Into the Out Of

February 8, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

outInto the Out Of by Alan Dean Foster

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This book was one of the first I ever received through the Science Fiction Book Club. That would have been around 1987, and I probably read the book in less than a day. To this day, I still have vivid memories of images from this book, from the first chapter through to the end. I’m surprised that I haven’t re-read the book since then, but when I first started using my Nook, I saw it at a good price, and couldn’t resist it. I was pleased to see it pop up as my next book to read.

The story centers on three people: Joshua Oak, an FBI agent; Merry Sharrow, a telephone sales rep from Eddie Bauer on vacation in Washington, D.C.; and Mbatian Olkeloki, a Tanzanian elder who recruits them to fight something supernatural. As for the supernatural … well, you know when you think you see something out of the corner of your eye, and when you look, nothing’s there? Foster takes that idea and creates a race of beings called shetani that live in the shadows just out of our field of vision. It’s an effective premise, especially if you’re into spooky stories.

Foster develops the characters well enough in the beginning to have us sympathize with them, but later in the story their development stagnates. Once we have an idea of who they are, the plot takes over, and they wind up not feeling very realistic to me. Joshua seems somewhat inconsistent, as he’s constantly struggling with his disbelief, despite the number of times he confronts the reality of the supernatural. Merry, once confronted with it, never veers from her belief. There was a subtle, sexist overtone to their responses, especially when Joshua would view Merry’s belief as some sort of hysteria, which rubbed me the wrong way, and a lot of the notions of the story seemed somewhat sexist. Near the end of the book, Merry, who has been presented as a strong, capable woman (if somewhat shy), becomes a damsel in distress.

Unfortunately, the story shows its age with references to flying on the Concorde, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Soviet Premier and the Cold War (to say nothing of the problems the heroes could have escaped with things like cell phones and the Internet). It’s unfortunate, but not a deal-breaker, so long as you look at the story as a product of its time. I also had concerns that the portrayals of the Maasai elder might have been stereotypical, but the acknowledgements section suggests that Foster did some traveling and research to capture the authenticity of the culture.

All that being said, I still found myself engaged in the story. I was surprised that I read a quarter of it in just an hour or so, after expecting to read just a chapter or two before going to bed. Foster has the chops to keep readers reading, even in a story that’s nearly thirty years old. The middle third of the book is a bit of a drag, as it’s following the main characters after they’ve discovered the shetani but before they enter the final battle, and it features a lot of detail about Africa. I think Foster was trying hard to show the reader that he had been there to do his research. Still, the rest of the book is quite the romp. It’s just hard to divide the story from my memories of reading it that first time.

The story is solid, with a handful of surprises to keep readers interested (and there are some clues to those surprised buried in the narrative to reward those who re-read the book), but it’s not as good a story as I remember it. I would still recommend it to folks who like the supernatural, and don’t mind the story being a little dated, but a lot of what carried the story for me was its nostalgia.

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