Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2006 Nebula - SEEKER by Jack McDevitt

It says a lot that I often feel obligated to explore the motives of the SFWA committee that chooses the Nebula winner. In this case, we have a novel that’s about as standard as could be, and I’m tempted to say that the SFWA is rewarding an older author for being a good member of the community…

Seeker is the third novel following the adventures of daring space archaeologist Alex Benedict.  It's narrated by his assistant, interstellar pilot Chase Kopath (I'm not sure if she narrates the other novels or not).  Alex and Chase are space archaeologists and artifact dealers.  They discover a plastic cup that may be a relic of a 9000 year old lost colony, and Chase has to follow a number of leads to track the cup back to its origin - the colony ship Seeker.  If Alex and Chase can find the colony, they'll make a fortune, but along the way they must contend with rival archaeologists, the family of the survey team that found the cup and hid it existence, the brutish robber who last possessed the cup, and the telepathic alien "mutes" who unwittingly have a important clue.

From top to bottom, this novel just screams genre.  There's the simple, propulsive prose with some noir stylings.  There's the formulaic, linear plot, in which each encounter yields a clue that advances the investigation.  There are the required action scenes, that exist for no particular plot reasons.  There are mysterious sub-plots, and even over-the-top villains, whose violent tendencies clash a bit with their staid occupations and idealistic aims.  The setting is simple but rich with possibilities for action and mystery stories; just take an interstellar republic 10,000 years or so in the future, add simple faster-the-light travel, and stir in an alien race and lots of artifacts. It's really right out of the golden age.  And, you've seen all of the plot elements before too.  It's genre fiction through and through.

And, there's nothing wrong with that.  The plot is interesting enough (though maybe a bit too predictable), and who doesn’t enjoy the archaeologist-adventurer character?  And, it’s got a great structure, where each episode in the plot moves the mystery forward and adds a new hook. On the other hand, the characters are dull as bricks.  Alex is a cipher here, Chase is generic, the villains are awful and inexplicable, and the ancillary characters are straight out of the stock genre file. There isn’t much in the way of ideas either.  We get some discussion of Earth’s dicey political fate over the millennia to come, and the utopianism of the lost colony adds a little spice.  Meanwhile, we also get some simplistic demonization of cultural protection movements in the artifact trade…which seems like a big fight to pick in an adventure novel.  

All in all, I was entertained, but I’ve come to expect more from these award winners.  This might have felt newer sometime before Gateway…but that was thirty years earlier.  I had some issues with Spin, but it’s operating on a whole other level.  The Nebula slate this year (which is, unusually, completely different from the Hugo slate) looks pretty thin anyway, so I guess I'm glad McDevitt got the recognition.

Grade: B-

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