Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

1989: A Talent for War (McDevitt, Jack)

Stodgy trek through qualitative research methodology (2/5)

A Talent for War is McDevitt's second novel and the first book in the Alex Benedict series. Prior to the publication of this novel, McDevitt penned the short stories "Sunrise" (portions found in Chapter 15) and "Dutchman" (portions found in Chapters 9, 22, 23, and 24). This isn't a stitch-up novel as much as it is a weakly pulled together conglomeration of loose ideas... much like ever other McDevitt novel I've read (this, the eighth book to-date). Where The Engines of God (1994 - Book One for the Academy series) had a great idea to drive the series, A Talent for War is empty of any driving force. Fifteen years after this book was first publication, McDevitt would write the sequel Polaris (2004) but fail to weave any sort of wow-factor into the plot. Just as a few good songs don't make a great album, a good idea or two don't make a novel grand.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Everyone knew the legend of Christopher Sim. Fighter. Leader. An interstellar hero with a rare talent for war, Sim changed mankind's history forever when he forged a ragtag group of misfits into the weapon that broke the neck of the alien Ashiyyur.

But now, Alex Benedict has found a startling bit of information, long buried in an ancient computer file. If it is true, then Christopher Sim was a fraud.

For his own sake, for the sake of history, Alex Benedict must follow the dark track of a legend, into the very heart of the alien galaxy--where he will confront a truth far stranger than any fiction imaginable..."


The broader synopsis for this novel is ridiculously short. Most novels warrant between three or four paragraphs, A Talent for War is so laden with redundant methods of qualitative research that little if anything is skimmed from the all the data gathered.

Antiquarian Alex Benedict's uncle Gabe Benedict is one of the many to be lost when the Capella never returns from non-linear space. Bequeathed to Alex is Gabe's estate on Rimway and details regarding his most recent historical inquiries: the ultimate fate war legend Christopher Sim and his ship Corsarius. Starting simply with what Gabe provided him, Alex soon delves into deeper scholarly territory in order to pry open the truth which is shrouded in rumor.

That's pretty much it. Like I mentioned above, the book heavily relies on methods of qualitative research to the point of being nauseating: analyzing historical poetry (p. 82-83), literature review (p. 58, 114, 159-163), public speech analysis (p. 991-103), archived personal documentation (p. 163-170, 182-194), video analysis (p. 84-94, 140-149, 157-159), archive retrieval (p. 107-108), audio analysis (p. 153-157), news database archives (p. 176-177), professional consultant (p. 204-205), one-on-one interview (p. 232-233), and historically relevant geographic surveying (p. 198-203).

It soon begins to be as exciting as a graduate research proposal with all the flamboyance of the methodology and research methods sections. While each bit of qualitative research churns up the murky past of the war, Alex doesn't gain much knowledge of the facts, only to be led to one resource or another. The research reveals more detail about the war two hundred years but the details of Christopher Sim's final battles and ship's whereabouts are all nebulous. The beginning of the data hunt is heavy with proper nouns: planets, pilots, ships, factions, commanders, cities, etc. It's too much to take on and leaves the reader shrugging through much of it, awaiting for the novel to come to the meat of the plot.

It's a common creed among author's to write for the reader, but McDevitt has cast this aside and wrote for himself. Not many reader could be familiar with Greek military strategy, mythology, politics, or philosophies, but McDevitt seems to have a keen interest in the subject and pens as much as he can into the story. Allude to it as much as he wants to, the significance is lost to most of the readers.

After the 240 pages stumbling through the wreck of 200 years of post-war history, Alex finally approaches the closest truth he can ascertain. With his pilot Chase Kolpath (later to be included in the rest of the Alex Benedict series) set off for the stars to find out what haunted later expeditions to a startling degree. What they discover is a slant to the well-regarded history and seeming trap for all who attempt a similar quest. The heightened sense of discovery is well received but the ultimate truth is a big let down... like every McDevitt novel.

If the reader doesn't mind following a qualitative paper trail with very little satisfaction as to the material gathered, then perhaps the reader can endure more of the pointless dabbling in historical nuances and prattling of the author's own self-interest. Don't expect a particularly clever unfolding of truth or reconciliation with the truth, don't expect a cliffhanger of an ending, and do do do expect to be unhappy with the conclusion (and how the prologue ties in with the epilogue). I'll read Seeker (Book Three of the Alex Benedict series) because it won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2006. But then again, I dislike many of the popular science fiction chaff out there... the greatest producer of the chaff being McDevitt himself.

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