In the distant future, humanity will remember the period when NASA landed on the moon and explored our galaxy as the Golden Age. The people of the future won’t remember much else from our century because of the Internet crash that caused so much literature and scientific knowledge to be lost forever.
Alex Benedict and his pilot, Chase Kolpath, are in the artifact business. Benedict’s profession consists of finding rare items and selling them to the highest bidder – and Benedict has a lead on a bunch of Golden Age artifacts. He suspects that Garnett Baylee, one of his predecessors, may have uncovered and hoarded a cache of Golden Age artifacts. So Alex and Chase return to Earth to see if they can find the past again.
Meanwhile, Alex and Chase also find themselves caught up in the Capella affair. The Capella is a spaceship trapped in transwarp space, which means that time aboard the ship seems normal, but outside the space warp almost a decade will have gone by before it will reappear. The physicists sadly warn that it won’t reappear long enough to rescue all of the Capella’s passengers at once. Some will spend more years aboard the ship while everyone they know grows almost another decade older. Complicating matters further, it seems that Alex’s uncle and mentor, Gabriel Benedict, is aboard the lost ship. Also, the media wants to know what Alex thinks should be done.
Jack McDevitt’s Coming Home is a far future science fiction novel, but it’s really more of a mystery novel. Benedict, who tracks down artifacts, is often compared to Indiana Jones, but I found myself thinking of Martin Cruz Smith’s mysteries, particularly, Rose, while reading. Coming Home also recalls the Sherlock Holmes mysteries since the story is told from Chase’s perspective. She plays Watson to Benedict’s Holmes, narrating the adventure and musing occasionally whether it can be turned into a novel.
Having said that, Benedict’s journey lacks the urgency that we tend to associate with these other investigators. The heroes face very little adversity – not even a fistfight. Their greatest adversary might be members of the press and lawyers who want to control how the people aboard the Capella is rescued. I rarely felt like Chase and Alex had entered a web that they’d have any trouble finding their way out of, which would be fine if the characters were more interesting. Also, part of the fun of reading a mystery is trying to predict how it will end. A far future setting makes this all but impossible since readers know almost nothing about the future galaxy and what remains from our world after the Dark Age has destroyed so much.
Of course, Coming Home is also a science fiction novel, but I was again underwhelmed. McDevitt’s far future is not very different from our own world. Sure, how much can people really change and still be people? Having said that, the culture rarely challenges the reader’s social conventions, as Iain M. Banks’s CULTURE does, or our contemporary politics, as Star Trek: The Next Generation does. For better or worse, the future means media, lawyers, and politicians.
Ironically, McDevitt often points out that things are less than rosy here on Earth in the 21st century. He suggests that problems like overpopulation, climate change, and resource scarcity led to the collapse, and his characters wonder why people didn’t act sooner to save themselves. How could they be so selfish? Well, I wasn’t very moved by this question considering that people in the future seem remarkably familiar. It seems that the thing that saved humanity from the Dark Age was not a shift away from selfish and reckless consumption but rather the colonization of space. To be honest, I didn’t find this theme very convincing, though, in fairness, it has been a while since Arthur C. Clarke’s novels rallied the SFF community around NASA’s latest findings about the galaxy.
The plot of Coming Home is very dry, but there are some interesting ideas hidden in the novel’s action. Though the Capella problem mostly felt tangential, it did create interesting scenarios for many people. One man, for example, is wondering whether he should try to board the ship to be with his fiancé or whether he should roll the dice that she will be rescued. Although the sci-fi is mostly subdued here, Chase and Alex do meet a couple that lives on an asteroid, which I thought must be pretty cool. And in the future there will be avatars of people. McDevitt speculates that these avatars will break up marriages since couples will want to spend time with younger versions of their spouses, which I again found intriguing.
However, I mostly found the novel too slow and too dry. I didn’t connect with the characters and I would have preferred more tension, especially from a mystery, and more to inspire awe, especially from a far future science fiction novel. Coming Home is the seventh of McDevitt’s novels to feature Alex Benedict as its protagonist, and it is one of several sequels to Seeker, which won the 2007 Nebula. McDevitt has been nominated for a dozen Nebula Awards, and Coming Home is no exception. However, I will be surprised if it wins this year.
Thanks for the review, Ryan. Do you think you would have enjoyed it more if you had been reading the series regularly?
Ryan: always concise.
Um, okay, then! :)
The premise of this book actually sounds really cool on the surface – a Sherlock-esque sci-fi mystery. I have yet to try a McDevitt novel, but I’m guessing starting with Seeker is probably a safer bet here…