Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Talent for War, by Jack McDevitt

I am catching up several series this year, Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict series being one of them.  His novel Firebird is up for a Nebula this year, and Echo was nominated for 2010.  I read Echo (see my review) of sequence, but I never like to do that, and in this case thought it might have been unfair to the book.  So I have gone back to the beginning and read A Talent For War, from 1989. 

Mysteries are very difficult to write in SF, as Isaac Asimov pointed out (I can't find the quote, I believe it's at the beginning of one of the Wendell Urth mysteries). One has to simultaneously:
  1. Not cheat--use a speculative trick to resolve the mystery, and
  2. Not sound contrived--making something a mystery that in the SF setting one is creating, should not be mysterious.
 I think McDevitt does some violence to both of these, though not severe.

Alex Benedict is introduced here as a dealer in unique collectables.  He comes into a large fortune from his uncle, Gabe Benedict, along with a major mystery about the very founding of the Confederacy, a loose organization of planets formed under the pressure of defeating the Asuryyeans, the only other known alien race.  The Ashuryyeans are telepaths, not quite as advanced technically as humans but posessed of a lot of firepower.  The story of Christopher Sim, leader of the resistance to the Asuryyeans, figures prominently.  He is lionized in popular culture, but how he really died drives the story.

One gets an intimation of trouble when the major point of the book--that Sim might be a fraud--is on the book cover.  This isn't revealed until late in the book, but you know it if you read the cover material.  Hmm.  In the end there are some surprises and bigger fish fried, but it seems odd.

I find McDevitt a pretty dry read, but a lot of people like him.  I understand the comparison to Asimov, in that they both do not have much in the way of style.  They just tell the story.  Asimov, though, had the advantage of an open field to develop new ideas--he was a pioneer.  McDevitt comes into a more mined-out area, where telling a story that has been told before requires a fresh approach and deeper exploration.  This one doesn't really cut it for me.  But the rest of the series has been nominated for three awards, winning one, so I'll keep going.  Two stars for this one, as it is.

This novel made me think a lot about the assumption SF authors make about nations.  Once action becomes interplanetary, it seems very natural for planets to assume the role of nation-states.  Intrastellar SF thus sounds a lot like 18th century colonial interactions, with long sea voyages separating far-flung states.  So it's been nearly from the beginning, and it isn't slowing down--see my previous review for an assumption that the planets will have one government each.  I recall a couple of examples where this assumption is not made, or is at least remarked upon, but the quotes don't come to mind.

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