Monday, January 23, 2012


When I was in a book group, we would often pick the first book in a series and then never go on and pick another book in the same series. Having just finished the second book in Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict series, I've determined that practice may well have been a mistake. Granted, there are aspects of the transition from first novel to second novel in this series that are unusual—none that I can remember encountering before. And those aspects make for some compelling thoughts on the nature of the writing craft.

Like the first novel, Polaris involves Alex Benedict trying to solve a historical mystery in the far future, in a galaxy-spanning civilization. The introduction of the novel sets up the premise: a few decades in the story's past, the entire seven-man crew of the Polaris disappeared from the ship without any trace, appearing to have just stepped out from their normal tasks—meals remain half-eaten when the ship is discovered and books remain open. The shipboard AI has no recollection of even being turned off, so the novel is set up as a classic locked room mystery. The rest of the novel follows Alex Benedict as he first is accidentally ensnared in the mystery and then sets about solving it, with his assistant Chase Kolpath.

One of the biggest differences that jump out at the reader is that the first book of this series, A Talent for War ( is written from the point of view of Benedict, the protagonist of the series, while the second novel is told from the point of view of Kolpath, his assistant. The contrast is obvious—instead of dealing with the protagonist's thoughts and self-deception as he solves an archeological mystery, we instead get the point of view of his Watson surrogate, a narrator who knows the protagonist and is not deceived by the airs he puts on for himself or others. This point of view is deepened by the effects of Benedict and Kolpath also being former lovers; there is no one who knows treasure hunter Benedict as well as Kolpath, and while she is not snarky, she makes it clear that she both admires Benedict and also finds some of his mannerisms annoying.

At the same time, it's also important to note that the two main characters are also much more fully rounded in Polaris than they are in the first novel. Given that 15 years passed between the publication of the two books (and I can't think of another speculative fiction where there was as much time between first and second books), it seems apparent that author McDevitt grew in his writing. While Benedict in the first novel is witty, Benedict in Polaris is urbane, using wit as a social tool. Kolpath also goes from being a relatively flat girl Friday to a character whose opinions differ from Benedict's not for the purposes of advancing the plot but in order to both fill out her character and to emphasize the importance of what the two find themselves eventually pursuing.

Another important difference is the structure of the plot. While A Talent for War is forced to spend as much time developing the setting for the galactic civilization as developing its history—since the mystery being investigated is hundreds of years old, Polaris doesn't feel quite so forced. As a result, instead of infodumps—long periods of exposition that make very little narrative sense—the exposition of information is handled much more like traditional mysteries, with clues arriving in the most unlikely places, scattered throughout the novel. And for fans of mystery, Polaris is much more satisfying since, unlike the first novel, the reader has an opportunity to solve the mystery at hand. In many ways Polaris is a mystery with an exotic setting while A Talent for War is an exotic setting where a mystery takes place. At any rate, the mystery can be worked out, unless like me, you become so wrapped up in the action and characters of the story that its solution is something of a letdown, because it means the characters are going to go away until the next book.

Like the first novel, the science fictional aspects of the novel act mostly as trappings than as a thematic source. Once again, the various planets that Benedict and Kolpath visit while chasing their puzzle could as easily been exotic parts of call on a single planet. But, unlike A Talent for War, in which the mystery allows the novel to make platitudes about the nature of war and its effect on individuals, it turns out that some of the background of the missing persons in Polaris allows the book to contemplate issues that are generally associated with speculative fiction. One of the crew of the Polaris was a biotechnology expert, and was working on methods for extending productive human lifetimes beyond the current 120 years or so. In pursuit of their mystery, Benedict and Kolpath read some of his writing and the writing of others in response to him, and then debate for themselves the cost and benefit of unnaturally long human lifetimes (in fact, part of the debate is whether such extensions would be "unnatural" at all, representing as they might the next step in human evolution). Does life become more or less valuable if it is extended to hundreds of years? How do people keep from becoming bored? Can we really expect people to remain married for hundreds of years, or will that social convention have to be modified? What other conventions might become different? And then, most important of all, wouldn't such a technology cause a population explosion, leading to devastating effects throughout the civilized worlds as resources become used up by a population that cannot die but only grows larger and larger? The denouement of the novel reveals the characters' positions on these questions in remarkably demonstrable ways.

While A Talent for War was a fine and engaging book, Polaris reflects significant growth from McDevitt as a storyteller and provides a fine example of the mixing of genres to good effect. Given that the third book in the series, Seeker, won the Nebula Award for best novel, it would appear that McDevitt's success continued on.

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