Welcome to the Science Fiction Hyperdrive Blog. I'm currently reviewing novels, but I hope to get along to movies soon. As an author, I am very busy, so please be patient with the posts. I welcome all comments and will answer them as soon as I can!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Review of Polaris by Jack McDevitt

Minor Spoiler Alert!

Polaris is second of Jack McDevitt's series of novels about Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath - and it is probably the best of the group.

This is a series of novels that need not be read in order, as there is no real development from one to the next. However, the reader might benefit from reading A Talent for War first as it is the opening book in the series and sets up some of the past influences. It is also the only novel of the group that is told from the point of view of Alex Benedict; the others are all from Chase Kolpath's point of view. All of the novels are written in first person past.

These stories are all mysteries first and science fiction second and that is really what drives them. Set in the far distant future, when the planet of Rimway is the primary seat of power for the current ruling government, the Confederacy (no, not that one), the novels detail the adventures of an antique dealer named Alex Benedict. Descended from good money and raised mostly by his uncle Gabe, Alex lives in a country home well outside the capital city of Andiquar. His business to buy, broker and sell rare artifacts from the history of humankind. Chase Kolpath, a beautiful woman in her early 30's works for him, serving as assistant, broker, lunch partner and most importantly as his pilot. Naturally, they must travel frequently throughout the galaxy and they do so in style with a vessel named the Belle-Marie.

Technological advances include space vessles travel at faster than light speed , small planetary vehicles using anti-gravity called "skimmers", some practical robotics, advanced artificial intelligence and holography.

Socially, there have been very few advances. One of them is that all citizens are now given a stipend to live on and do not have to work. Otherwise, society is much like that of America from about 1940 onwards. Capitalism is the primary monetary system. Democracy is the primary political system. Parts of the novels remind one of the suave patter between Nick and Nora Charles. When dining out, people are entertained by a piano bar or diva, people hold parties and honor themselves and their accomplishments, they attend university, perform in plays, publish, and work in prestigious jobs from realty to dentistry. Men and women still don't really understand each other, but they accept each other - and they have worked out more of the tricky details than we have. It's not actually that much different. For those who think that having a government dole is a bad thing, it works in this society because people still crave money, fame and power, just like they do now. And they are willing to work for it. Work is good for one's feeling of self-worth.

At this point in time, mankind has discovered only one other sentient species - a telepathic race which had been quickly dubbed "the Mutes". Fear drove both species into a long and bloody war which was eventually resolved before both sides exhausted their ships and weapons. (Part of that war is the subject of the first Alex Benedict investigaton, A Talent for War.)

Polaris is both the title of the novel and also the name of a rather famous space vessel. Nearly sixty years before the beginning of the book, it was one of the ships that traveled from Rimway to witness the death of the star Delta Karpis as it was smashed through by a white dwarf. The compliment of passengers onboard Polaris consisted of famous scientists and popular personalities, handpicked by Survey (the agency directing space exploration for the Confederacy) for this amazing viewing. Their pilot was a beautiful middle-aged flier who had her own following of lovers and wannabes, a very romantic and heroic figure.

However, once the explosion had passed and the ships were returning to Rimway, Polaris, the last of the group to announce departure, went silent. Once the other ships had returned, Polaris remained silent and unseen. Rescue vessels were sent to find out if something had happened prior to departure and they did find the ship, but it was empty of people. Pilot and all six passengers had simply disappeared and had never been found.

Alex and Chase become involved when Survey decides to hold a public auction of the items that were left behind on Polaris, from uniforms to glasses to books. As a favor to Alex for sharing a valuable past find with them, Survey gives him first choice of artifacts. Following the reception and viewing, the building explodes and the mystery is on. Apparently someone has decided that it is dangerous to have the artifacts out in the public, so they have attempted to destroy them all. Fortunately, for Alex and Chase, they escape the building with his artifacts safe and sound.

Naturally, those artifcats will become important as the mystery unfolds.

It is a very well-told tale that also involves a thoughtful scientific dilemma. The characters are charming and the entire universe of the story is very well-thought out. It contains adventure, mystery and science in sufficient doses to make any SF reader happy.

I only have one issue with the story - and it is something that bothers me in general about writing. There are a few times in the novel when it seems like McDevitt dumbs down his characters in order to allow them to get into a dangerous situation. For example, when one's life has been threatened twice while traveling in a vehicle, would it not behoove an intelligent person to assume that there might be a third attack? And if so, wouldn't it be prudent to have that vehicle checked out before blithely taking off? Especially if there was any indication at all that something might be wrong? It begs credulity.

I think that this kind of problem comes from forcing something into the story that doesn't really belong. The best writers find a way for danger to happen organically, from seeds that are already there in the story, rather than imposing a lapse of thinking upon basically intelligent characters.

However, that said, I loved the book. It was a highly entertaining page-turner and something I would definitely recommend to both science fiction and mystery readers.

No comments:

Post a Comment