Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 12, 2005


I was predisposed to like Jack McDevitt’s Polaris for several reasons:

1. it is a historical mystery, the type of mystery I much prefer to the detective-solves-crime type, featuring the same characters as his earlier mystery A Talent For War which I enjoyed tremendously;
2. McDevitt’s novels are seeped in future history, probably moreso than any sf writer other than Robert Silverberg;
3. I have grown so tired of all the near-future, contemporary, slipstream, borderline f&sf that have taken over the genre since the Cyberpunk days of the 1980s, while future history has somewhat languished;
4. Jack McDevitt is probably the finest pure storyteller currently writing in the genre.

McDevitt did not disappoint me. Alex Benedict is an antiquities dealer who, along with his associate Chase Kolpath, is trying to obtain artifacts from the famous Polaris mystery of sixty years earlier. That was a small spacecraft whose six passengers were examining the destruction of a star being destroyed as a dwarf passed directly through it. But when the Polaris was supposed to leave the system, it remained behind, totally out of communication with other vessels. When a rescue ship arrived, it found the Polaris totally devoid of life. Its lifeboat and spacesuits were still intact, but it resembled the famous ocean liner Mary Celeste in that its passengers had seemingly vanished in thin air.

In the sixty years since, the Polaris has become a legend, and the fact that many of its relics are being released to the public for the first time drives their potential profits spiraling upward. When a failed assassination attempt of a despotic ruler accidentally destroys nearly all the relics except those already in Benedict’s possession, it seems like a financial windfall to him.

Except somebody starts trying to obtain all those relics, some legally from those who have already bought them from Benedict, others illegally by breaking-and-entering. Naturally this peaks Benedict and Chase’s curiosity, so they begin researching the Polaris. One of the novel’s highlights is Chase’s visit to a Polaris Society convention, which resembles a truly-skewed science fiction convention.

Then McDevitt ups the ante when somebody apparently gets nervous at Benedict and Chase’s activities and tries to kill them, not once but twice. By which time they have gathered enough information that begins to lead them toward a solution to the entire Polaris mystery.

This book is great storytelling that appeals to me even more because it is so seeped in future history. Not only are the events surrounding the disappearance of the Polaris fascinating, but we learn tidbits about McDevitt’s Confederation, including outstations which are relics of the pre-lightspeed space travel, Mutes which are the only alien race encountered so far, and various human cultures such as the Kang who at one time were a galactic power. This combination of future and history is one of the reasons I fell in love with science fiction, and why authors such as Silverberg and McDevitt are among my personal favorite writers.

I already have 5 Jack McDevitt books in my collection, and enjoyed them all because of their combination of storytelling and history. I think the time has come for me to complete my McDevitt collection.


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