Monday, September 1, 2008

Review - Seeker

by Jack McDevitt
2006 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I don't give space opera a lot of credit. I know its one of the foundations of science fiction and it remains the most popular subgenre to this day but it also manages to beat out Sturgeon's Law by a considerable margin when it comes to crap. Even when it's done well very few authors of space opera do much more than just spin a decent adventure story. Bujold as a good example of this; she tells an interesting tale but few of the Vorkosigan books have significant depth. There's nothing wrong with that approach and honestly I'd rather read a good but simple adventure than a poorly written pretentious bit of "literature", but I often walk away feeling like it was missing something. McDevitt's Seeker comes very close to that mark for me: in the end I think that the exploration of his themes was flawed and yet it is a very entertaining book.

Ten thousand years in the future humanity has spread throughout the galaxy and in that time civilization happened. There was as much history between now and that future as there is between us and farming villages in Mesopotamia. The protagonists are treasure hunters who seek out the lost artifacts of the interstellar human civilizations that rose and fell in that period and sell them to the highest bidder. One day they're asked to appraise a cup which appears to be from the first interstellar vessel to disappear. This puts them on the trail of that missing ship and a lost civilization along the lines of Atlantis. Meanwhile they have to deal with claimjumpers, protestors demanding they stop looting the past, telepathic aliens, and astronomical mysteries.

It's very rare to see history as a science addressed in science fiction. Authors will pile on back story and overlook the fact that things a few hundred years ago are distant and thousands of years ago are ruins. McDevitt clearly put a lot of thought into how vacuum archeology would work. Unfortunately this is also where the book hits the sour note for me. The main characters are treasure hunters and McDevitt establishes a treasure hunter versus archeology theme which he doesn't really expand upon. The book is told in the first person by one of the treasure hunters so I wouldn't expect an unbiased opinion from them but it's like he just drops the whole thing. It disappointed me to see this theme abandoned in the novel since I can't recall ever encountering it in science fiction.

Setting aside that thematic problem Seeker is a very interesting story. Mysteries are tough to work into science fiction and McDevitt handles it deftly by having the book be a procedural, a story about the process of solving the mystery rather than the resolution. The trail of breadcrumbs they follow is lengthy and winding; until the climax I was uncertain of where McDevitt would be going next with his story. These plot twists sometimes strain credibility to the breaking point but I didn't mind mainly due to the fact that the whole point of the book was following these strange turns of fate.

Adding to the pleasure of the book McDevitt populated it with some very interesting characters. The brilliant but aloof researcher abd his assistant who does the leg work might be the formula copied from Conan Doyle but you won't mistake these two for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For one thing they both screw things up quite a bit when they try to be adventure heroes only to realize their mistakes after the fact. For another their adversaries for the most part are threats to their pocketbook rather than their lives (with the exception of someone who wants to kill them before they reach their goal).

So I might have been disappointed that Seeker wasn't as textured as I had hoped but I was still very entertained. I found it to be compelling reading and since it is part of a series I am going to seek out the rest of McDevitt's books.