Polaris

by Jack McDevitt

Cover image

Series: Alex Benedict #2
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: November 2004
Printing: November 2005
ISBN: 0-441-01253-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 385

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This is the second novel following Alex Benedict's far-future archeological investigations, but the books are only loosely linked. There are a few references to the events of A Talent for War, but no direct spoilers that I can recall and nothing critical to the plot.

Polaris very much follows the model of A Talent for War, but this time the focus is on a specific incident rather than a person. The ship Polaris was returning home after carrying an elite group of scientists, special observers to a rare collision between stars, when everyone on-board vanished and the ship was found adrift. Now, sixty years later, Survey is finally releasing the artifacts that they found on the ship: the cups, uniforms, pens, and other objects imprinted with famous ship names that are Alex Benedict's stock in trade. When Benedict gets a chance to have his pick prior to public auction, he becomes a target for someone who is apparently searching the remains from the Polaris for something specific. As expected, by the end of the book, Benedict and his assistant untangle the mystery of the mysterious disappearances and quite a bit more.

With this book, McDevitt shifts perspective in the series from Benedict himself to Chase Kolpath, his female assistant and apprentice. There are advantages and disadvantages to the narrative move, but on the whole I think it improves the book. Alex Benedict's characterization fares better when seen through another's eyes. A Talent for War suffered somewhat from not having a charismatic lead, and Benedict looks more brilliant and more interesting when kept more frequently off-camera and given an opportunity to come up with the right questions and persistance in the right area to crack an archeological mystery.

One drawback, however, is that McDevitt isn't particularly good at writing women. Chase is an adequate first-person narrator in the grand sidekick tradition, reminding one occasionally of Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin (although Benedict has nowhere near the charisma or curmudgeonliness of Nero Wolfe). She's more naturally brash and energetic, which helps with the story. But I never found her that believable as a women and was sometimes thrown by an oddly old-fashioned bit of dialogue or characterization, and when McDevitt isn't trying a bit too hard to make her different, she sometimes sounds almost exactly like Benedict. Characterization in general remains a weak spot for this series; McDevitt's strong point is the archeological focus and his skill in making a methodical investigation entertaining reading. One reads these books for the thought processes and the sense of history, not for dynamic protagonists.

The biggest flaw in Polaris compared to A Talent for War is that neither the stakes nor the historical questions are as interesting. The previous novel deals with war and politics, legend and reality, and the way in which cultures create their own mythology. Polaris is partly about overpopulation politics and partly about the mechanics of celebrity and the artifact trade. McDevitt does a decent job with both of these topics and the pacing and climax are still well-done and compelling, but Polaris didn't make me think. There are moral quandries, but mostly simplistic ones.

But despite being lighter reading and less likely to help the reader look at the world in a new way, Polaris is still an entertaining mystery with a refreshingly different focus for future SF. I like a story built around detective work and analysis rather than conflict and action, and I like a mystery that's more complicated and less well-trodden than murders and theft. This isn't quite as good as A Talent for War, but still recommended to SF readers who don't mind light characterization.

Followed by Seeker.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-03-10

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21