Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Seeker by Jack McDevitt

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

Jack McDevitt's 2005 novel Seeker is the third of his Alex Benedict novels, which began with the 1989 A Talent For War and continued with 2004's Polaris. The novels, set almost ten thousand years from now, center on Benedict's adventures in the course of his business as an antiques dealer.

In the first book Alex became embroiled in the mystery his uncle was trying to unravel at the time of his death, namely that surrounding the Thermopylae-like last stand of war hero Christopher Sim against the alien Ashiyyur two centuries earlier. Polaris, which picks up twelve years after the events of the first novel, concerned the disappearance of the passengers of the ship by that name over half a century earlier.

Seeker begins when a client brings Alex and his assistant Chase Kolpath an old cup, one connected with another legendary ship--once again, the titular vessel. That vessel dated back to the twenty-seventh century A.D., a time when North America had been in the grip of a theocratic dictatorship prone to jailing dissidents. Harry Williams, a communications magnate whose liberal politics--and in particular, his belief that education should teach children to question everything rather than indoctrinate them--eventually got fed up with that sort of persecution and organized an expedition to establish an independent colony in space. There, he hoped to build a "home for humanity that would embody freedom and security" by "avoiding the old mistakes and applying the lessons of history."

The starship Seeker, and its sister ship, the Bremerhaven, were the vessels in which William took these latter-day Pilgrims to their destination. The colonists and the ships were never seen again shortly after their setting out, however, and their fate became one of history's great mysteries, "Margolia" comparable to Atlantis in our own time and now that it has fallen into his lap, Benedict naturally finds the prospect of unraveling the mystery irresistible.

Of course, there are a great many ways to tell a story like this one. In fact, as Brian Aldiss noted in his brilliant introductions to the two-volume anthology Galactic Empires, they tend to "represent a promiscuous liaison between Science and Glamour, with Glamour usually in the ascendant." The grand spectacle of villains and heroes fleeing "across the remote star galaxies in pursuit of each other," with "Elder Races, Hideous Secrets, Ancient Forces, or plain sneaky old teleporters crop[ping] up at every turn" is the source of the fun.

There are exceptions, and the universe of Isaac Asimov's Foundation perhaps epitomizes that difference--as do McDevitt's novels, which have often been compared to Asimov's. The dust jacket of Seeker alone cites blurbs from Stephen King and doing just that, and McDevitt himself references Asimov in the foreword he wrote to a reissue of Talent in the omnibus Hello Out There.

This is not to say that McDevitt is an Asimov clone, but there are important parallels, not least of them the rational, humanistic (long-term) future he presents. It may not quite be one in which all our hopes are fulfilled, but most of us would probably settle for it as an advance over our condition today. The vast majority of humanity lives under a humane and democratic Confederacy spread over more than a hundred worlds, free "by any reasonable definition." Living in a time when "disease was rare, the great majority of kids had two parents, and everybody ate well," and even those unable to hold down a job or simply opting for a "life of leisure" are not begrudged a "minimum subsistence income," the charitable are free to devote their time and money to more glamorous causes like research organizations. (The holographic avatar of Harry Williams, in fact, is pleasantly amazed when Alex and Chase tell him about what their world is like.)

Not surprisingly, Chase's description of Alex in most situations--"staid, complacent, one might even say dull"--is fairly representative of the world in which he lives, two centuries after "the last great heroic age" of figures like Sim. The dark ages and renaissances are all behind them, the only remnants of the feudalism and barbarism, brutality and sensuality, squalor and splendor of that space opera past is the relics out of which Alex has made his profession and fortune. And just as Asimov concentrated on Hari Seldon's apostles rather than the colorful rogues who appeared when the Empire crumbled and fell, McDevitt doesn't linger on the antics of figures like Khalifa Torn. (Even on an aesthetic level, Benedict's own time is characterized by restraint to the point of blandness, as the narrators remind us when admiring the hull of Sim's warship, or the fashions of earlier eras.)

Consistent with this sensibility Alex is not an interstellar version of Indiana Jones or Dirk Pitt, and Chase is no Lara Croft. There is usually someone out to stop them, by murder if necessary, so they do face their fair share of dangerous situations, and McDevitt can certainly write a compelling action sequence (generally crafted for elegance over mayhem). However, his heroes are more likely to be found wheedling a bureaucrat for a file or figuring out ways to kill the time during an uneventful weeks-long survey of a star system than dodging booby traps or shooting it out with the bad guys. (In fact, the closest Alex gets to video game-style "tomb raiding" in the series is actually playing a video game during a long space voyage in the first novel.) Homework, legwork and problem-solving, which in other narratives might just be something to connect one over-the-top action scene with the next, are the core of the narrative.

Additionally, McDevitt's novels are plainly but lucidly written, and appropriate to a story where investigation of this sort is primary, they are rigorously logical. While the legendary objects of Alex's quests have usually become the focus of wild, sometimes paranormal theories, in the end there is a reasonable explanation for everything--even the mind-body problem that has plagued philosophers since time immemorial.

McDevitt is generally as scrupulous about the science as the genre allows, and in contrast with the fantasies in which science just provides props, it plays a prominent role in his meticulously developed cosmic treasure hunts. Particularly noteworthy is his rare sense of the spectacle and drama of the heavens, his recognition of them as a dynamic place of colliding stars and impacting comets, something so often overlooked by other science fiction writers. He uses that sense to good effect, acknowledging it in his hero's hunts for lost ships across interstellar distances. It also lends an element of nuance to his portrait of faster-than-light space travel.

Of course, today's science fiction writers also face expectations that Asimov's generation didn't have to deal with. Just as some readers today complain that the Foundation novels are light on invention in their world-building, some protest that McDevitt's future feels too much like the early twenty-first century, with starships. Indeed, the torrent of razor-sharp technological detail that has been standard since cyberpunk came along, the wildly exotic thought- and sense-worlds that Frank Herbert so perfectly rendered on the page, are absent.

Still, McDevitt offers a reasonably "lived-in" future, smoothly incorporating items ranging from mind-wipes to artificial intelligence avatars into his tales. Additionally, there is an argument for the similarities of Alex's time to ours, even after ten thousand years. Just as we find echoes of our own time when we look back over the sweep of history, there may well be moments in the future that will remind later people of our own time, or at least, our own ideals. What more likely era can there be than ours in which fortunes can be made doing a brisk trade in the remnants of more romantic, bygone eras among the comfortable?

What goes for the first two Alex Benedict novels also goes for the latest entry in the series. Longtime fans will be pleased to know that Seeker shares the core strengths of the previous books. The prose is smooth, the pace brisk and enlivened by the richness of its ideas, as well as a subtle wit. Chase, who narrated Polaris in much the same manner that James Watson narrated the stories of Sherlock Holmes, remains an engaging storyteller.

It helps that even though Seeker appeared just one year after the previous book, McDevitt did not simply plug new factors into an established formula. Partly for this reason the intricacies of Alex and Chase's hunt for the Seeker will hold their attention. Additionally, the new book expands on the universe developed in Talent and Polaris. While avatars constructed from the biographies of long-dead historical figures frequently figure into their plots, the avatar of Harry Williams is a full-fledged character this time. Those who have read previous books in the series will in particular appreciate the sequence in which Chase travels to Borkarat, a planet in Ashiyyur space, looking to sneak needed data out of an alien museum.

The handling of other elements, however, is less consistent. The murder-and-intrigue subplot, while initially promising, proves by the end to be comparatively underdeveloped and poorly integrated with the rest of the mystery. As a result, rather than everything coming together at the conclusion, it feels like an obligatory afterthought that could have been attached to any of the more colorful episodes in Alex's life. Additionally, while readers who know the protagonist from previous books will not find his behavior a stretch, newcomers might find his motivation unconvincing; he seems more of a closed book to Chase this time around, and is off-stage for a surprisingly large part of the story.

Moreover, perhaps overcorrecting for Polaris (in which the likely conclusion was obvious halfway through), the reader gets virtually no clue as to what Alex and Chase will find when they get to Margolia. This leaves it a blank slate onto which anything can be projected, and often is (as with the bad movies about the Margolia mystery that Chase watches--"fun, in a childish way," she quips about one of them). While this generates some interest, and provides McDevitt room for a good deal of intellectual play, this ends up being counterproductive from a dramatic standpoint. Instead of working as red herrings that set the reader up for a big surprise, the wild and not-so-wild speculations make the actual ending feel more anticlimactic. (It doesn't help that the discovery in the end seems more likely to be a footnote in the history books than a reason to rewrite them.)

These are more than quibbles, but at the same time the weaknesses should not be exaggerated. Those who are already fans of the series will find Seeker satisfying, since it delivers the things that attracted them to the books in the first place. While Seeker can also be read without reference to previous novels, like most series' this one rewards familiarity, and new readers may find it best to start with A Talent For War. Alex Benedict is not revolutionizing science fiction, but his exploits are certainly a reminder that there can still be interest in such an old-fashioned take on the genre.

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