Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Infinity Beach

I had a four-day weekend recently, so I decided to indulge myself in one of my very favorite authors, Jack McDevitt. While Infinity Beach is not part of his Alex Benedict series, it is still a far-future sf mystery will all the ingredients which push my entertainment buttons:

• the mystery is basically historical in nature, although while the Alex Benedict stories involve mysteries hundreds of years old, this one is only two decades in the past, but solving the mystery requires the same type of historical research as McDevitt’s other novels;

• the far-future setting is fascinating enough to be wondrous without being so intentionally cutting-edge as to be slightly offsetting in its strangeness; for me, at least, too much deliberate strangeness interferes with my ability to relate to the book’s main characters and their world;

• there is almost a total lack of action/adventure, nor any thriller aspect, so that the mystery’s thrills all come from its thoughtfulness;

• I love sf stories based on passionate people, whether artists or scientists; Infinity Beach concerns space exploration, specifically searching for extraterrestrial lifeforms.

Kim Brandywine is a scientist serving as a public relations spokesperson for a scientific organization, one of whose main functions is seeking nonhuman life. Twenty years ago, a small expedition consisting of four people returned from such a mission, and immediately afterwards two of the crew vanished mysteriously while a third died in an equally-mysterious explosion. One of the crew who vanished was Kim’s older sister Emily.

For two decades Kim has missed her sister terribly, but never considered pursuing her disappearance until a former professor contacts Kim with circumstantial evidence that the mission actually did encounter something, but for some reason repressed it. At first Kim makes some half-hearted attempts to investigate, but as the circumstantial evidence grows stronger, so does Kim’s determination to learn what really happened on the mission, and why her sister vanished as well. Typical of a McDevitt book, the mystery slowly unpeels like an onion, growing more gripping as it does. As Kim learns more and more about her sister's mysterious disappearance, she also begins to unravel what exactly happened on the ship's mission seeking extraterrestrial life.

The novel is not perfect. Some of Kim’s information comes a bit too easily, and at times the consequences of her actions should be stronger than they actually are. Nor is the characterization terrific, but that seems to be an overall weakness with space operas in general, shared with McDevitt by the likes of Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter. All these flaws fade away under McDevitt’s strong storytelling ability and his talent for combining a gripping historical mystery with steadily-growing sense of wonder.

What is most impressive about Infinity Beach is how naturally both the mystery and the growing sense of wonder converge at the same point, achieving an emotional and successful denouement to all that happens previously.

It is easy to see why McDevitt novels seems to be a regular presence on the Nebula Best Novel lists. He is perhaps the finest pure storyteller working both the traditional end of the sf spectrum and the sf/mystery overlap. He might not have the range of a Poul Anderson, but his novels provide just as much satisfaction. I recommend this novel as highly as his Alex Benedict novels.


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