Big ideas are the foundation of a great Science Fiction story. Where fantasy enchants, science fiction inspires. I know I’ve enjoyed the read when I put down a Sci Fi book and find my brain spinning as I ponder the implication of a technology or social development.
Science Fiction isn’t an easy sell these days. Most agents won’t touch it and few publishers show interest. In a time when fantasy is thriving, largely due to the urban, Science Fiction is languishing. I suspect that a large part of the issue is that Sci Fi is often inaccessible. It isn’t easy on the brain, and stories based on science can be dull.
A good science fiction story needs neither aliens nor lasers (look at Battlestar Galactica) to work. Not that I’m opposed to aliens and lasers. I am after all, a devoted Farscape fan who never got over its cancellation, but it’s depth I’m seeking in a good science fiction novel. I want that feeling of my brain spinning, of big ideas looming on the horizon, and of course I want to be entertained.
Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels give me all of these things in a slick package. Alex isn’t the most highly regarded guy around: an antique dealer accused of damaging historical sites, he’s nevertheless very good at his profession. McDevitt made a good turn when he switched the point of view in the books from Alex to his partner Chase. She’s a more dynamic character and being out of the loop of Alex’s brilliant insights, is more relatable for the reader.
McDevitt places a juicy mystery at the heart of each novel, and it’s usually something Alex and Chase stumble into on their way to something else. The reveal is always bigger than life, though the victory is occasionally bittersweet.
My original intent in reading this series was to read one, review it, then read another; but I became so entranced that I ripped through the series in a couple of weeks.
I enjoyed Polaris, but find that the books get better with time.* Seeker, with its discussion of the role of history in contemporary life, captivated me. McDevitt seasons the plot with questions on government and politics. The place of religion in a cosmos where man has spread out among the stars is a major theme in all of the books, particular in Firebird, but I think my favorite so far has been the Devil’s Eye. It has everything I love in Science Fiction: the big idea, a terrible secret buried by authority, remote stellar outposts, and even an appearance by McDevitt’s one alien species, the telepathic mutes. The Devil’s Eye delves into the tensions we all face with our governments and our place in things. All of the books use quotes to start new chapters, usually these are from future books McDevitt has created. The Devil’s Eye draws heavily on a series of horror novels, and McDevitt uses them to inject some commentary on the art of writing into things.
*There’s a point I’d like to make on this, which is that mid-list authors are struggling these days. A lack of high sales is pushing a lot of writers out of writing and it’s unfortunate. McDevitt is a perfect example of a talent that needed time to mature, and he’s a great example of tenacity too.