RogerBW's Blog

Coming Home, Jack McDevitt 12 October 2015

2014 science fiction, seventh in the Alex Benedict series that began with A Talent for War. Alex Benedict the relic-dealer and Chase Kolpath the pilot go hunting for the last cache of artefacts from Earth's early space age.

I loved A Talent for War. It was the first of McDevitt's books that I read, and for me was revolutionary: a heroic engineer story in form, but instead of engineering the useful discipline is historical research.

That book was kicked off by the disappearance of Alex Benedict's uncle Gabe, when the liner on which he was travelling vanished in hyperspace. In the previous book of this series, Firebird, we learned the details of what had happened. Now we have the possibility of rescue.

So this book has very much a feeling of completion: Gabe's vanishing started all this off, and his possible return ends it. I don't know whether McDevitt's planning to write more in this world, but this feels like the end of a series.

There's a distressing tendency for McDevitt to make digs at his younger self, such as what was obviously an invention for the purposes of plot that he's had to live with since:

This whole thing with avatars has always puzzled me. Why people would want to get simulacra of themselves onto the net, or, worse, why we'd want to sit and talk with people we once loved who were no longer really there, just seems crazy. They have some value for people conducting an investigation, but other than that, the whole process seems counterproductive.

He's also talking more about writing: not only is Chase Kolpath, the narrator, writing up and publishing memoirs of her previous adventures, but the Academy series is formally placed as fiction within this book's universe. It feels a bit self-indulgent at times, especially in a world where most media from before the Dark Age have been lost.

Yeah, the Dark Age. In A Talent for War, while Earth was noted as being involved in the war against the Mutes, recognisable Earth history was a very long time ago and a long way away. But this book is all about Earth, and how the Golden Age (now and for the next few hundred years) was followed by the Dark Age, and the most important thing EVAR was getting off the planet for the first time. Yes, McDevitt's plugging his space boosterism again, and the gobs of message aren't made any more palatable by being something with which I basically agree.

As for the loss of media, apparently when the Internet suddenly shut down:

The vast majority of books, histories, classic novels, philosophical texts, were simply gone. Most of the world's poetry vanished. Glimpses of Shelley and Housman and Schneider survived only in ancient love letters or diaries. Their work doesn't exist anymore. Just like almost every novel written before the thirty-eighth century. We hear references to the humor of James Thurber, but we have nothing to demonstrate it.

...

There'd been internets on the colonial worlds, but unfortunately they were all in their early years and the titles they carried tended to be largely limited to local novels.

Come on, guys. If I were going to a colony world tomorrow I could carry all the classics of human literature in a backpack, with mere twenty-first century technology; or a more select lot on my laptop. (My own etext collection, which has lots of duplications in different formats, is a mere eleven gigs.) And really, no printed copy of Shelley survived? In private collections in vaults, in libraries that weren't worth looting, somewhere? This isn't the loss of Roman literature where there may only have been single-digit numbers of copies of things even before the barbarians came, but that's the way McDevitt plays it.

There's talk later about gradually retrieving data off the internets of colony worlds, which is slow work because they have to be visited, but it seems to me that if you're already broadcasting news across interstellar distances you could occasionally put in a small ad saying "Wanted: Works of Shakespeare: Reward". (Only six plays survive!)

That whole conceit was what caused me to put the book down and shout "no", but I did pick it up again. The A plot is a treasure hunt, as this series has generally provided in the past: this time a very early model of hyperspace radio has been discovered in the effects of an amateur archaeologist after his death. It's a major find: why didn't he talk about it when he was still alive? And where did it come from? Those who've read earlier books will recognise that there will be a Shocking Twist about the origin of the artefact which explains the conspiracy of silence (I wrote this before I'd finished the book), but most of the investigation consists of talking to people and receiving just barely enough clues to get one step further along the trail. It's not badly done, but it is the sort of thing we've seen before. The conclusion is somewhat down-beat, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The B plot is the Theme, framed as a choice between boring safety and risk with the chance of great gain (and lots of other situations in the book, present and past, echo that choice). The specific decision to be made here is whether, when that lost interstellar ship briefly reappears in real space, the rescuers should try to get out the relatively few people they can manage before it disappears again (and rescue the rest in five years' time, which for them will have been only a day or so), or try to turn off the drive and recover the whole ship at once. This is presented as a risky experiment versus a slow-but-sure safe thing, but of course it's not, because the hyperspace vanishing phenomenon is poorly understood at best and leaving people aboard the ship for the next reappearance isn't the guaranteed safe option that the theme needs it to be; in the end it's just a balance of risks, but nobody here thinks of saying "nothing is ever 100% safe and life is simply a game of playing the odds".

Characterisation is a bit odd. Chase and Alex are good friends and have been lovers before, but it's not at all clear what their relationship is at the start of this book; Alex apologises for looking at an attractive stranger and casually addresses Chase as "Beautiful", but they're both happy to go off with other people when the opportunity arises. I don't think McDevitt is really interested in writing about people.

It's perhaps a little unfortunate that the bands of looters during the Dark Age are uniformly described as "thugs", with no elaboration; I gather that has been adopted as a racist trigger-word in the USA these days.

This is not a bad book, certainly not a dispiriting exercise in turning the crank like Starhawk, but it's a faded echo of the better entries in this series. If you haven't read the others, read them first, and come back here if you want more.

Recommended by Ashley R. Pollard.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 04:58pm on 13 October 2015

    I thought that the 'safe' thing was an interesting observation about he changes we're seeing in how people assess risk.

    As for the lost works; I point you at the recent loss of a Dr Who episode – after all the book is set 9000 years in the future and loss from format changes is not exactly a new thing, Apollo engine designs for example.

    Culture IMO is far more frangible over such periods of time down to the impermanence of any man-made record.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:17am on 14 October 2015

    Well, I can hardly search for "lost Doctor Who episode" and expect to find that... but I bet this is a transmission-master copy, and the episode itself still exists in some form usable for viewing.

    I'll agree that if there are only single or few copies of things, they can go, no problem at all. But how many paper copies of the complete works of Shakespeare are out there? Millions, surely. (The Horse Whisperer sold fifteen million.) OK, that's a heavy book. But an electronic version of the complete Shakespeare is only a few megabytes, and you're telling me nobody who survived all the upheavals and fighting thought enough of him to take along a copy, maybe cached in a tiny corner of their phone or ebook reader? Sorry, this just completely breaks my suspension of disbelief.

    The only thing that could prevent pervasive electronic copies would be if copyright got even worse, took the material out of the public domain and actively enforced that.

    If it didn't break the flow for you, that's great, but for me it's an unfortunate wrong note in what was otherwise an enjoyable book.

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