OFF THE SHELF - “With Friends Like These…”

By Marcus Pan

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With Friends Like These...Alan Dean Foster is by far one of the most prolific writers of the 70’s science fiction circuit. With the Flinx(1) series, Spellsinger(2), etc. Foster has churned them out. This time I took a look at a collection of his shorter works – whimsical futuristic and sci-fi fairy tales, some silly some fluffy some a bit more so. Not a bad read, although only a few stand out as exceptional here. A dozen in all, published in various places and various forms throughout the 1970’s in pulp fiction magazines and the like.

The stories all hold science fiction themes, but are as varied as snowflakes. The Empire of T’ang Lang for example is written from an alien’s point of view – but on the other hand there’s no guarantee that this alien is alien to our world. On another hand Dream Done Green is more of a futuristic fairy tale and The Emoman smacks of television’s Tek Wars. Many are short and leave much to your imagination, allowing you to construct the finalities of it in your own mind and along your own guidelines. The opening title story, With Friends Like These, explores a futuristic Earth that seems to have become so alien in its own right to that in which we live today. With an alien visit that brings back memories of Douglas Adams(3) in its near-comic form, they seek to gain human help in an upcoming battle of the stars. But upon releasing the shield that surrounds Earth from being penetrated and invaded, it seems in the end that the landers should be more concerned about what they’ve let out rather than what could have come in.

Another highlight to this series was Why Johnny Can’t Speed. An amusing tale that borrows from Road Warriors and adds emotional grief into it for the added hyperbole, the story is very enjoyable. In a near future society aggressive driving has become the norm, but has accelerated to such a point that government has given up trying to regulate and protect anyone on the roads and passes laws that allow drivers to settle their own differences without retribution. Mass transit becomes the norm, but the few brave souls who refuse to give up the independence of driving their own vehicles turn them into moving slaughterboxes outfitted for the worst case scenario. The result is the roads become a lawless no-man’s land. When one man’s son is killed by an aggressive driver when he attempted to take a place in the other man’s lane, the gentleman heads out on an errand of revenge.

In The Emoman an old sailor man sells pill-form emotions to anyone who wants them – anger, fear, contentment. Not happy? Take a pill. The sad part is how true this story has become as I watch all the commercials for brain-altering drugs being happily sold to anyone who isn’t content enough in their born frame of mind. It was, after all, always said that today’s science fiction becomes tomorrow’s science fact. Then in Wolfstroker, Foster combines Indian magic and modern music to tell a tale of how an Indian descendant combines powers from his tribe into the music he creates on stage with stunning and devastating affects.

The final story of the book, Ye Who Would Sing, is truly my favorite and reminds me of an old quote that I first heard from my friend Russ many years ago. I’m sure he wasn’t the first to say it, and considering how well read he was it probably came from a book somewhere, but the quote was, “If trees could scream, would we still be so cavalier about cutting them down?” In Ye Who Would Sing Foster shows us that yes, we probably would be. In the story a futuristic off-world hit man crash lands in a remote part of a planet to find a forest of “chimer trees” – valuable, near-extinct and worth millions, these singing, tinkling trees are sold off to the highest bidder as status pieces much like live animals in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep(4). The story follows the growth of a man from murderer to morals, in a wonderfully told tale about his preservation of this unique forest.

While in some of the stories I would have really enjoyed more explanation – especially in With Friends Like These… which could have easily grown into a novel in its own right. Others, like Why Johnny Can’t Speed takes on a cliché, but at least tells it well. A few truly outstanding pieces here, but overall it was a decent collection of underdeveloped fiction, few of which really finished what it was saying.

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“With Friends Like These…” by Alan Dean Foster
Published by Ballantine Books
Copyright © 1977 by Alan Dean Foster
ISBN: 0-345-31189-2

(1) Flinx in Flux was reviewed in Legends #119.
(2) The Moment of the Magician was reviewed in Legends #121 & Spellsinger was reviewed in Legends #132.
(3) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy of course – written up way back in Legends #85.
(4) The book which spawned Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was reviewed in Legends #97.

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