Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

2005: Seeker (McDevitt, Jack)

Mysteries with answers, discoveries with importance (4/5)

I began my science fiction readership in 2007 with the likes of Greg Bear, Larry Niven, and Iain M. Banks. In 2008, still early in my sci-fi reading streak, I picked up Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God (1994) and was enthralled by it. Fast-forward to 2011 and I finally continued with series with Deepsix (2000), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), Odyssey (2006), and Cauldron (2007)… they all stunk. Either Jack changed for the worst, or my taste had changed for the better. I had also read ATalent for War (1989) and Polaris (2004), but I wasn’t bowled over by either or those either. My patience with McDevitt has been wearing very thin, but if I hadn’t been given these books by my father, I would have chucked them out a long time ago. By some miracle of some sub-deity, I actually liked Seeker.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Thousands of years after an entire colony mysteriously disappears, antiquities dealer Alex Benedict comes into possession of a cup that seems to be from the Seeker, one of the colony’s ships. Investigating the provenance of the cup, Alex and  his assistant, Chase Kolpath, follow a deadly trail to the Seeker—strangely adrift is a system barren of habitable worlds. But their discovery raises more questions than it answers, drawing Alex and Chase into the very heart of danger…”


Missing for 9,000 years, an old colony ship suddenly offers up a chalice. The cup had been given to her by her now ex-boyfriend, from which he had gotten it from his father, a well-known thief. The father had stolen it from a couple who had once been part of Survey. Though Survey officially knows nothing about the connection between the couple and the chalice, Alex and Chase sense they are on to something big because there has never been a document or relic pertaining to the lost colony or its ships.

Through ingenious modes of interviewing and collating information from logs and AIs deep in alien territory, they discover a pattern which explains why the couple had deleted the sensitive information from their log and kept it to themselves. Once the couple had retired from Survey, they took private sojourns to the stars but they ever revealed where or why they were headed. But the crucial data that Alex and Chase have discovered points to a single star system.

Once there, they track down objects which turn out to be the Seeker itself, along with its sister ship and a orbiting dock which had been torn from its parent planet. The one inhabitable planet in the system looks to be too inhospitable because of its elliptic orbit around its sun, causing it to suffer long frigid winters and sharp brutal summers. Being antiquitarians, they raid the Seeker for items which could fetch a fantastic price on the open market, but thanks to the help of Survey, they leave some items for their own discovery. Eventually, they surmise that the system was visited by a passing celestial body which tore the system apart. Their next step is to find that body and the mysteries which tie into it…

…but their lives are in danger. Three attempts had been made on their lives and assets have been destroyed. Someone, somewhere out there is quashing their attempt to understand the fate of the colony, the location of the ships, and the value of its nearly ten millennia colony. The obvious finger points at antique competitors or antiquitarian denouncers, but what manipulative organizations exist that would want them dead for good?


In the Academy series, it seemed like McDevitt was slowly killing his readers with directionless plots and hollowed out mysteries. It was painful, simply painful to have all those mysteries piled high on plate without a fork or spoon to consume it with. McDevitt has said, “Some things are best left to the reader's very able imagination” and I say to that, “Show me the money!” Thankfully, McDevitt had a turn of heart when penning the Alex Benedict series. Though I couldn’t appreciate the endless research methods in A Talent for War, I somewhat enjoyed Polaris if it weren’t for its obviousness. Seeker is where it’s at!

The research methods and the execution is good stuff, taking place on Rimway, Earth, interstellar space, far-out star systems, and even on a planet of the Ashiyyurian civilization. I was impressed with the level of detail he immersed the characters in and the stakes they put down in order to track down this elusive mystery… and the mystery actually gets solved, for once! Unlike Polaris, the revelation of the truth is majestic and, frankly, pretty darn cool. I’m not saying McDevitt is a talented writer, I’m saying that Seeker is a freak novel of McDevitt’s that I happen to like. Alas, it is not without it flaws—the same flaws found in every other McDevitt book—the same flaws which jump from the pages and smack me in the face because I am now so familiar with them.

I picked up in Chindi that McDevitt has the annoying tendency to describe everyone’s height, as it matters, as if he has an inferiority complex about his own height because everyone was generically described as “tall”. When I began Omega, I kept count of how many times he described the heights of the character: he wrote “tall” SEVENTEEN times, in Odyssey we wrote “tall” SIXTEEN times, and in Cauldron only NINE times. I didn’t see this same trend in A Talent for War, but I surely saw in here again in Seeker: SEVENTEEN times (pgs. 20, 23, 31, 34, 57 [twice], 70, 114 [“taller”], 125, 136, 252, 254, 261, 312, 365, and 370 [plus one “taller”]). In comparison, he described height fourteen other times: average (pg. 16), little (pg, 22), tiny (pg. 25), large (pg. 50), short (pgs. 52, 261, and 370), small (pgs. 62, 269, and 305), massive (pg. 96), and big (pg. 135). McDevitt… take note!

My qualms on McDevitt’s use of height aside, my other irritation with McDevitt’s writing is the recurring use of meta-fiction (plays, novels, movies, and VR shows).  Meta-fiction should provide an alternative view of the universe the characters live in, a glimpse into their world’s primary importance, a window into their fantasies and desires… not like McDevitt’s half-baked meta-fiction which he treats like a 3-page escape from the plot to indulge himself in some random idea with ZERO importance on the plot, on the universe or on the plot.

Seeker was highly acclaimed in 2006 having nominated for the Locus Poll Award and John W. Campbell Award and also in 2007 winning the Nebula Award. It’s a good novel and would have been great without its flaws, but there were many good books from the same year 2005: Eric Brown’s The Fall ofTartarus, Joe Haldeman’s Old Twentieth, Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, and Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Angel Dust Apocalypse—all of which I’ve ranked with 5-of-5 stars and clearly beat McDevitt’s Seeker. I should have my own award for best novel of the year… I complain about the winners so often.


If you don’t have the trained eye in McDevitt’s faults like I do, you may end up loving Seeker. In the last two years, if you’ve read nearly everything he’s produced, you should still enjoy this novel but cringe at McDevitt’s idiosyncrasies. I like it, yes—but I’m not going to continue the series. I’ll finished the series on a high, with only McDevitt’s Infinity Beach and 120 other novels on the shelves. Seeker is a keeper next to The Engines of God.

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