Ask me to create my “Top 10 Favorite Sci-Fi Writers” list and I’d probably have a difficult time narrowing that list down. Coming up with my “final ten” would be difficult — who to include and who just didn’t make the list would easily vary from year to year or even decade to decade. But… there are these two. Two authors with titles I find myself reaching for again and again, year after year, reading and re-reading both their new and older stuff. And I’m going to share one of them with you.
His name is Jack McDevitt, and his science fiction short stories and novels are not to be missed. That said, this post isn’t so much a book review as it is a letter from a fan. A HUGE fan. I discovered McDevitt back in 1996 with his stand-alone novel, Eternity Road, and then moved on to his Priscilla Hutchins novels before finally discovering his Alex Benedict series. In between novels, I found myself hunting down his other stand-alone novels (such as Ancient Shores) and short story collections (Standard Candles is a collection worth hunting down). McDevitt’s stand-alone stories are outstanding, and he’s had two incredible stand-alone novels in the past few years, Time Travelers Never Die and The Cassandra Project (the latter co-written with Mike Resnick) that I cannot believe haven’t been turned into movies or mini-series. (It’s no surprise that Stephen King states “[McDevitt] is the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.” How’s that for a recommendation?)
Of all McDevitt’s stories, however, it’s his Alex Benedict novels that I enjoy most. Beginning with A Talent for War, McDevitt created a future (9000 years from now) where humans have spread to the stars and flourished. During those 9000 years, however, civilizations have come and gone, governments fallen, and colonies vanished.
Alex Benedict was raised by his uncle Gabe, a researcher/historian/archaeologist. Gabe was well-respected by his peers, and museums and research organizations would support Gabe in his efforts to locate ancient civilizations and recovered artifacts. When Gabe boarded the starship Capella that made the jump into hyperspace and disappeared completely, Alex inherited Gabe’s home, his belongings and his personal ship, Belle-Marie, and the pilot chose to stay as well — Chase Kolpath. Unlike his uncle, Alex is an antiques dealer. He’s just as good (maybe even better) a researcher as his uncle, but Alex helps collectors acquire, not museums. And this has been a source of tension for Alex and Chase through six previous novels and into the most recent, Coming Home.
For six novels, Chase and Alex have chased leads and made amazing discoveries — McDevitt has this knack for creating mysteries (many of them science fiction versions of the “locked room” where you’ll be scratching your head) that manage to pilfer bits of real-world physics and mix them with extrapolations of how humans might react or behave in a future that allows for interplanetary travel. The previous novel, Firebird, for example, had (among other story elements) a ghostly ship with strange, alien markings that would appear and disappear. Without ruining the surprise, certain aspects of the conclusion to Firebird have carried over to Coming Home and involve Alex’s missing Uncle Gabe.
Coming Home is the book that fans of the Alex Benedict series have been waiting for — it’s both a conclusion (of sorts) to a larger arc that’s run throughout the books… and a more personal story. I was born in 1969, a most important year in the space program, and three months prior to the first moon landing. I grew up fascinated with NASA and I was lucky to see the Space Shuttle come forward first with testing and watch and listen in on Columbia’s first orbits and landing. I will always remember where I was when we lost Challenger… and then Columbia. (And now I’m watching as the budding private sector begins to face its own dangers as it enters what was once only NASA’s backyard.)
When I say that Coming Home is a real nod to fans, I mean that a large portion of its story involves Alex and Chase facing a mystery involving relics of what they refer to as the Golden Age of space flight — the Apollo missions and forward (including some fictional events). For Alex, the Golden Age is a large void of relics — almost everything that the historians know about has been lost for one reason or another. So when a unique piece of history is found in a closet by a well-respect expert in the Golden Age, family and colleagues begin to wonder… had more artifacts been discovered? And if so, why was the discovery not announced? Once again, Chase and Alex find themselves researching, exploring and, as is typical with Alex Benedict stories, finding their lives in danger as they seek to uncover a larger mystery.
Past that, I really don’t want to say much more about the story. To say anymore would ruin many of the surprises that fans know are inevitable with McDevitt’s tales. I can say that Coming Home was a special story — fans will definitely smile and realize that McDevitt has delivered a gift here.
If you’ve not yet discovered Jack McDevitt’s novels and are looking for some great reads, you’ve obviously got a lot of choices. The seven novels in the Alex Benedict series are as follows:
Of the seven, Polaris has one of my favorite mysteries — a drifting ship found with all the crew and guests missing. It’s not to be missed. The Devil’s Eye also had a shocking surprise that I won’t ever forget. But all of the books are outstanding. The patient reader who completes all six earlier novels will discover that Coming Home offers up two storylines that orbit one another, twist and turn, and wrap up simultaneously. It’s a wonderful ride.
(Of course, when those of you new to McDevitt’s stories finish the Alex Benedict novels, I envy you discovering the Priscilla Hutchins novels next… )