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Friday, October 19, 2007

Seeker, by Jack McDevitt

"Margolia is a world of gleaming cities and impossible architecture. Its citizens enjoy a life of absolute leisure. (How they'd stand it isn't explained.)" Jack McDevitt, Seeker. New York: Ace, 2006, p. 108.

Seeker won the Nebula award for 2006. I try to read all the Nebula award books. As usual, I'll try to avoid giving away the plot, but muse a bit about some aspects of the book.

This is McDevitt's web page. It includes chapter 14 of the book.

The front cover quotes Stephen King, on McDevitt: "The logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke." In other words, King believes that the most important part of McDevitt's stories is the science. I generally prefer Ursula K. Le Guin's writing, where the most important part of the stories is the people. Clarke invented the synchronous orbiting relay satellite, fictionally. However, let's not forget that Le Guin, in spite of her concern for her characters, invented the ansible, also fictionally. Both are concerned with communication. McDevitt's people are OK. They are more than just cardboard. The protagonist in Seeker is Chase Kolpath, a former space pilot. She is now the assistant to Alex Benedict, who finds, or trades, valuable artifacts. I haven't read the previous books in this series, A Talent for War and Polaris, but I believe the first of these is written as a memoir by Alex. The second and third are written as if by Chase. She is more than a Watson to Alex's Holmes -- she has many of the adventures, and some of the ideas.

There are lots of possible artifacts in Chase's world, since it's about 9,000 years in our future, and humans are living on hundreds of planets. Rimway is the name of her planet. It has almost no crime. Criminals have their brains wiped -- their personality is mostly destroyed, and they are given, as it were, another start in life. Most everyone has an AI, an artificial intelligence, to deal with routine matters, even some non-routine ones. Simulated people take many of the service roles, such as restaurant waiters.

One question I always have, when entering such a world, is "how does the author treat religion?" McDevitt almost totally ignores it, but does include this:
It was a religious ceremony. A priest requested the blessings of the Almighty on the happy couple, and led them in their vows. The best man produced the ring, Adam slipped it on her finger, she waltzed into his arms, and they kissed. p. 77.

Who is getting married isn't important here. McDevitt does assume that there will be some religion, probably Christianity, even in the far future, and that it will have some importance in the lives of at least some people. That's more than many science fiction authors have done.

The quote also shows a weakness in McDevitt's work. Much of what people do and are, their customs and habits, read as if they haven't changed in hundreds of lightyears and thousands of years. That strikes me as very unrealistic. Surely the marriage ceremony would have changed a lot in that time! I know -- if McDevitt had changed everything as much as it's probably going to change, the plot would have gotten lost in all of those societal changes. And it's unrealistic to expect any author to be able to extrapolate changes in every aspect of how we eat, entertain ourselves, how we are named, etc., into the future.

God also appears in this famous quote (famous in the sense that it has been remembered for millennia, in McDevitt's fictional world):
We are leaving this world forever, and we intend to go so far that not even God will be able to find us.
p. 133.

One technological extrapolation is avatars -- it is possible to take what is known about someone, even someone long dead, and produce a projected 3-D view of that person. The projection is able to converse, with ideas more or less like the original person would have, depending on how much is known about the original.

How do we treat the relics of our past? We plunder them, we hoard them, we exhibit them in museums, we profit from them, we show them off without understanding them, we casually trash them. That is a central theme of this book, and it is well worth thinking about.

McDevitt is a good read. I had a hard time putting the book down by the time I got to about page 250 (out of 373). There were two previous Chase Kolpath books, A Talent for War and Polaris. I hope to read them.

Thanks for reading.

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