Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seeker, by Jack McDevitt

Continuing with my catch-up of Alex Benedict, I have finished Seeker.  This is the third book in the series, and it won a Nebula in 2004.  It start out somewhat slowly, like the first two.  Chase Kolpath, the narrator of the series (still no billing) is going through something of a slutty phase.  But toward the end I can at least see what the award nominators were thinking about--it definitely picks up, with satisfying twists and turns.  The characters get to show what they're made of, and there's even some interesting speculation on how a planet could be habitable in orbit around a brown dwarf.

I still have my objections to the series.  Some seem to think it's a strength that he depicts society as pretty much unchanged over a period of ten thousand years.  Just more spread out.  Just doesn't seem plausible, especially for current speculative fiction.  We've seen the pace of change quicken.  But it's a decent story overall, and worth getting into if you are yearning for a mystery with some space opera flavor.  I give it 3 stars.  Next up is The Devil's Eye, we shall see what that brings. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Polaris, by Jack McDevitt

Polaris (Amazon link because my public library server is down) is the second novel in McDevitt's Alex Benedict series.  Upon starting it I immediately wondered why his assistant Chase Kolpath doesn't get billing, as at least two of the books, Polaris and Echo, are told from her perspective.  So Polaris is our first view of Benedict from Kolpath's eyes.  Not too flattering.  But then again, the series hasn't really picked up speed for me either.  These are mystery novels with big-picture ambitions, but in the end seem to be told small.  Protecting the key to immortality (spoiler, ha ha) is an interesting idea for one of the Big Four back in the '50s, but it seems just a tad less innovative now.  There is some room to grow here, but it just doesn't feel like McDevitt's going to take it.  There's mild adrenaline toward the end, but not enough to make it worth a novel. 

Many seem to like him, though, so I will persevere.  The next book, Seeker, won a Nebula. Could be we're going to pick up here.

2 stars for this one.

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.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey

Have just finished Leviathan Wakes, a Hugo award nominee for 2011. It's the first in a series, and pretty slick.  George R. R. Martin endorses it as "old-fashioned kickass space opera", and I guess I'll agree with that. 

The story starts out set in a reasonably plausible future--mankind has discovered a cheap fusion drive that lets us get access to the planets and expand settlement there.  We've got asteroids that have been hollowed out and spun for gravity, and lots of mining activity.  Into this space comes the stretch part--a "protovirus" that seems to be trying to restructure whatever life it encounters. The struggles with and over this life form are set in a backdrop of political strife between Earth, Mars, and the Belt (everyone else).  We have a hard-boiled detective, an idealistic captain, and various other characters to root for.  Lots of good action and some nasty horror scenes.  The book is long enough to be satisfying without bogging down.  Is there anything surprising in a literary sense, or do we go somewhere we haven't before?  Not at all.  That's kind of the point here.  This is pure entertainment, and it delivers in a very fine way, like a half a pizza or a 20 ounce beer.  Good and plenty. 

James S. A. Corey is a pen name.  The book is actually a collaboration between Daniel Abraham and George R. R. Martin's assistant, Ty Franck.  It's a fine blend, I've read plenty of Daniel Abraham and would not have guessed it was him. I give it a nice round 3 stars.  I got it from our local library, and it's quite possible to finish it in the usual lending time.  Have fun.