Visions of Paradise

Thursday, November 23, 2006


It would be almost unfair for me to review Jack McDevitt’s Seeker without expressing how predisposed I was to enjoy this book. I absolutely love historical novels, especially those set in the far-future whose history they explore is actually our future rather than our past, Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings and Alastair Reynolds’ Conjoiner-Inhibitor series being examples. I also enjoy historical mysteries, by which I do not mean crime mysteries set in historical times (such as Brother Cadfael and all his imitators in Egypt/Rome/the Middle Ages, etc.), but stories of historians or anthropologists or archaeologists trying to uncover the secrets behind some historical mystery/legend/whatever. The prototype of this would be Josephine Tey’s classic Daughter of Time and, well, the first two series in Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series, A Talent for War and Polaris.

In my review of Polaris (VoP #104), I said...

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. anything less than a positive review of this novel would be the equivalent of a scathing review. But that’s not going to happen. Seeker is even better than Polaris. It begins simply when a client brings an antique cup to antiquities dealers Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath (the latter is the narrator of all the books in the series). They discover it was from the famous missing spaceship Seeker which carried hundreds of rich malcontents unhappy with Earth’s restrictive government to a distant colony which “even God couldn’t find.” And for nine thousand years, nobody has found it, so that common perception is the colony is a legend which does not actually exist.

Seeker begins with Benedict and Chase’s attempts to find the spaceship and, when they do (which is not a spoiler since it occurs fairly early in the book), their subsequent attempts to find the legendary colony of Margolia. One of the book’s highlights, perhaps the highlight, was Chase’s visit to the homeworld of the Mutes, the only alien race so far discovered by humans. McDevitt gives a very thought-provoking look at how difficult it is to co-exist with being so different from oneself. Consider the following paragraph:

Another aspect of spending time with the Mutes is that they don’t talk. You’re in a room with more than twenty people, and they’re all sitting quietly looking at one another. And nobody is saying anything.

Or the following sequence when Chase communicates with a Mute through passing a notebook back and forth (Frank is her name for the Mute, not his personal designation for himself):

I asked Frank whether it wasn’t distracting to be constantly experiencing a flow of thought and emotions from others.

“I can’t imagine life without it,” he explained. “I’d be cut off.” His red eyes focused on me. “Don’t you feel isolated? Alone?”

And later...

“We can’t hide from what we think,” Frank told me on the second day. “Or what we feel. And we know that. My understanding is that humans aren’t always honest, even with themselves. I don’t understand how that could be, but it’s a fascinating concept.

The novel actually contains a series of mysteries, with the discovery of Seeker leading to the search for Margolia which leads to another mystery which I should not reveal. There is a minimal amount of skullduggery as a group opposed to what they consider robbing the past tries to stop Benedict and Chase’s efforts. That was probably unnecessary to the book, but I guess mystery writers cannot resist a bit of the thriller. Alastair Reynolds fell prey to the same weakness in his series, and they were generally the weakest parts of his books as well.

The wonder of exploration and discovery permeateSeeker, as does future history. And its ending is one of those “stand up and cheer” moments which would play so well if this were a movie (which I hope it never becomes, since a filmmaker is sure to play up the skullduggery at the expense of the more thoughtful mysteries). It has almost everything I enjoy in far-future science fiction with the exception of outstanding characterization. Considering the book’s numerous other strengths, I really did not miss that aspect at all. I will end this review by editing a bit the same statement with which I ended my review of Polaris:

I already have 6 Jack McDevitt books in my collection, and enjoyed them all because of their combination of storytelling and history. I think the time has come to complete my McDevitt collection.


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