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Jun 20

Book Review: Coming Home by Jack McDevitt

What’s It About

Set thousands of the year into the future, the intrepid, determined and suave Alex Benedict, with his female pilot Chase Kolpath, continue to search for artifacts lost during Earth’s first space age.  There’s also a subplot involving the rescue of a passenger ship, lost for eleven years, and caught in a space/ time warp.

Representative Paragraph

Chase justifies what her boss, Alex, does for a living:

Sometimes I’m not sure how I feel about the operation we run.  I understand that it would be nice if all these artifacts were placed where anyone could see them.  But I’ve also seen the pure joy that accompanies ownership.  I’ve watched older people, who’ve achieved pretty much everything you could ask from life, just light up when Alex delivered an artifact they’d been pursuing. Especially one touched, or used, by an historical figure. It’s not the same as being able to stand in a museum and admire something in a glass case. It has to do with owning the thing. […] There are a lot of artifacts. It seems to me there are plenty for public display, and more than enough left over for private collectors. So why not? Why do museums have to control them all? Why do I feel I have to justify what we do?

Yes, why shouldn’t the rich and the élite posses history if they want too?!

Should I Read It?

No.  Though if you’re a fan of Alex and Chase then you’ll likely read it anyway.

Commentary

Coming Home is the science fiction equivalent of a warm fireplace and a pair of cosy slippers.  The sort of novel where there’s just enough intrigue and drama to slightly increase your heart rate and keep the pages turning.  And if by chance you do come across something challenging, something that tickles and engages your synapses, then it’s likely you’re not actually reading Coming Home but have moved on to something else.  Or your checking Facebook.

I don’t have a particular beef with this sort of meat and potatoes novel.  McDevitt, unlike Charles Gannon and Kevin J Anderson, is a competent writer.  He still info-dumps far too much and his dialogue will win no prizes (well, except for a Nebula), but the novel has a genuine sense of forward momentum.  Stuff happens.  Questions are posed, mysteries are investigated and, on the odd occasion, someone even takes a potshot at the heroes.  Best of all the novel isn’t 600 pages long.

Coming Home‘s simplicity means that I had no struggle coming to terms with the setting or the characters inspite of this being the seventh Alex Benedict book.  The novel is set thousands of years into the future, where humanity is enjoying a second renaissance in terms of culture, prosperity and technology, following a dark age that buried and blotted out humanity’s previous advances.  While for most people the dark age has become a historical footnote, for Alex Benedict it’s the source of his income, spending his days searching for and discovering artefacts from the previous space age.

The passage of time has resulted in the death of the English language.  In its place we have Standard, a language that might be based on English, or might combine Earth’s many dialects or might be Elvish.  The death of English aside, the greater tragedy is that only a few pop culture references like Superman and Sherlock Holmes have survived over the ages, though it appears that some of the context has been lost:

There are also fictional characters who were once famous but who have been forgotten. Tarzan swung through jungles in a series of books that, in their time, are supposed to have outsold everything except the Bible. The search to identify him—it’s assumed he is a male—is still on.  Dracula, as far as we know, appeared in only one novel, but his name survives. He was apparently a physician. His name is associated with blood extraction. If that seems grim, it helps to recall that he practiced in an era during which invasive surgery was common.

But while humanity may no longer speak English and may be confused as to the identity of Dracula and Tarzan, it’s general attitudes don’t seem to have changed over the last three thousand years.  The family unit is alive and well.  Hetereosexuality is still the norm.  Corporations are still worried about the bottom line.  And issues regarding gender and race have been swept under the carpet.  There’s this jarring line, early in the novel, which explains that “racial variations had long since gone away in most areas of the Confederacy after thousands of years of intermarriage.”  Other than leaving you with the impression that McDevitt’s Universe is filled with white people, he’s making it clear that he’s not going to deal with any of that messy “political correct” stuff.  These are enlightened times and issues such as cultural diversity are no longer relevant.  It explains why everyone Alex and Chase meet are so utterly forgettable.

Stephen King describes McDevitt as the “logical heir” to Asimov and Clarke.  That sounds about right.  If you’re looking for old fashioned science fiction, the sort that struggles to imagine a future – even a far flung one – much different from our own, the sort that has no room for cultures other than Western secularism, than Jack McDevitt is your man.

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