Friday, October 31, 2008

"Two Dooms" and the Memory of World War II in Alternate History

By Nader Elhefnawy


Cyril Kornbluth's novella "Two Dooms" begins with Edward Royland, a theoretical physicist pondering his situation at Los Alamos in May 1945. His dissatisfaction with it is tied to his feeling that the Manhattan Project in which he personally has been involved these last few years was all a colossal waste of time. However, a late development (the completion of "Phase 56c") changes that feeling into a profound anxiety that
Oppie [Robert Oppenheimer] and the rest of them were going to break the sky, kick humanity right in the crotch, and unleash a prowling monster that would go up and down by night and day peering in all the windows of the world, leaving no sane man unterrified for his life and the lives of his kin.(1)
Not sure what to do about it, Royland hopes to clear his mind by going to the nearby Hopi reservation and seeing his old friend the medicine man, Charles Miller Nahataspe. Hearing about his problem, Nahataspe suggests he try "God Food," dried black mushrooms far stronger than peyote, and finds himself transported a hundred and fifty years into an alternate future—the early 22nd century in a timeline where the atomic bomb that has instilled such dread in Royland never materialized, resulting in the conquest of the world by the Axis.

Fifty years old now (it first appeared in Venture Science Fiction Magazine in July 1958), "Two Dooms" preceded Philip K. Dick's more famous World War II allohistory, The Man in the High Castle, by three years. Dick's novel is the cleverer and subtler of the two stories, but Kornbluth's earlier novella was the one that truly marked out the trail so many others would follow in the years since. As Gavriel D. Rosenfeld notes in his landmark 2005 study of World War II-themed alternate history, The World Hitler Never Made, "Two Dooms" was the story that "inaugurated the...allohistorical attention towards Nazism" of the post-war period; and in that early Cold War atmosphere, also "the first work to revive the demonic wartime image of the Germans" that had softened with the focus of those years on the Soviet Union and Communism.(2)

One can go even further than Rosenfeld in identifying the elements of this story that would later become standard, if not cliché. As is typical in many later World War II allohistories (Dick's novel included), the defeat of the U.S. in World War II in Kornbluth's novella left the United States occuped by the Axis. The world that results is not only nightmarish in its horror, but nightmarish also in a literal sense—its quality of unreality, highlighted by the witness given to them by a traveler from another time who struggles to return to their saner world. And of course, Kornbluth's comment about World War II is meant to also say something about a more contemporary issue (in the case of "Two Dooms," the invention of the nuclear bomb).

Of course, what is true of the World War II allohistory has a way of being true about allohistorical writing generally. As Geoffrey Winthrop-Young put it in his article "The Third Reich in Alternate History" in the October 2006 issue of the Journal of Popular Culture:
no matter how loosely or tightly alternate history is defined, there is unanimous agreement that no scenario is treated more often than an altered outcome of the Second World War.(3)
This is not only the case where sheer mass is concerned, but also with the most popular, most visible and most acclaimed efforts as well. Dick's High Castle aside, the alternate history novel which achieved the genre's greatest mainstream success in recent memory is surely Robert Harris's Fatherland. The prolific Harry Turtledove, widely hailed as the grand master of the genre, has written not one, but several series exploring different versions of that conflict (the Worldwar, Infamy and "Timeline-191" sequences), as well as numerous additional one-shot novels and shorter works like In The Presence of Mine Enemies. Of the last six winners of the Sidewise Award for Alternate History (long form), four are World War II-related (namely J.N. Stroyar's The Children's War, Murray Davies' Collaborator, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and Ian R. MacLeod's The Summer Isles), and the same theme turned up yet again last year in another book that grabbed a great deal of mainstream attention (and a place on the New York Times bestseller list)—Michael Chabon's much-discussed The Yiddish Policemen's Union. (Among these, Winthrop-Young observes, "Hitler's victory remains the most popular scenario," as the above list indicates.(4))

Indeed, this vein has been mined so often that Sidewise Award founder Steven H. Silver wrote in the speculative fiction quarterly Helix that
If I've gotten one thing out of reading alternate history for the Sidewise Awards for the past eleven years, it is the strong desire not to have to read any more stories which deal with...World War II.
Nonetheless, Silver acknowledges in the piece that writers will surely go on writing them, and he will surely go on reading them. That being the case, it seems only reasonable to ask: why has the alternate history genre come back to these themes, these tropes, time and time again? Why is it that writers keep returning not only to World War II, but to the same might-have-beens, in particular, a crushing Axis-and especially, Nazi-victory with horrific consequences?

Far from anomalous, the popularity of the idea seems to me to be over-determined by a multiplicity of factors. First and foremost among them is a major limitation writers of alternate history labor under, namely that a story of this kind only works (at least, as a piece of alternate history) if the audience knows how things really went in our timeline, and so can spot the twist and appreciate the difference when they do see it. This limits the range of potential subjects to what a large readership can be expected to know something about—and care about. Unfortunately that list is a short one, and gets shorter when considered internationally, leaving not very much besides World War II. (The U.S. Civil War, the second most popular genre theme—and which Silver also says he is tired of reading about—is primarily an American preoccupation.)

For the British, and increasingly for Americans as well, it is the war with Germany that dominates popular memory of World War II, and in some sense, history more broadly. Indeed, the fact has long been the butt of jokes. On the G4TV video game review show X-Play hosts Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb routinely joke about the sheer ubiquity of World War II-themed video games, and no doubt many viewers were able to relate when Tripping the Rift's Chode said in the show's pilot episode that "Just once, I'd like to time travel and not see Nazis!" Nonetheless, the Second World War (especially as retold by Stephen Ambrose, Tom Brokaw and Steven Spielberg) retains its hold on the popular mind.

A related limitation is that the event being tweaked in the story must be large enough to plausibly and recognizably skew the timeline. A fiction writer's alternate history and the "counterfactuals" that historians use to pursue scholarly inquiries are two different things, and it must be admitted that many brilliant alternate histories are utterly unconvincing as historical analysis, Kornbluth's novella included. (For a thorough discussion of what does make for a good counterfactual, see the first chapter of Unmaking the West: "What-If?" Scenarios That Rewrite World History, by volume editors Philip E. Tetlock and Geoffrey Parker.)

Nonetheless, there is a limit to how far away a writer can move from the actual record and still claim to be writing even an "alternate" history, and World War II happens to be comparatively rich in options for such significant tweaking. Most of those possibilities, at least where an Axis victory is concerned, happen to lie in the fight between the Allies and Germany. After all, Germany was by far the most powerful member of the Axis, with four times the national income and industrial capacity of Japan. Additionally, in a world dominated by European colonial empires, Germany was a lot closer to the centers of gravity of the major players. Japan occupied French and British colonies in East Asia—but Germany conquered France outright, and may have had a real shot at doing the same to Britain itself.

Even a casual reader of history, consequently, finds it easy to come up with world-changing possibilities there. For instance, what if the British frittered away their fighter squadrons trying to defend France in the spring of 1940? What if Lord Halifax succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister instead of Winston Churchill, and opted to make peace with Hitler? What if Germany determinedly pursued the "Mediterranean" strategy, capturing Gibraltar, locking up North Africa and rolling east? And so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

By contrast, it is much harder to pick out really war-deciding moments centering on Japanese action. The Battle of Midway is routinely described as a decisive battle, and it did in fact mark the end of Japan's run of victories against the Allies in the Pacific theater in World War II. However, the most likely consequence of even a crushing Japanese victory there would have been to delay an Allied victory by months, the disparity between Japanese and Allied resources simply too large for it to be otherwise. Indeed, the difficulty of imagining Japan coming out of its war victorious is amply demonstrated by editor Peter Tsouras's essay collection Rising Sun Victorious where, despite the title, Japan wins a battle only to lose the war in most of the pieces. (I have yet to see any historian or group of historians even attempt a similar project centering on Italy.)

Additionally, for dramatic and entertainment purposes (and perhaps reflecting a broader conservatism), there is a tendency to alter the timeline in a way that leaves us breathing a sigh of relief that our own twentieth century, horrible as it was, was not worse still. This translates into setbacks, frustrations, disappointments, and horror stories being far more commonplace than wish-fulfilling speculations about what might have been (as we see in many of Michael Moorcock's Seaton Begg stories, for instance). There is also a preference for clearly delineated, recognizable heroes and villains permitting a reading of the events as a historically simplistic but dramatically compelling narrative of good versus evil.

Once again, World War II fits the bill, and especially the Third Reich. It is with the Nazis, rather than the leaders of Japan or Italy, that the idea of the Second World War as a contest between good and evil is so closely associated, so much so that a display of Nazi props has become a cheap way of getting attention. As Winthrop-Young puts it in his article,
Almost any combination of swastikas, black uniforms, and German accents will ensure instant drama by providing an immediately accessible good-versus-bad set up with little need for further elaboration.(5)
It helps that the Nazi regime offers potential material for a wide range of comments and analogies. It can be used to represent perceived foreign menaces, even quite different ones (as with those who read Harris's Fatherland as being not about Nazi Germany, but the Germany of the 1990s); to say something about racism, religious persecution, the destruction of democracy, and the rise of totalitarianism.

The tendency of observers from different points on the ideological spectrum to look at Nazism and see two opposite things is also well established in the historiography. Leftists often view fascism as capitalism's defensive reaction against socialism, while rightists emphasize the socialism in "National Socialism," and the questions get only more complicated from there. Was Nazism a monstrous reassertion of traditional values, or an off-the-wall flight from them to some imagined pagan past? Were its most horrible acts a result of the technological mentality run amok, or a reversion to primitivism, so appalling because the most modern tools are used to achieve the most retrograde ends? In short, writers have successfully used Nazism to represent not only capital "E" evil, but many particular kinds of Evil—something for everybody.

However, none of this is to say that every possibility these parameters offer has been exhausted, and it is equally worthwhile to look at the possibilities writers have tended to ignore. None of these omissions is more glaring than the history of the war on Germany's Eastern Front. While there is at least a vague awareness among most that a great deal of importance happened there (indeed, by any conceivable yardstick, the European war was overwhelmingly a fight between Germany and the Soviet Union), English-language writers focus on the involvement and experiences of the Western allies, particularly Britain and the U.S. Obviously familiarity and national particularism have something to do with this. So does the problem that Norman Davies points out in his recent study, No Simple Victory—that thinking of the war as a struggle primarily between Hitler and Stalin makes it much harder for mainstream opinion to characterize World War Two as a simple contest of good and evil.

Nonetheless, this has entailed a neglect of plenty of interesting ideas. One is a situation in which the Western allies find themselves fighting both Hitler and Stalin at once in 1940. (The League of Nations, after all, came quite close to intervening on Finland's side against the Soviets in the Winter War, which would have exactly this result.) Another is the consequences of a limited German victory against the Allies in the west for the post-war settlement, a German victory against the Allies on D-Day, or at the Battle of the Bulge, easily leaving the Soviet army in control of a larger part of Europe when V-E Day finally arrived.

Of course, it can be pointed out that this kind of World War II counterfactual quickly turns into a Cold War counterfactual, and so far few writers have been willing to try their hand at one (except in the very loose sense of substituting a continent dominated by Nazi Germany for the Soviet Union, as Brad Linaweaver does in "Moon of Ice"). The few exceptions to the rule, like Brendan DuBois' 1999 Resurrection Day, tend to simply confirm the idea that barring a misstep leading to a nuclear war, things would have turned out pretty much as they have.

This may be because, by comparison with World War II allohistory, really interesting Cold War allohistory is inherently difficult to write. The nuclear arms build-up relegated the use of force by both superpowers to the edges of the global chessboard, making it hard to pick out decisive moments on the battlefield (at least, after V-E Day).

The wide gap in material resources between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which is even wider when the Western alliance is compared to the Soviet bloc as a whole, is another constraint. The Soviet Union managed to narrow the gap in the 1950s and 1960s, but despite widespread expectations that the Soviets would eventually catch up, never managed to close it. If anything, the facts have been exaggerated by the attitude of contempt which has replaced the earlier paranoia about Soviet capabilities. The intellectual dominance of a simplistic version of neoliberal economic theory only reinforces the tendency to view the Soviets as hopeless blunderers who could not possibly have done better. (There was never such an attitude toward the Nazis, who are generally held to have been competent industrialists, technical wizards and capable warriors, whatever one makes of them morally.)

The result is that, especially after V-E Day and Hiroshima, plausible, significant alterations to the Cold War's timeline dwindle quickly in number, and tend to be a little too obscure for popular taste. For instance, what if rather than leading to a nuclear war as in DuBois' novel, the Cuban Missile Crisis was avoided altogether, denying Stalinist hard-liners the chance to retake power in the Kremlin, permitting the continuation of liberalizing reforms in the Soviet Union after the early 1960s? This line of reasoning would probably go right over the average reader's head, and also have a much more ambiguous outcome than the occupation of the U.S. by Soviet troops (as happened in jingoistic Cold War-era fantasies like the film Red Dawn and the mini-series Amerika, or the pilot episode of Sliders, a rare television foray into this territory).

It may also be that the Cold War's conclusion is still too near a thing. Rosenfeld notes in his book that the early World War II alternate histories were triumphalistic and moralistic in tone, prone to view history in black and white terms, treating the Nazis as a unique evil and flatly validating the Allied conduct of the war (a tendency "Two Dooms" certainly reflected). As writers and readers gained greater distance on the event, they displayed an increasing tendency to relativize, aestheticize and universalize the conflict, whether in taking a more critical approach to the received version of events; seeing it in shades of gray; regarding it as analogous to other events; or treating it as easy material for entertainment.

The present ubiquity of World War-II themed allohistorical fiction is inconceivable without that greater variety of perspective. It may well be the case that we remain too firmly in the post-Cold War's triumphalistic, moralistic phase to do very much with the idea, especially in the United States, where the outcome of the conflict is widely regarded as not only an American victory, but as fully validating the American way of life. However, the recent success of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may suggest that Americans, too, are starting to find the Cold War a quaint enough thing to enjoy stories of the type. The Cold War may never become as popular a genre topic as World War II, but we could still see a lot more stories of alternate Cold Wars in the years ahead, and many of them are likely to be rooted in the events of alternate World War IIs too long ignored.

1. Cyril Kornbluth, "Two Dooms." In Gordon Van Gelder, One Lamp (New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 2003), p. 8.
2. Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism (New York: Cambridge University Press), pp. 100-102.
3. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, "The Third Reich in Alternate History," Journal of Popular Culture 39.5 (2006), p. 879.
4. Ibid., p. 878.
5. Ibid., p. 879.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Lies and Times of Colonel Pyat: Looking Back on Michael Moorcock's Pyat Quartet

By Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in the New York Review of Science Fiction 19.4 (December 2006), p. 22.

Over the last quarter century Michael Moorcock has related the life story of Colonel Maxim "Pyat" Pyatnitski, a minor character from the multiverse of his secret agent Jerry Cornelius. By the time Pyat is "dictating" his tale to Moorcock, shortly before his death in 1977, the colonel is keeping a secondhand clothing shop in Notting Hill, clutching scraps of a nonexistent former glory as he reminisces about Jerry's mother Honoria and bemoans the state of the world.

The Pyat Quartet, which began with Byzantium Endures in 1981, and continued with The Laughter Of Carthage (1984) and Jerusalem Commands (1992), was finally completed earlier this year with The Vengeance Of Rome, the appearance of which was barely noticed in the United States. While Random House published the first two books in the quartet-the first only after censoring it-it was unwilling to release the last two volumes of the tetralogy in the U.S.. Moorcock commented in an interview that Random House, and Alfred A. Knopf (to whom Random House offered the rights), feared a backlash from readers who wouldn't recognize the irony in Pyat's anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic rhetoric.1 Random House, however, declined to comment, and Knopf simply said it was not "appropriate for their list," the kind of uninformative banality usually reserved for form rejection letters to unpublished writers. (My own editions of the last two Pyat books came from Random House's British imprint, Jonathan Cape.)

Pyat's ranting aside, it probably didn't help Moorcock's case that his protagonist is a coke-snorting, anti-Semitic Jewish ex-Klansman and Fascist with a taste for eleven year old girls and Nazi stormtroopers. This is not, however, a simple work of politically incorrect shock. Moorcock's stated goal in writing the Pyat cycle was to "examine how the Holocaust could have been permitted by Western culture." It can of course be argued that no work of art can truly explain the Holocaust or any of the other great calamities of the twentieth century. One can also point out that some of this has been done before, particularly his indictment of technological utopianism, which has Pyat constantly identifying himself with H.G. Wells and American pulp science fiction, terming them sources of inspiration or fellow travelers. In particular there is something of Thomas Pynchon's V. and Gravity's Rainbow here, in Moorcock's protagonist "born coeval with the century" (Pyat was born on January 1, 1900), preoccupied with entropy and flying machines. As in Pynchon the dream of flight is here intertwined with the nightmare of the Holocaust, the tale all but starting with Pyat's childhood flight in a machine of his own making over the gorge of Babi Yar, scene of the infamous massacres in 1941.

Nonetheless, if Pynchon anticipated some of the story elements (just as Philip K. Dick often anticipated Pynchon) this tale is unquestionably Moorcock's own, and certainly the more eloquent. He succeeds in making the life story of an utterly incoherent man supremely readable and the device of the unreliable narrator, which so easily becomes little more than fodder for dry graduate seminar papers, actually the source of much of the fun. This has led to the inevitable comparisons with Harry Flashman and Baron Munchausen - though the deceits here are far more serious stuff. Pyat's strange odyssey across Europe, the Middle East and the United States, by turns harrowing and hilarious as Candide-like he and his friends stumble from horror to horror, is the story of the twentieth century, not just because of its considerable scope, but his particular way of telling the tale. Pyat's moralizing soars highest when his actions are their lowest, his protestations of purity and goodness most insistent when he is at his most repulsive. His endless professions of idealism and sensitivity are impossibly entangled with greedy, egomaniac self-seeking, convoluted bigotry, perversion, and a boundless capacity for hysterical denial, desperate rationalization and pathological lying.

Through the telling and retelling of his story Pyat, the son of a kosher butcher who abandoned his wife and child in the slums of Kiev, becomes a Romanov prince. The civilian huckster who wandered haplessly across the Ukraine and once rode in the back seat of a plane over embattled Odessa becomes a Cossack cavalryman, a World War I flying hero, a colonel in the White Army. The drop-out from the St. Petersburg Polytechnic becomes the youngest professor in its history, and an engineering genius who created every notable invention of the twentieth century, from the jet engine to the microwave oven.

As his friend Kolya tells him in the Gestapo headquarters in Munich, the evidence weighs very heavily against his version of events, but there is always an explanation, his triumphs always snatched away from him at the last moment. The "Violet Ray" that would have saved Kiev from the Bolsheviks and turned the tide of the Russian Civil War is disrupted when the city's power supply gives out. The multitude of flying machines he builds all crash right after take-off, if they get off the ground at all, and the schemes surrounding them always "inexplicably" turn out to be a con on someone else's part, forcing poor Max to run screaming that he is scapegoat and victim. Even the films which testify to his stardom in Hollywood's silent era as the "White Ace" and the "Masked Buckaroo" have all crumbled to dust.

Bad luck, base treachery, and above all, "Carthage" is always to blame-Carthage, the old adversary of Rome and "New Rome," Holy Byzantium. African, Semitic, Oriental Carthage is for Pyat the embodiment of all that's evil in the world, a fantastic, conspiratorial projection of all he imagines stands against his utopia of a triumphant, Christian Russia, liberated Constantinople and flying cities which civilize the world and explore the cosmos. The Jews, the Muslims, the Catholics, the socialists and whoever else Pyat does not like at a given moment are all identified with it, and its presence is felt everywhere as cunning, evil Carthage tugs on the invisible strings controlling the world.

"My past is reinvented for me by liars," Pyat laments when facing an SS interrogator in Dachau who presents him with a less seemly and more plausible version of his personal history, but, especially since the interrogator may well be just in his head, which liars? Whose lies? To what end? Even inside Pyat's telling of the tale he seems to lose his grip, things he had recognized as lies in the second book (like his record of combat against the Reds in the Civil War) appearing even to him to be indisputably true by the fourth.

The denials, rationalizations and delusions add up to a whole history, not just of Pyat but of the world in which he lived, and the lies long survive the reasons for them, the longevity and durability they achieve taken to its logical end in the book's final chapter. After five decades of separation, he meets his mother in London and learns the truth of his heritage, sees that the name on his birth certificate is not Maxim but Moishe-and he automatically concludes that this is all a mistake, that this woman is not his mother, he is not her son, and he walks right out on her, never to see her again. The happy ending that reconciliation could have allowed is defeated by the lies that had built up, making the truth inaccessible, turning the historical record into a self-serving, neurotic obfuscation. It may be as much a comment on the price paid for surviving the century, as the perfidity and delusion of those who made that century.

1. "Moorcock Blasts U.S. Publisher," Scifi Wire, 2 Mar. 2006.
Accessed at,
Oct. 27, 2006.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

About This Blog

Raritania is, of course, my (Nader Elhefnawy's) personal blog.

As it happens, though, it is just one of two such blogs I have online. This one is more culture-oriented, with rather a heavy slant toward sci-fi, while the other is devoted to my interests in the subjects of international affairs, security and space.

Comments Policy
Reader comments are welcome, but they are moderated. Where these are concerned I reserve the right not to post and/or delete any comment for reasons including but not necessarily limited to their looking like spam (typically a result of the comment's vagueness, inclusion of suspect links, etc.), or their being of an abusive or incoherent nature. (The final judgment about these matters, of course, rests with me.)

Accordingly, while I endeavor to post such comments as are consistent with these necessary rules as quickly as possible, and to respond to every one of them as quickly as possible, it may take some time for comments to go up, and still longer for me to respond to me.

Your patience and understanding in the meantime are appreciated, and I look forward to your feedback.

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Should the reader need to contact me in a manner other than leaving a comment, they can e-mail me at Raritania01 @

Alternatively they can use the Contact Form on the right side of the page.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television: Looking Back at SFTV During the Long 1990s

By Nader Elhefnawy


The decade or so beginning in 1993 has been described by many over the years as a "golden age" for North American science fiction television (broadly defined). True, those years certainly did not mark the first appearance of the genre in that medium, which goes back all the way back to television’s roots with Captain Video. In the years that followed, anthology series like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, space operas like Lost in Space, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, sitcoms like The Jetsons and My Favorite Martian, paranormal-themed shows like the soap opera Dark Shadows and the wryly comic Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the cyberpunk series Max Headroom, and the time-jumping drama Quantum Leap, among others, won legions of fans, influenced later production and in general left lasting marks on pop culture. And of course, there were plenty of innovative imports from abroad, particularly Japanese anime from Astro Boy on, and British production like Dr. Who, The Avengers, Thunderbirds, The Prisoner, Red Dwarf, and of course, Blake's 7 (little seen and known here in the States, but hailed by many as the Ur-story to every un-Star Trek and anti-Star Trek out there).

Nonetheless, the sheer volume of U.S. and Canadian production concentrated in the 1990s was staggering, much of it dross but some of it certainly of high quality. More importantly, a good deal of it built on what came before, further developing old concepts or moving in previously unexplored or rarely explored directions. Whatever one chooses to label it, it was an active and fertile period, and it is well worth taking a "big picture" look at it. This article explores the decade’s output, examining some of the circumstances that fostered it, the patterns it followed, and the product that came out of it, which defined genre television as it is today and likely will remain for some time to come.

The Rise (and Decline) of the Syndication and Cable Market

The resurgence of science fiction on television was notably not driven by the interest of the major American networks, least of all the Big Three (ABC, NBC and CBS) or the Big Four (the Big Three, plus FOX), though they did make some noteworthy efforts, especially FOX. (That channel, after all, was home to the long-running X-Files, Sliders, Dark Angel and the short-lived cult hit Firefly.)

In fact, the two "upstart" networks that appeared in the middle of the decade--Warner Brothers (WB) and the United Paramount Network (UPN) played a bigger part. Much of the WB's most successful programming was in the fantasy genre, mostly youth-oriented, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel, and the eight-season Charmed. UPN appeared, for a time, to be defining itself as a science fiction channel of sorts, not only with its two new Star Trek series (Voyager and Enterprise), but original shows like Seven Days, its taking over of many genre cast-offs from the WB (like Roswell, or Buffy) and a heavy investment in made-for-TV movies like The Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy and the three Chameleon movies.

Even more than on those networks, however, the boom was most evident in the market for first-run syndicated dramatic series of this type (which Star Trek: The Next Generation helped kick-start); and the rising level of production of original material for cable, particularly the Showtime network and the Sci-Fi Channel. Back in the fall of 2000, for instance, the WB affiliate in my area (channel 39) ran a solid ten hour block of syndicated science fiction and fantasy shows (including Xena: Warrior Princess, Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda) Saturday noon to ten P.M., and this by no means exhausted the content, other shows running in different time slots, and on other stations.

Meanwhile, from the mid-1990s on Showtime produced a number of notable science fiction and fantasy shows, including the revival of The Outer Limits, the long-running Stargate SG-1 and the miniseries Tales From a Parallel Universe (also known as Lexx: The Dark Zone). The Sci-Fi Channel, which would eventually pick up all three of these, also made a contribution of its own as the home of first-run shows like Farscape and The Invisible Man.

This situation did not continue, of course. The UPN and WB--which changed their profiles years ago--no longer even exist, merged instead in the CW, which still produces WB carry-overs Smallville and Supernatural, and introduced Reaper in the fall of 2007, but is less closely identified with such material than before. The number of syndicated science fiction series has contracted even more dramatically, reruns of the two Stargate series all that remains of the once-mighty Saturday programming block in my area. Showtime largely abandoned science fiction, opting to follow a path more like the one charted out by HBO with The Sopranos and Sex and the City. On Sci-Fi the Stargate franchise seems to be winding down, with the original series canceled last year and the spin-off Atlantis going into its fifth season; Battlestar Galactica, too, is in its last season. More recent Sci-Fi productions, like Painkiller Jane and Flash Gordon, have not generated the same excitement, with both unceremoniously dumped after the first season.

Surprisingly, this returns the initiative to the big networks, which have taken more of an interest in such series after the success of Lost, which was hyped as if creator J.J. Abrams had only just invented the story arc. (This had of course been a staple of science fiction television through the 1990s.) This helped to inspire a renewal of interest among the networks in one-hour dramas, many of which contain a speculative element, like last season's Heroes and Jericho, and this past season's Bionic Woman and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

However, the enthusiasm may be fading with the inevitable flops piling up. (Jericho, notably, has been twice canceled at the time of this writing, and Bionic Woman will not be returning for the fall 2008 season.) Besides, there is virtually no prospect of media executives abandoning their nauseating love affair with game shows, reality shows and other cheap, "unscripted," mind-numbing programming, which is by no means confined to the major networks. (Indeed, even the Sci-Fi Channel, the very name of which ought to preclude reality shows from its line-up, produces plenty of them, like Ghost Hunters and Who Wants to be a Superhero?) The 2007-8 Writers' Guild of America Strike, which disrupted the production schedules of many of these shows last year, will likely reinforce this.

It should also be noted that there are certain places the networks will rarely go creatively. There is, after all, a nineteenth century "realist" prejudice among many of the critics and much of the audience which manifests itself in the outlook that anything not recognizably a part of daily life diminishes the drama, and the assumption that fiction with ideas must be bad fiction. Besides that, old stereotypes about speculative fiction in its televised form as hopelessly mired in Golden Age and pulp adventure clichés somehow persist.

Not surprisingly shows with a "softer" speculative element tend to be an easier sell. By that I do not mean science fiction using the soft rather than hard sciences, but science fiction which doesn't look the part (meaning that exotic settings and characters, advanced technology and spectacular action are all downplayed), or at least looks it only intermittently, like Quantum Leap or The X-Files--or better still, supernatural dramas like Medium or Ghost Whisperer.

This being the case it doesn't strike me as unreasonable to say that the "Golden Age" is over. I do not mean by this that we are looking at the end of science fiction on television, or that this output will not be outdone someday, but that for the foreseeable future fans of science fiction television, particularly the harder variety, will be looking at leaner times--and that we probably have enough distance on the whole thing to take a good look at what did come of a relatively fertile period.

The Stars My Destination: The Return of the Space Opera to Television
While the '90s is remembered as the decade of the "tech boom," Microsoft, the Internet and Y2K, a time in which cyberspace decisively trumped outer space, the picture was reversed in our entertainment. There was, to be sure, a considerable output of computer-themed film and television during those years. In any such rush to capitalize on a trend, of course, there is naturally going to be a great deal of mediocrity--but exceptions to that mediocrity are surprisingly few, and virtually none of these were on television. (Anyone remember the television spin-off to The Net, or Level 9?)

Instead it was the resurgence in production about that most classic science fiction milieu of all, space, which dominated the screens in that decade, and arguably space-themed shows were at the very center of the "golden age" of science fiction television that began in the middle of it.

The major networks were particularly absent here. CBS's sole, weak effort was the short-lived Space Rangers. FOX took a couple of shots with Space: Above and Beyond and the cult sensation Firefly, NBC one of its own with Earth 2 (though one might also see something of the kind in Seaquest, which played like an underwater Star Trek in an era of ocean colonization of the kind much talked about in the 1970s).

This is not all that surprising, given the especially unhappy history of that part of the genre on television. Even Star Trek didn't live out to the end of its anticipated "five-year mission," and it has been a very long time since a space-themed series was renewed after its second season on one of the Big Four--or even a first.

Economics seems to be the main reason. Based on the genre's share of book sales, film receipts and television ratings, my guess is that the core audience for that kind of programming is 10-15 million in the U.S., too small a pie for even a big slice of it to sustain a network show in prime time. However, the abundance of syndicated and cable programming, which can get by with smaller audiences, widened the possibilities there to allow for a prodigious output. Even excluding shows that failed to get a second season like Earth 2, Space: Above and Beyond and Mercy Point; Earthbound alien stories with only an occasional foray off-world like Earth: Final Conflict; and animated programming like Tripping the Rift; there were frequently five space-themed shows in their first run at any given time. (In the fall of 2000, for instance, there was Star Trek: Voyager, Stargate: SG-1, Farscape, Andromeda and Lexx for fans to choose from. Starhunter, which only reached my area two years later, also premiered in Canada that November.)

Moreover, the product itself made the denigrating clichés widely believed about "media" science fiction utterly untenable after this time (however much general audiences continue to believe them). J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5, for instance, may have featured starships and laser guns in a tale of galactic war, but its future was definitely not "The Future" of Gernsback and Campbell. Alfred Bester was more like it, so much so that homage was paid him in a recurring character, a Demolished Man-style "Psi Corps" agent named, of all things, Alfred Bester--though along with a feel for the dark, bleak underbelly of tomorrowland there was a strong sense of epic romance. (Tolkien was just as evident as Bester, along with a multitude of other literary, cinematic and philosophical influences.) Thanks in part to the intelligence and literacy of the execution, this seemingly incongruous mix worked surprisingly well on an episodic level. Along with the meticulously constructed five-season arc that truly felt like a single story (so that the narrative was exceptionally coherent, the pace breathtakingly fast at times, and the big plot twists packed real punch), it did a great deal to realize its creator's goal of a television science fiction novel for adults.

While Straczynski brought something of Bester's image of the future to the screen, North American television got its first truly New Wave science fiction show in Lexx--and I mean that in the best, broadest possible sense. This saga of "losers in space" could be wildly uneven, as its own writers testify, but it was unquestionably quirky, playful and experimental, and moved deftly between the blackest black comedy and the most soaring romanticism--and often succeeded brilliantly on both those levels.

Where the wonderful weirdness of Lexx seemed evident from the first shot, many of the other big shows of the period looked rather clichéd at first glance--Farscape, Firefly, the new Battlestar Galactica. Farscape, after all, started off with the familiar premise of a conventionally rugged astronaut-type (John Crichton) testing a new space vehicle and finding himself all at once very far from home. Moreover, quite a few of the episodes fell back on very well-worn ideas. (In "Out of Their Minds," characters switched bodies; in "I Shrink Therefore I Am," they get shrunk down to tiny size by their enemies; they even get stuck in video games. And there was not always the excuse that the writers were "subverting the cliche." Often, it was just plain cliché.) However, the show got considerably more interesting as it progressed, developing a sophisticated and engaging story arc about trying to "uninvent the Bomb" on the eve of a galactic war. The core group of characters was interesting, the visual aesthetic distinctive, the multi-part season finales consistently dramatic and spectacular, and The Peacekeeper Wars miniseries offered a conclusion the creators could be proud of.

Joss Whedon's Firefly may have seemed even less promising, playing into the biggest space opera cliché of all--space adventure stories as westerns with the horses traded for rocket ships and six-shooters for futuristic firepower. Far from retreating from it, the show embraced the idea more completely than anyone might have anticipated, and the results proved strong enough that Orson Scott Card cited it as proof that even this brand of television science fiction had finally become "every bit as good as anything in print."

The last and perhaps biggest of these surprises was the new Battlestar Galactica, this being a remake of a 1970s television series that was a cynical attempt to cash in on the post-Star Wars science fiction craze the first time around. Beginning as a four-hour miniseries and "stealth pilot" on the Sci-Fi Channel in December 2003, the show started to air regularly from January 2005 on, and quickly won a great deal of respect from critics (even if it was largely ignored by the mainstream audience the producers hoped to win over).

The praise was excessive in my view. The writing was often silly, sensationalist, muddled and inconsistent (especially in its running post-Nine-Eleven commentary), its gimmicks more derivative than casual viewers of science fiction generally appreciated, and the theory of "naturalistic" science fiction touted by the writers really much ado about nothing. However, the cast was impressive, the attention to character considerable, the technical craftsmanship the genre's gold standard (not just the special effects, but the photography, editing and sound, often of feature film quality), and even if it couldn’t always live up to it, the ambition was certainly there, which helped give the show more than its share of truly tense moments.

While less appreciated in this regard, even the new Star Trek series were no exception to this new direction, all of them considerably more polished and sophisticated than the original series, with 1993's Deep Space Nine the stand-out. Benefiting from the most interesting group of characters assembled for any of the five series, it also featured the sharpest satire (much of it centered on Ferengi barkeep Quark), and thanks to the Dominion War, much of the richest and most exciting drama in the Star Trek franchise's history. The series also managed to retain its distinctiveness despite the similarity of its premise to the contemporaneous Babylon 5.

The Truth Is Out There?
Humans weren't always going out into space to meet aliens during these years, the aliens often coming to them. It was certainly so in science fiction television's biggest mainstream success during the decade, The X-Files. It ran a full nine seasons on FOX and often commanded ten percent of the viewing audience in its time slot during its run, as well as spawning numerous spin-offs--including two television series and a series of feature films, the second of which has just started shooting. It also garnered an impressive sixty-one Emmy nominations, including over a dozen for writing, acting and overall production, as well as in the technical categories to which such shows are usually limited.

The show's broader interest in the paranormal would (along with the appearance of the vampire drama Forever Knight the same year) prefigure later hits like Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It would also epitomize the fascination with conspiracy theories about extraterrestrials in many of the television shows which followed.

Cultural history suggests that the popularity of this idea during the decade, while not unprecedented (The X-Files had precursors in shows like The Twilight Zone, Kolchak The Night Stalker and Tales From the Darkside), was also not accidental. As Tom Engelhardt notes in his recently reissued study The End of Victory Culture, UFO buffs were perhaps the only group openly critical of the government during the Cold War which managed to escape being stigmatized as unpatriotic or traitorous--arguably, making the interest in aliens the safest way for Americans to express mistrust of the establishment. (Such mistrust, notably, was more evident in the mainstream than usual in the 1990s, amid all the talk of a New World Order and black helicopters on the political right.)

As Engelhardt also notes, the notion of real-world "enemyness" had become increasingly problematic, even before the conclusion of the Cold War. Additionally, even where people could and did buy into it, the "rogue states," terrorists and potential Hitlers of rickety or rising superpowers simply couldn't fill the niche that the disappearance of the Soviet Union opened up, as evidenced by the weakness of the spy (and "spy-fi") genre from that time on. The villains tended to be vaguely defined, and the shows often compensated for it by devoting enormous time to bureaucratic politics. The Orwellian torturefest La Femme Nikita--created by Joel Surnow, the man who later brought you 24--is a case in point. (With opponents like "Red Cell," it played like a Cold War story twenty years out of date.)

One result was that tales of action and suspense commonly sought their villains elsewhere. Some found it in the prospect of the technological Singularity, with the Enemy typically a small, secretive group intent on controlling the evolution of the species--as in ABC's short-lived Strange World, or "Chrysalis" in the Sci-Fi Channel series The Invisible Man. However, extraterrestrials were the preferred source of threat, whether real or merely perceived. This was the case not only with shows like Dark Skies, or the Sci-Fi Channel's mammoth, big-budget miniseries Taken in 2002 (which had very similar premises in their accent on the Roswell mythology), but First Wave and Earth: Final Conflict.

The result was a mixed bag, including The X-Files itself, which inspired and helped make possible so many of these others. While it did follow a larger arc, that arc's progress was the polar opposite of Babylon 5's, torturously slow and circuitous for my taste when I watched the first run. The vast majority of the episodes, consequently, were one-shots with no bearing on that mythology, tending toward "monster of the week" bits, and that there was always a monster under the bed after all made Dana Scully's pose of "scientific skepticism" quickly grow tiresome from a narrative standpoint.

However, the show was crisp and stylish, and it had its fair share of strong scripts (some contributed by writers like Stephen King and William Gibson). While frequently spinning its wheels with regard to the bigger story, its fictional universe offered plenty of wrinkles well worth examining in the lives of recurring characters, and its sense of humor helped it get by. (The wry "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" was certainly one of my favorites.) The show also touched on numerous difficult, real-world issues with intelligence, all the way down to the series finale, "The Truth," in which Fox Mulder was dragged before a post-9/11 military tribunal.

At the other end of the spectrum, conspiracy theory-wise, was Earth: Final Conflict. Based on a concept Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had been working out prior to the celluloid resurrection of that series in the late 1970s (in fact, he gets the script credit for the first episode), there was never any question that the aliens were here, the Taelons having arrived very publicly. Moreover, they were universally welcomed, in part because that much more advanced race freely bestowed the benefits of its technology on a beleaguered humanity, eliminating evils like pollution, hunger, disease and even war.

The real question, however, was why they were here, and the show centered on the efforts of members of an underground movement trying to find out exactly that. The double-lives the resistance members led working undercover among the Taelons, the enmeshing of human and alien activity while the alien presence increasingly comes to smack of foreign occupation, the intrigue on every side and the possibility that despite all the subterfuge and skullduggery human and Taelon interests might not have been neatly separable after all, made for a strong, complex premise.

The first season of the show proved to be exceptionally taut and intelligent, and while the quality of the show did not remain quite so consistent, it remained compelling as it worked out the core story in the following three seasons. Season five, by contrast, would see the content and tone of the series shift to vampire-hunting vigilantism, with the "Atavus" taking the place of more traditional blood-suckers. Some Internet wags would even joke that Earth: Final Conflict in its last season might have been more aptly named Renee the Atavus Slayer.

A Semester of Buffy Studies
While less remarked upon, but perhaps appreciated by an even broader audience, the upsurge in science fiction was attended by an upsurge in fantasy as well, far beyond the occasional fantastic or paranormal elements in shows like those discussed above. Just as Star Trek: The Next Generation helped get the ball rolling for syndicated programming, so did the Sam Raimi-produced Hercules: The Legendary Journeys play its role. It was not the first successful syndicated period fantasy show at this time (the Highlander series preceded it), but starting with its first appearance of the Action Pak series of made-for-television movies, it ran for six seasons and led to a profusion of such shows, including new takes on figures like Robin Hood, Sinbad, Robert Howard's Conan and Andre Norton's Beastmaster--and of course, Hercules's even more successful spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess. (There were also a number of period science fiction series, including Raimi's own Jack of All Trades, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and Gavin Scott's The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, but on the whole these had a lower profile.)

Where many of the space-themed shows and programs styled after The X-Files were celebrated as taking the genre to another level in this medium, few made such claims for these shows. The 1999-2002 Beastmaster series contained some interesting bits about the collision of Stone and Bronze Age cultures, and Xena displayed some narrative ambition in its extended story arc about the demise of the Olympian gods, but for the most part they were conceived as, and received as, light, fast-paced, easy viewing.

Xena's iconic status, notably, had less to do with any ideas, properly speaking, than the gender of its protagonist. That the show featured a female action hero was not as revolutionary as the hype had it, such having been common from the 1970s on, when Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels and The Bionic Woman first appeared--and it is worth noting that a woman took the captain's chair on Star Trek: Voyager a year before Xena's run began. (One can more accurately point to Xena's sexuality as such a "first," given the lesbian "subtext" widely read into the relationship between the protagonist and her sidekick Gabrielle, increasingly acknowledged by the writers during the show's run, which also played its role in making Xena an icon.)

Nonetheless, it played a part in the upsurge in the number of such heroines from the mid-1990s on. Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the most prominent of these, and perhaps more significant since even if the show was by this point following an established pattern in having a female lead, it did play a bigger part than Xena in redefining those heroines (Xena's most distinguishing characteristics--her formidable physical presence, and her sexuality--finding few imitators). Unlike many of her predecessors, Xena included, Buffy was not a mature, sophisticated adult, but a high school student who at least in her original cinematic incarnation had been something of a "Valley Girl" caricature. Other shows would similarly present younger, less sophisticated heroines, like Dark Angel, or 2007's reimagined Bionic Woman. Not unrelated was the increasing tendency to use science fiction and fantasy as a platform for adolescent soap opera, as with Roswell, Smallville, Birds of Prey--and much later on, the story of Claire Bennett in Heroes.

The larger world created in the process of spinning the feature film out into a television series has itself been the object of enormous interest, not only spawning a successful spin-off--Angel, which ran for five seasons--but a Star Trek-like explosion of guides, trivia books and pop criticism, and an "expanded Buffyverse" receiving the multimedia treatment. The continuation of the two series in straight-to-video format never materialized (virtually none of these schemes having worked out for any show), but at the time of this writing "Season Eight" is being issued in comic book format from Dark Horse, with creator Joss Whedon and other show writers actively participating.

That fan interest in the Buffyverse, notably, has been reflected in the show's impact on academia, which matched the guides for the general audience with an explosion of papers, articles, books and even courses on the subject collectively referred to as "Buffy Studies." A keyword search of the Modern Language Association database for Buffy the Vampire Slayer produces a list of eighty-nine items related to that show, likely a conservative estimate since the word "Buffy" turns up in plenty of vampire-related items not on the list. By contrast, there are seventy-five items for the older and more widely seen X-Files, twenty-one for Babylon 5, and despite its intrinsic interest for women's studies, a mere fifteen for Xena. (Incidentally, Farscape turns up four, and Lexx, zero.)

The Future of the Future
After all that it may seem there is no place left to go, so that even if the market hadn't changed, science fiction television would today just be spinning its wheels, and there is probably some truth to this. One reason is the inherent limitations of the medium, particularly the need to quickly engage a large audience. A short story in even a science fiction magazine paying its writers at "professional" rates can be published to be read by thousands, once. However, a television show done on even a shoestring budget must, in its first thirty or sixty minutes, engage millions sufficiently to keep them coming back, week in, week out, and do that for many years.

This makes anything too weird for an audience that size a risk, however much hardcore fans may crave it, which is likely why extraterrestrial species very different from humans, or futures very different from our present--rare even in print science fiction--remain even rarer here. (J. Michael Straczynski, for instance, has stated that audience reaction to the Babylon 5 pilot, "The Gathering," led him to downplay such exoticism in his series.) Of course, one can reasonably ask whether a drama based on a culture truly alien to our own could remain watchable for very long--let alone a hundred episodes. However, that episodic format also lets the Suits keep creative teams on short leashes, deterring that kind of risk-taking. (It is also why no network show is likely ever to have an arc as lengthy and carefully crafted as Babylon 5's.)

Of course, it is worth remembering that the economics of television, its tendency toward shows which run for scores of hours, offers opportunity as well as limitation, in particular the scope to develop characters, plots and fictional universes, as many of the best series have already demonstrated, and as many series no doubt will go on to do in the future. That affords some reason to hope writers will continue pushing the envelope, though.

It may also be noted that some of the ideas we have yet to see on the small screen are of a surprisingly obvious kind. North American television has generally given short shrift to sword and sorcery-style fantasy, high and low, and so has yet to offer a really sophisticated sword-and-sorcery saga.

Additionally the possibilities of animation--which are far less constrained than live-action programming by television's budgetary limitations--have generally been ignored in the United States. Animation aimed at adults may be reaching a wider audience there than ever before, but it rarely dares to be more than a tweaked variant of familiar family viewing. South Park, for instance, concerns the adventures of four small-town eight year-olds--but loads these adventures with irony, parody, cultural references that go over young viewers' heads, and plenty of scatological, sexual and political humor. The Simpsons, Family Guy and even American Dad do the same with the family sitcom. American animation has yet to make a serious attempt at something like Ghost in the Shell--let alone Grave of the Fireflies.

Of course, it's not clear that American television is on the verge of realizing any of these possibilities (though some fans are no doubt hoping that the upcoming HBO series based on George R.R. Martin's "Song of Fire and Ice" saga will do for the small screen what Lord of the Rings did for the big one). Nonetheless, the stumbling block is less the availability of ideas than the willingness of those who command the airwaves to try something new.

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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