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“Back down along the spiral that heads up”- Review of Jack McDevitt’s “Coming Home” by Valentin Ivanov

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Jack McDevitt is one of my favorite modern hard science fiction authors.

For two reasons.

First, he is truly a science fiction writer who in the vein of Wells, Clarke and Asimov tries to offer an accurate representation of the scientific research process.

Second, his novels never fail to convey the sense of wonder that the grander Universe imposes – sometimes quite forcefully – upon the human beings.

To be fair, I should add that many, if not most people, buried in their day-to-day fights for survival, never notice the wonder that we live in, but I am sure if they had the chance to stop and rise their eyes to the skies (provided they wouldn’t be polluted by street lights and neon advertisements), they would see it clearly enough. Just like my kids saw it, when I took them to a dark place to watch the Perseid meteor shower. And that is a just one small wonder, suitable for kids.

Jack McDevitt takes his readers on a ride across the Cosmos, to face bigger wonders of two kinds; in the seven (so far) Alex Benedict novels it’s those marvelous beings, the humans (rephrasing the Doctor, a favorite character of mine) that provides the wonders – they have generated many thousands of years of rich history; in the Academy series it’s the vistas of the Cosmos and alien beings that serve this role. I don’t have preferences for one or the other kind – they are both equally intriguing and fascinating in different ways, Notably, they both happen in the same literary Universe, as a funny reference about a surviving ancient book from the era of the early interstellar travel tells us in Coming Home.

Both series, except from the very first Alex Benedict novel, are told from from the point of view of women: the Academy books follow the career of a spaceship pilot who starts by ferrying around archaeologists to dig sites in other solar systems; she rises in the ranks to a head the operation of the Academy. The Benedict novels have the classical Holmes-Watson dynamics, and indeed in Coming Home, the character of Chase Kolpath makes the her first professional sales to publishers.

Most of the MacDivitt books are scientific procedurals – similar to the police procedurals that tell stories of criminal investigations, these novels tell stories of scientific investigations, typically a historical one.

Coming Home is not an exception. It has two story lines. One follows the mystery where a noted archaeologists, Garnett Baylee, found an ancient transmitter, and why he kept it hidden in his room until his death some years earlier.

In the opening pages Baylee’s descendants stumble into the artifact and hire the Rainbow Enterprises, the antique dealership of Alex Benedict where Chase Kolpath works as “Dr. Watson”, to evaluate the find. It quickly becomes apparent that the transmitter was once part of the collection exhibited in the famous Florida Space Museum; the collection had disappeared almost nine thousand if years earlier. A wild chaise follows, across a few stellar systems, to recover the artifacts. The other story line is more personal for the main characters. The uncle of Alex and former employer of Chase had disappeared in space eleven years earlier. He flew on a passenger faster-than-light space liner, that – as we know from the previous novels – may have been hurled to the future. There is a chance to recover the people on board, because now and then the ship probably materializes back in “normal” space. Except, there are nearly three thousand passengers in there, the point of surfacing is uncertain and the deboarding may take longer than the precious few hours during which the ship will be accessible. It’s a race against the clock – both to prepare the rescue operation and to carry it out.

Despite of this time pressure build up, the overall pace of the novel is not very fast. In this respect Coming Home is like an inspector Morse novel or movie where on the way to even the most gruesome crimes the characters find time to stop at a pub for a pint of fine beer. Here, instead of having a beer, Alex and Chaise visit museums and historic sites. McDevitt profusely sprinkles the book with infodumps, but to me this was not a problem; I guess his writing stile is best suited for a cross SciFi/history buffs like me who would read those passages with even more attention than the passages intended to develop further the characters. In addition, each chapter starts with a short citation from a historic source, some real and some made up by McDevitt. That are surprisingly well matched to the atmosphere of the chapters. There are a few excellent aphorisms in there. I guess, my favorite is the invented author Kesler Avonne, with two very decadent quotes from his or her invented work Souls in Flight: “The storm has passed. Let’s go to lunch” (in Coming Home) and “In the end, all matters of significance emanate from, or are relayed though, a bar” (in Echo, the fifth Benedict novel).

McDevitt makes a conscientious effort to unravel the mechanisms of history, but in a literary way; we won’t find here explicit philosophical statements, it all plays though characters and dialogues.

Coming Home is weaker in this regard than Talent for War, the first Benedict novel, but it was easy to relate to the thoughts of Kolpath about how the individual decisions and lives can be buried in the avalanche of the history, how the names and dates can be forgotten, but how nevertheless the outcome matters and it’s imprinted on the course of history; the anonymity with which we will be treated in the long run doesn’t relieve us from responsibility for our decisions.

The novels of MacDivitt sometimes brings the readers’ attention to one other particular topic, that has caught the attention of many (for example, of Charles Stross: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2014/12/on-the-lack-of-cultural-estran.html).

The issue has to do with the lack of change in the human society over such a long period – hundred centuries later, everybody seem to lead a life, than is not much different than the modern suburban life. Furthermore, there is no immortality, there is no uploading of the human conscience to a computer, and the artificial intelligences haven’t taken over. Kurzweil’s Live Long Enough to Live Forever hasn’t happened, the singularity hasn’t occurred, and the best physicists in this world – as shown in Coming Home – are sill human. The worlds of McDevitt seems too old fashioned.

How can this be? I have three theories.

First, it may be a choice that allows the reader easier to relate to the characters. A simple marketing technique. I doubt it, McDevitt is too successful a writer to need such cheap tricks.

Second, the singularity may have already occurred in this world. Then the characters of McDevitt live in a simulation. Most people there must have opted for a simulation based on the last stable era before the turmoils that accompanied the transition to the singularity arrived, and that must have been the Suburbia era. People only added some spaceships, aliens and FTL, to make their post-singularity existence more entertaining, but psychologically and socially this still remained the well-recognizable modern suburban life. The Occam’s razor invalidates this explanation.

The last, and in my view more interesting option roots in the nature of the human beings – we cling to some constant behavioral patterns. Romans who lived twenty centuries ago and didn’t have radio, TV, jets and rockets had the same moral drives as us: love for their families, strive for riches and fame; consequently, they followed similar behavioral patterns: they loved, raised kids, wrote laws, settled disputes in courts, went to temples/churches where they sacrificed objects of value, etc.

McDivitt actually makes this point more openly in another novel of his, Time Travelers Never Die, where the main characters fit in relatively easily in various historic epochs, so I tend to think that the old-fashioned future is due to a choice, rather than to a lack of imagination. There are also some jokes hidden in Coming Home, offhand comments how the science fiction genre is perceived in the world of Benedict and Kolpath, that also support this explanation.

The Marxist philosophy that I had to study when I was young described the evolution of the society as a rising spiral. I never checked if this model is used by other philosophical schools, but it fits well with the history of the humanity, as described by McDevitt.

Do I like my own third theory? – I tolerate the possibility that people may always remain the same, but I don’t like it, because it denies the human beings and the human society the possibility for change, for development and improvement. It may be my experience of living in a communist country many years ago, but I still remember well one of the main doctrines, and I still keep the hope that once there will be a better society than the one we live in today, regardless of whether it is reached by philosophical or technological means.

The novel’s ending was too abrupt for my taste. Significant events happened in the lives of the characters, some new conflicts were planets and there was just a sort epilogue to resolve them. This problem is typical for mid-series books and I guess this implies Coming Home  is not meant to be the last of the Benedict series. I also noticed one controversy – two of the characters let their food spoil while being on board of a working ship, in space. So they have in their disposal the best refrigerator and conservant that there is – the vacuum. But they don’t use it.

I will conclude with a recommendation – Coming Home is a worthy reading, but probably not for every fan; it requires some taste of history.

Coming Home” by Jack McDevitt, Ace Books, New York, 2014

Valentin D. Ivanov

Aug 28, 2016, Munich, Germany

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coming_Home_(McDevitt_novel)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_McDevitt


Valentin D. Ivanov (born in the town of Burgas, Bulgaria in 1967) is a Bulgarian SF writer, essayist, reviewer and astronomer working at the European Southern Observatory, Garching bei München, Germany.
Previously, Valentin worked at the European Southern Observatory, mainly at the Cerro Paranal site, Chile. Among his primary research areas are the dynamics of star clusters, formation of stars, brown dwarfs, and exoplanets around such objects.

He had obtained his master degree in physics and astronomy at the University of Sofia in 1992.
He earned a PhD degree at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A. in 2001.
He became a fellow at the European Southern Observatory, Cerro Paranal, Chile and since 2003 he has been a staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory, Paranal where he is instrument scientist for the wide-field near-infrared camera VIRCAM mounted at the VISTA_(telescope).

In 2006, together with Kiril Dobrev, he has published a Science Fiction story collection in Bulgarian.

Valentin Ivanov and Ray Jayawardhana are two of the pioneers of the investigation of the planemos, a special cast of exoplanets.
They discovered the first double planemo Oph 162225-240515.
This discovery, came just before the debate about the 2006 planet definition, and posed the problem about the distinction between planets and low-mass stars (brown dwarfs).

Some of his English language SF stories, „Crossroads”, „How I saved the World”, „Job Interview” , “Unstable atmospheric circulation”, are online and also some of his reviews:

http://sffportal.net/author/vivanov/

and essays :

http://worldsf.wordpress.com/tag/valentin-d-ivanov/

http://www.sc.eso.org/~vivanov/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Valentin-Ivanov-astronomer/147547995289681

http://valio98.blog.bg/

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Valentin D. Ivanov was born in Bulgaria in 1967. He received an M.S. in Physics with specialization in Astronomy from the University of Sofia in 1992, a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Arizona in 2001, and he has been working for the European Southern Observatory ever since. Valentin has a broad area of research interests — from extrasolar planets to obscured Milky Way clusters and active galaxies. He is married, with two children. Valentin began to write science fiction and fantasy in high school. He has published in his native country a collection of fantasy stories based on Bulgarian folklore, written in collaboration with Kiril Dobrev. His personal home-page can be found at: http://www.sc.eso.org/~vivanov/ and his blog (written in both Bulgarian and English) at: http://valio98.blog.bg/

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