Coming Home

by Jack McDevitt

Cover image

Series: Alex Benedict #7
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: November 2014
Printing: November 2015
ISBN: 0-425-26088-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 356

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Coming Home is a direct sequel to Firebird, the first time McDevitt has done that in this series. You therefore don't want to start here, although the nature of the sequel doesn't require that you remember Firebird in that much detail.

The mystery of the disappearing starships was understood in Firebird but not resolved. The title advertises that as a major theme in this book, but it progresses very slowly. There's more media bickering and various factional attempts to draw Alex (and, to a lesser extent, Chase) into the controversies. McDevitt does a good job writing popular media, the strange position of public intellectual and talk-show favorite, and the way this filters into popular arguments. But with Alex trying to take a nuanced and unsure position and with a lot of talk but little action, it's not the most compelling reading.

Coming Home holds to form in balancing a mystery and a second plot. Since the starship problem is understood, it can't be the central mystery of the book. That role is taken by the discovery of communication device from the very early days of space flight, which takes Alex and Chase to Earth for the first time in this series (at least that I can recall). This time, the search is for a legendary trove of historical artifacts that was moved from a space flight museum in Florida when the ocean rose to cover the state. From there, its location was lost in the middle of a general economic collapse called the Time of Troubles that destroyed most of Earth's governmental systems (and, apparently rather more importantly to McDevitt, the space program).

Anyone who has gotten this far in the series will know the standard problem with McDevitt's futures: they're indistinguishable from the 1960s except that they have flying cars. There is a tiny break from that tradition here, since climate change has clearly happened to Earth, covering Florida with the ocean and shifting the major cities north. But the sense of deep history that McDevitt is trying for in this series doesn't work: I just don't believe as much time has gone by as the story claims. He does offer an explanation for why technology has been stagnant for apparently millennia, but it's just a contention that science ran out of more things to discover due to authorial fiat and is now just a matter of engineering and step-wise refinement. (I think the science behind the disappearing starships happening in this very same book undermines that contention considerably.)

Even if one can put that aside, Earth is, well, boring. This is partly an intriguing stylistic choice by McDevitt: Earth is intended to be just one more world. It might have a longer history than many other human-occupied worlds, but history is so long everywhere that this only matters to a few people like Alex and Chase. The choice makes sense, but it doesn't make a good story. And there are other things that I flatly didn't believe, such as the supposed isolation of Earth from the communication network of Alex's home world of Rimway for... no apparent reason other than that different communication networks don't talk to each other except via, essentially, letters. Even if one is willing to ignore the mysterious failure of forward progress in technology, this makes no social or engineering sense given the capabilities already shown in the series.

I found the main mystery at best mildly interesting. McDevitt does a good job showing the research and investigation process, with all its tedium and dead ends, but I wasn't as invested in the search as he wanted me to be. The endless space boosterism started getting on my nerves, as it so often does in science fiction of a certain type, and I had a much harder time swallowing McDevitt's Earth than his fictional Rimway. I will give him credit for a surprisingly affecting conclusion of the main mystery, but the missing starship subplot putters to an undistinguished end.

I think this series is running out of steam. It's become increasingly formulaic, and the characters, like McDevitt's future technology, have stopped developing. I was hoping the reunion foreshadowed since Firebird would shake things up, but at least in this book it doesn't. Maybe it will in subsequent books, but I'm starting to question whether I really want to keep reading.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-07-02

Last modified and spun 2016-07-03