Sunday, April 1, 2007

Booklog: Polaris, Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt
Mass-Market Paperback, 384 pages

Chad Orzel reviewed this a while back on Uncertain Principles, and I thought it looked interesting. (I blatantly stole his booklog concept for use here, as well.) I had tried reading The Engines of God a while back, but couldn't get into it, so I came at this one with, well, not exactly high hopes.

And you know what, this is actually quite a good book. It's the second Alex Benedict novel (the first, A Talent for War, was not in-stock at my store and I haven't read it), a science fiction mystery that entertains even when the mystery isn't quite as mysterious as maybe it should be. There are two main characters, Benedict and Chase Kolpath (the book's first-person narrator), who work as antiquities dealers in the far future (at least four or five thousand years from now). The Orion Arm of the galaxy has been pretty well explored and settled, and hundreds of world hold human populations -- these worlds are organized into something called the Confederacy, which holds a sort of loose reign over the planetary governments.

The book opens with an extended sequence in which a research vessel Polaris, on a VIP trip to see a neutron star destroy Delta Kay and its planetary system. As the neutron star passes through the star, and all the other research vessels hyperdrive to safety, something happens on board to remove the passengers of the Polaris, while leaving the ship intact.

Sixty years later, the main action with Benedict and Kolpath begins. It turns out that there are some items from the Polaris that have been released by the local government, and Benedict sees a money-making opportunity. As the thing develops, we see attempts made on Benedict's and Kolpath's lives, and a mystery develops which eventually leads back to what happened on that ship sixty years before.

Overall this book reminded me of some of the later Asimov, although McDevitt's writing style is superior and much-better attenuated to modern sensibilities. Like Asimov, McDevitt envisions a future in which even after millennia of star travel and hundreds of colonized worlds, people still behave much the same way that our contemporaries do, with conversations and motivations that would be at home in today's world. While this convention is perhaps a bit unrealistic, it is necessary at least in McDevitt's case, for it allows for a fairly standard "locked-room" mystery plot with several reasonably compelling action scenes.

I didn't find the mystery to be all that convulted, as the basic motivation for the thing becomes clear early on, Benedict and Kolpath keep up with the reader, and McDevitt plays fair by not using artificial means to withhold information. In fact, the way in which clues for the mystery are laid in front of the reader while seeming to be simple worldbuilding is quite elegant, and I found myself respecting McDevitt's authorship repeatedly.

The book is perhaps a touch too long, and some of the action scenes felt a bit obligatory to me, but overall this is a good book, well worth picking up if you're looking for a bit of easy genre fiction, and good enough that I may go back to give Engines of God another try sometime.

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