Archaeology as Science Fiction: Discovering Jack McDevitt
I generally think of myself as being pretty well-read in terms of science fiction. Not as well as some: I’ve met people at cons with an encyclopedic knowledge of the field, and who seem to have read every novel by every one-hit wonder who ever published. But I like to think I at least know the classics, even the recent ones. So imagine my surprise when I picked up A Talent For War a couple weeks ago, having never read anything before by Jack McDevitt.
In a field where the “science” in science fiction is usually physics, or perhaps biology, McDevitt has staked a powerful claim to the field of archaeology. In A Talent For War, he introduces the character of Alex Benedict, an antiques dealer in a starfaring civilization thousands of years in our future. Benedict claims that his primary interest in the past is his ability to sell it: he collects artifacts and sells them, connects buyers and sellers of ancient cups and computers, and is obviously very fond of money. But Benedict doesn’t come off as mercenary as he claims, and while he’ll happily sell the objects he finds to the highest bidder, he displays a tenacious need to discover the truth in a mystery hundreds of years old.
A Talent For War follows Benedict in his quest for the truth of a war story central to his future’s culture, and is generally a fun romp through a well-imagined future universe. Benedict’s world isn’t as tightly constructed as in a work by Niven or Asimov, but it hangs together very well and displays a more believable view of humanity than you see in something like Foundation. The only thing that threw me off was how contemporary things seemed: how many physical books there were lying around, the coexistence of everyday technology with stardrives and instant communications, and how culturally similar the future was. McDevitt obviously is not a subscriber to the concept of the Singularity or a coming apocalypse, but that’s ok: it’s boring when everyone expects dystopia or transhumanism, and he captures the feel of a Clarke or an Asimov story very well.
The following Benedict books (which I devoured in the course of about a week, all five of them) don’t use Alex himself as the point-of-view character, but rather his assistant Chase. Chase is actually much more fun: she brings a non-archaeological perspective to these hunts through the mysteries fo the future-past, being a star pilot, and gives us a more complete view of the culture of this world. She does occasionally serve as an audience for Benedict’s brilliant insights, but she more often sees him being ridiculous, vain, or downright foolish, and has the occasional crowning moment of aweomse herself.
All of the novels do display the thing I enjoy most about McDevitt’s work, however: a view of history as a mystery to be solved, and which has consequences for the world we live in today. The idea that archaeology matters, and can be exciting, and can change the way we think about things. These are all mystery novels, at the bottom, but for the most part they don’t portray action and adventure: rather, they portray careful research, and conversations with people (or their computer-generated avatars) who lived through the events being investigated. The action, when it arrives, is usually the result of the characters’ breakthroughs in their earlier research, and not random chance.
The only criticism I have of the Alex Benedict series is that McDevitt seems to want to raise the stakes in every subsequent book. This is pretty understandable in a series, and it’s always nice to top your last novel… but when the first story revolutionizes the historical view of the most important war of the future, the next reveals the truth behind one of the most important scientific discoveries in history, and the third looks into the history of one of the first interstellar colonies… There are limits to how high you can go, and I feel like McDevitt is pushing it. Give us a fun historical mystery, and the world doesn’t have to shake with the consequences.
Having exhausted the limits of the Alex Benedict series (so far: the most recent novel, Firebird, was published in November 2011), I circled back to some of McDevitt’s earlier work. Eternity Road was a fun stand-alone, though not quite as good as the Benedict series: the concept was great, but it felt a little paint-by-numbers at the end. And I’ve just started The Engines of God, first in another series following another star pilot by the name of Priscilla Hutchins, in a different and somewhat nearer-future world than Alex and Chase’s.
In any case, I’m still having fun, and I can recommend Jack McDevitt’s work without reservation. If you loved Asimov, Clarke, or Niven at all, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll enjoy McDevitt. And even if you didn’t there is so much fun in these series that I think it’ll be worth your time. Just because there are few explosions and gunfights doesn’t mean these stories aren’t exciting: McDevitt’s work will make the past–and the future–come alive.