarded by being granted access to the cell adjacent to his: a replica of a Chicago alley occupied by George, a mutt of a dog who the Vilenjji have given enhanced intelligence and the ability to speak in order to improve his market value. George is equal parts sarcastic and lovable, possessing a natural gift to make friends with almost any alien he comes across (the Vilenjji excepted) while at the same time more than willing to throw snark at Walker on a variety of topics, including Walker’s determination to escape. He goes on to serve as a grounding force for Walker, constantly questioning Walker’s plans to try and keep them realistic and advising him to slow down and enjoy life once in a while.
Eventually, the Vilenjji allow George and Walker access to the enclosure that sits in the center of the ring formed by the cells of all of the oxygen-breathing captives. Here, with George’s help, Walker learns how to interact with a myriad of alien lifeforms and get acclimated to his situation. Although Walker gets to know many aliens, he only becomes close with two other individuals because they share his hope of escape and possess attributes he needs to actually effect a prison break. The first one he meets is Sequi’aranaqua’na’senemu (or Sque, if you must), a four-foot tall ten-legged cephalopod with exceptional intellectual abilities and not a lick of humility about them. Sque is a loner by both racial tendency and because she feels that none of her fellow captives possess the mental capabilities to provide her with stimulating conversation, but she’s amenable to helping others if her massive ego is properly stroked. Her claims to being smarter than Walker or George are well-founded, because she proves to be able to operate Vilenjji technology with only a cursory study and frequently operates plans of her own that depend on Walker’s ignorance of them.
The fourth member of Walker’s rag-tag bunch of escapees is Broullkoun-uvv-ahd-Hrashkin (aka Braouk), a giant tentacled walking carpet with a huge, vertical, sawtoothed mouth and the soul of a gentle, if morose, poet. Distraught at being taken away from his home, Braouk is given to bouts of uncontrolled, murderous rage that made socializing rather difficult, so he’s isolated in his own cell until Walker has a psychotic break that leads the Vilenjji to throw him into Braouk’s cell and see what happens. After a couple days of silent treatment, Walker finally manages to coax the hulk’s poetic speech out and makes friends with him. Afterwords, Braouk deals with his stress by reciting hours-long saga-poems of his people, which most sentients simply learn to tune out after a while, if they aren’t scared to death implying offense by ignoring the giant verse-spewing thing that could rip them apart with ease.
Lost and Found ends with the four erstwhile allies successfully escaping the Vilenjji ship and finding refuge on a far more civilized planet of charitable triangle-people. The other two books, Light-years Beneath my Feet and Candle of Distant Earth, deal with the quartet’s attempts to garner enough interest, resources, and - most importantly - directions from their hosts to get them all home. To accomplish this, they move from the pleasant but centrally located (galactically speaking) Serristhame to Niyu, a planet further out in the galactic arm they hope also contains their homeworlds and populated by a race of aliens that Walker finds physically attractive but with voices like nails on a chalkboard combined with rockslides and screeching metal, and who have embraced war as a political and economic tool while restricting their armies to medieval-level tech. Along the way, however, they find that the leader of the Vilenjji they escaped from, Pret-klob, is both obsessively determined to reclaim his “inventory” at any cost and crafty enough to get himself into position to pop up at the worst possible times.
The Taken Trilogy isn’t very long, but reading it may require consulting a dictionary or SAT vocabulary lists because Alan Dean Foster has a love of big words. Sque’s snobbish intellect, Braouk’s preference for speaking in verse, and even George’s enhanced intellect can all excuse their occasional use of purple prose, but even the narration gets in on the act. In some cases it’s understandable for precision - Sque is never called an octopus or a squid outside of dialogue - but there are times when it feels as if the narration is being excessively descriptive and wordy for its own sake. The story avoids going into too great a detail about the science behind the alien technology that goes beyond what humanity is capable of, and despite the frequent mention of how many weeks or months pass waiting for major events to come to fruition things feel like they move along at a fast clip with only occasional moments of awkward waiting. It’s a story of large-scale, long-term events across roughly 750 pages total, so immersion in the worlds of the trilogy is hard to come by and anything not essential to the story of four alien abductees trying to get home is glossed over quickly.
I wouldn’t recommend the Taken Trilogy as highly as previous works I’ve discussed, but it’s not a bad set of books if you’ve got some afternoons to burn.