Seeker

by Jack McDevitt

Cover image

Series: Alex Benedict #3
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: November 2005
Printing: November 2006
ISBN: 0-441-01375-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 373

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As with Polaris, Seeker mentions the previous books in the series and the effect of those plots on the characters, but only in passing. Seeker is readable on its own without the preceding books and gains only a little depth from being read in series order.

On the surface, Seeker is very similar to Polaris. Chase Kolpath, Alex Benedict's assistant, is again the narrator, allowing Alex to work a bit more off-camera and not expose all of his thoughts to the reader. The story opens with an archeological puzzle — this time, a cup apparently from the early days of human space exploration — and Chase and Alex tackle the problem in their methodical investigative fashion. Once again, sinister forces are after the same information, although I liked the twist of an abusive boyfriend instead of the more cloak-and-dagger problems of the previous books. Apart from some physical danger, though, there's little violence to the story and most of the work is intellectual puzzles of history and evidence. Seeker starts as another fairly predictable entry in the series.

However, once the story hits its stride, I think this book becomes the most effective Alex Benedict story to date. There's no one feature that stands out, but the blending of attitude, plot, investigation, and set pieces is a cut above the previous two books. The sweep of history is somewhat better-handled here since we're dealing with an older artifact. We see a bit more of the underbelly of society, more of Chase thinking on her feet, and more hard SF in the archeological puzzles. In previous entries in the series, the SF explanation of what happened is generally quite straightforward once finally revealed. Seeker instead has layers that Alex and Chase penetrate only with persistance, which builds and sustains tension more effectively. And, in the highlight of the book for me, Chase travels through Ashiyyurean space as part of the investigation, providing a far more in-depth look at the aliens than we got in A Talent for War.

The Ashiyyurean scene is interesting not only for the details we learn about the aliens and human interactions with them, but also because McDevitt successfully portrays them as disturbing while still basically decent. They're too human, a complaint that can be made about nearly all SF aliens not written by Peter Watts, but that aside they're successfully off-putting and civilized simultaneously. Through Chase, McDevitt captures the awkward emotion of being uncomfortable and somewhat afraid, discovering that the people you're around are more decent than you expected and your fears are overblown, but continuing to have underlying worries that can't be entirely put to rest.

McDevitt is skillful at those sorts of situational insights and at some specific details of the way history and archeology work. Unfortunately, this doesn't carry over to general deftness with character, and once again bits of social norms (particularly around women) struck me as strangely old-fashioned. Alex Benedict has a tendency towards chivalrous attitudes in that way that one forgives in one's grandfather but which is odd and vaguely annoying in a book character not characterized that way (particularly this far into an apparently egalitarian future). Similarly, there are unexamined assumptions about political structures and social organization outside of the main thrust of the plot that hurt my suspension of disbelief. The semi-utopian absence of crime, the blithe statements by the main characters about democracy without ever addressing the mechanisms of government, and the easy dismissal of the political worries of earlier eras all create a picture of very simplistic political world-building. The feeling of received wisdom about the obvious ways to run societies that struck me as stereotypically American and a bit disappointing.

On that front, on the characterization front, and in the hard SF puzzles of the climax, Seeker establishes itself firmly within the conventional mainstream of the SF novel. McDevitt distinguishes himself by writing a largely non-violent story with compelling plot motivations that come from an unusual direction for SF, but the tone is comfortable and familiar to the long-time SF reader. I can understand why this was a Nebula winner: it's clearly a step up in overall quality of plotting and construction than the earlier books in the series, and it's a safe and conventional sort of SF novel that would appeal to a conservative audience. I found it quite enjoyable and well-worth reading, but it probably wouldn't have gotten my vote.

I expect Seeker will be enjoyable in direct proportion to how much you're looking for the feel of a classic SF novel centering around intellectual curiosity, and are willing to forgive the normal SF writing flaws and swallow thousands of years of human history with very few noticeable technological advances.

Followed by The Devil's Eye.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-03-18

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21