Space Relics

I recent finished reading John Scalzi‘s recent novel, The Consuming Fire, the second in his Interdependency trilogy. It’s quite good, and I agree with some comments I’ve read that although it starts slow, it ends up being a more satisfying read than the first volume. But what won me over fully to it is not the satisfying ending (which is about as satisfying an ending as the second book in a trilogy can have), but the bits in the middle.

(Spoilers for The Consuming Fire, as well as some other stories discussed below!)

The Interdependency in the series is a collection of worlds connected by wormholes, except that after millennia the wormholes start collapsing. Since most of the “worlds” are actually uninhabited – the population live on artificial satellites in orbit, and only one world is known to itself be habitable – this is a big problem, since the worlds can’t survive on their own. The fact of this collapse is a nascent scientific discovery which is not widely believed, but a major development in this book is that a wormhole which had collapsed centuries before has recently reopened for a limited period of time, and our heroes – in the form of the Emperox – send an expeditionary ship through to see what happened to the settlement there.

They break into the main satellite, which is predictably dead and dormant, and manage to reactivate some of the computer systems, whereupon they discover that they’re not the first ones to do so: The system had been reactivated several times since civilization collapsed, and our heroes figure out that not only is there a remnant of the centuries-dead civilization still hanging on, but that they had been visited from elsewhere during that time.

And I love this stuff. Stories about finding long-forgotten and long-dead remnants of past civilizations or even people whose stories ended tragically long before they were uncovered thrills me more than almost anything else in science fiction.

I was trying to think when my fascination with this sort of story started, and the earliest instance I can think of is the Space: 1999 episode “Dragon’s Domain”. Five years earlier, a probe to the recently-discovered tenth planet of the solar system ended in tragedy when it discovered a graveyard of alien ships. On docking with one of them, three of the four crew members are killed by a mysterious creature, and the fourth barely escapes and makes it back to Earth. In the present, he senses that the creature is nearby, and the Alphans find the same graveyard, many light years from Earth, and have a final showdown with the creature. As with most things in the series, the story doesn’t make much sense, but when I was six years old when it first aired in 1975, it made an indelible impression on me, enough that when I had the opportunity to buy a few episodes in the 90s, it was one of the two that I bought. (Yes, I was disappointed when I watched it.) It’s not even very satisfying in exploring the ships they find – we never get to see inside any of them – but somehow it was just enough to stimulate some part of my brain.

Somehow many Space: 1999 episodes are available in their entirety on YouTube, and I watched it before writing this post:

(I could write at some length about Space: 1999, basically that I think there is some good stuff in there that could have been used as the springboard for an actually good series, but it’s buried under so much nonsense and terrible writing that any good series would have been substantially different from what actually aired. But I digress.)

Another episode which tickled a similar part of my brain was “Another Time, Another Place”, in which the Alphans meet their doppelgängers from another universe who had recolonized the Earth, with mixed results. I haven’t re-watched that one, but I recall the exploration of the doppelgänger Alpha was pretty powerful. Again, to my six-year-old self.

Star Trek also had a little of this, though the memorable episodes involved finding derelict starships. “Space Seed”, “The Tholian Web”, and my all-time favorite episode, “The Doomsday Machine”, all feature these small-scale discoveries and piecing together what happened, although the main thrust of each episode heads in a somewhat different direction; the space relics are primarily part of the episodes’ color. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode actually entitled “Relics” features an ancient Dyson sphere, but it’s really about Scotty coming to the 24th century. And the Star Trek: Enterprise story “In a Mirror, Darkly” is a sequel to “The Tholian Web”, but it’s really a love letter to original series fans.

The movie Alien starts off with the characters exploring a derelict alien hulk, and although the film is overall excellent (and I am not a fan of horror films generally), plumbing the depths of the hulk is not the point of the film.

So with all of these TV shows and movies teasing me with glimpses of old relics that don’t really get explored, what really got me hooked on this stuff? Well, it was a book titled Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space which was part of a series of art books from the late 70s about the fictional Terran Trade Authority. Set over the next thousand years or so, the book is a collection of short stories with corresponding illustration (I inferred that the illustration was done first and the story written to more-or-less match it, but I really have no idea) about spaceships which had been lost and later found abandoned, or maybe just found without anyone knowing where they came from (e.g., alien ships). Mary Celeste-type stuff. It was not great literature, but I read through it several times as a teenager, fascinated by the stories with their sometimes-oblique tragedies of years long past, buried more by obscurity than by intent.

I think that’s part of what appeals to me about such stories: Unlike typical mysteries, in which there’s a perpetrator who is deliberately trying to conceal the truth, in these stories the truth has been lost due to the ravages of time, or due to something simply dropping out of sight, or becoming inaccessible. There may have been some corresponding or causal tragedy to the mystery – that’s sometimes where the story comes from – but I find the peeling back of the layers, and the revelation of what happened to the long-dead people to be the part of the tale that grabs my imagination.

And that brings me to what, to my knowledge, is the preeminent example of this sort of story: Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict series.

Alex Benedict is an antiquities dealer who inherited money from his anthropologist uncle after he was lost in space, and set up his own business. In the first book, A Talent For War (1989) – which is one of my favorite novels – he investigates the disappearance of a crew of heroes who helped end the war against the only known alien species in the galaxy. As a group of legendary officers, the crew lightly evokes the crew of the original Star Trek, but all of them are two centuries dead. The story has some good twists and turns, and a solid ending. It was probably the most satisfying story of its sort I’d read up to this point – it might still be at the top.

To my delight, McDevitt turned this novel into a series, with 9 millennia of backstory for his characters to explore:

  • Polaris (2004): An auction of relics from a ship whose crew disappeared under impossible circumstances unfolds the mystery of what really happened to them.
  • Seeker (2005): A lone cup unlocks the mystery to the location of one of the earliest colony ships from Earth, nearly 9,000 years earlier. This one won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.
  • The Devil’s Eye (2008): A mind-wiped friend of Alex’s is the clue to a government cover-up and a lost colony. The series’ nadir in my opinion.
  • Echo (2010): A deceased scientist known for searching for other intelligent life beyond humans and the one other species we’ve encountered found something. But if he found aliens, why did he bury the news?
  • Firebird (2011): Another deceased scientist who was known for researching parallel universes also found something. What he found is very different from the story in Echo, and is perhaps the most arresting storyline of the series, and very much on-theme for this article – but I won’t reveal it here because I definitely recommend reading it yourself. It’s concluded in the next novel…
  • Coming Home (2014): In addition to the continued story from Firebird, Alex is presented with a relic from the earliest days of humanity’s space age, and he heads to Earth in search of its origin.

Coming Home seemed like a perfect ending to the series, and it was hard to see how McDevitt would top it, but apparently there will be a new volume, Octavia Gone, published next year.

Despite my fondness for the series, I do caution readers to temper their expectations: McDevitt is clearly influenced by the SF Golden Age grandmasters such as Asimov and Clarke, which means his writing can be a bit dry. He also has a decidedly clumsy approach to writing women, which is doubly unfortunate since after Talent – narrated by Alex – the remaining books are narrated by his assistant and pilot, Chase Kolpath. Chase is a pretty capable figure, but there are many cringeworthy turns of phrase involving her gender. So I’d expect some people would find the writing would cancel out the good qualities of the story, but if you can get past its limitations perhaps you’ll enjoy it. Unfortunately in such a limited niche, it’s nearly impossible to have it all.

By the way, an earlier McDevitt novel, Ancient Shores (1996), has some moments that resonated for me in this way – humanity discovers an abandoned network of portals to other worlds – although the main thrust of the story lies elsewhere. I suggest skipping the disappointing sequel, Thunderbird (2015), however.

I’m sure there are other stories I’m forgetting about, but those are the major ones. I wish more writers would play in this space (though I’m not so willing to sit through dozens of episodes of bad television for the occasional story of this sort), but I take what I can get.

Are there any notable stories in this vein that I should check out?


A friend’s comment on Facebook reminded me that I wanted to mention a couple of similar tropes which I see as different from the trope that interests me here:

First are Big Dumb Objects, unfathomable artifacts from ancient civilizations. Stories around these tend to fall into two camps: Either people trying to figure out what they’re used for and eventually reactivating them (usually to disappointing effect, since the payoff is rarely satisfying after the build-up), or as something which trigger the story but isn’t central to how it plays out (for example in Alastair Reynolds’ novella Diamond Dogs). While I can enjoy these stories, they different from the trope I’m discussing here because they’re fundamentally more impersonal; there’s little speculation in or resolution of what happened to the specific characters who left behind the BDO, it’s just a driver for the main characters’ story.

Second are ancient and dead civilizations, which again tend to be impersonal, the discovery of vast swaths of culture and/or technology rather than the story of a specific relic left behind. Star Trek worked this territory a lot, usually encountering the degenerate remnants of such civilizations, though occasionally they found completely dead ones, such as in “Contagion”. “The Inner Light” is a more personal take on a dead civilization, although it contains more of what I enjoy, but it subverts it by throwing Picard into the middle of events (and is shamelessly manipulative and maudlin to boot).

Jack McDevitt: Firebird

I’ve given McDevitt a hard time over his Alex Benedict novels since the terrific A Talent For War, but I’m happy to report that the latest in the series, Firebird, is the best since that inaugural effort, with a genuine sense of wonder, a nifty plot twist and a satisfying conclusion.

The story opens with antiquities dealer Benedict’s aide, Chase Kolpath, being approached to sell some items from the estate of Christopher Robin, a physicist of some note who disappeared several decades earlier. (Yes, unfortunately the disappeared man has the same name as the boy in Winnie-the-Pooh, but oh well.) Chase doesn’t know who he is, but Alex fills her in: Robin was notes as being a proponent of there being alternate realities, and supposedly having been trying to find a way to them. One evening he returned from a trip with his pilot, who dropped him off in front of his house, and he disappeared. The pilot then volunteered to help with rescue efforts in a major earthquake and was killed in the process. While Robin is assumed to have died, no one knows for sure. Maybe he found a a way to other realities and simply stepped into one.

Alex doesn’t really believe this, but hits the talk show circuit to build up Robin’s mystique to make the most money for his client. But then, as always happens, he gets bitten by the bug to find out what really happened to Robin. THe investigation turns up a few facts: That Robin had become interested in reports of mysterious ships that occasionally appear near worlds, stations or other ships and then disappear without ever being identified. That he had a friend he went on missions with who was killed on one of them. That he was interested in a world named Villanueva, where human life had died out centuries ago but the trappings of it had been left intact. And that he had bought several old spaceships and taken them out in the 15 years or so before his death, returning without any of them. It all adds up to something that doesn’t equal parallel realities, but does equal something just about as cool, which even raises the specter of one of the earliest background elements of the series.

McDevitt often stretches to put Alex and Chase in danger, sometimes a little too far as neither of them is a fighter, and the risks they take sometimes seem ridiculous. But he does a better job of balancing this than in recent novels. He also does a good job of taking one of the side plots and turning it into a serious moral dilemma and distraction from the main plot.

Best of all, once we learn what’s really going on, he lets Alex and Chase get to the meat of the problem, and there are several wrenching scenes where we learn what happens to several characters. Fortunately there’s also a satisfying afterward which ties up one of the loose ends. So McDevitt really gets just about everything right in the novel.

Overall the story doesn’t have quite the impact of Talent, and the nature of the series takes just a little wind out of the sails of the potential of the story (in a true standalone novel, there’s the potential for a lot more exploration of the plot twist which can’t really happen here without revealing more about Alex and Chase than can really happen here). But it’s still a really fun novel, and quite a page-turner too. If you’ve bailed on the series prior to this, I suggest getting back on board at least for this installment.

Jack McDevitt: Echo

Echo is another entry in Jack McDevitt’s run of far-future antiquarian mysteries, in which antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot/aide du camp Chase Kolpath unravel a long-buried mystery. This time around, the mystery involves a stone from the former estate of one Somerset Tuttle, best known for devoting his long life to searching for intelligent alien life, in a galaxy humanity has been roaming for thousands of years and in which only one other intelligent life form has been found. The stone contains markings that don’t conform to any known human script, but before Alex and Chase can procure it, another party makes off with it.

The other party turns out to be Rachel Bannister, who had been Tuttle’s lover up until the time they both walked away from their quest – and she walked away from her job as a pilot – with Tuttle dying in a boating accident a few years later. Alex and Chase pull on the slender threads of the mystery before finding out what really happened.

I’ve discussed what I think are the failings of the Alex Benedict series in earlier reviews (low tech universe, somewhat superficial story), and Echo doesn’t really remedy those flaws. Clearly, the series is what it is. Yet I keep reading it, and indeed I devoured this book in just a few days (quite rapidly, for me!), so just as clearly, I enjoy it despite the fact that McDevitt clearly isn’t going to overcome its limitations and produce another A Talent For War.

The success of Echo is partly the suspense of who’s trying to stop Alex and Chase in their quest (and whether they’ll succeed), and partly the fundamental question, did Tuttle find aliens or didn’t he, and if he did, why didn’t he announce it to the universe? McDevitt does a pretty good job of resolving this mystery satisfactorily – if anything, he underplays his hand in the last few chapters, robbing the climax of some impact. And the last third of the book is a fairly rousing adventure exploring the star system our heroes’ quest takes them to. It reminds us that, fundamentally, they’re amateurs at this “brave new worlds” thing, surviving by their wits and the skin of their teeth. Alex in particular is far more at home dealing with people than with environments or animals (and Chase is only slightly better).

If you enjoyed earlier volumes in the series, then you ought to like this one.

Jack McDevitt: The Devil’s Eye

Why is it that Jack McDevitt’s second novel, A Talent For War, is one of my favorite books, but the others I’ve read by him have been merely… okay? Talent starred antiquities dealer Alex Benedict, a resident of human space in the far future, unraveling a mystery of the great war between humans and the only other sentient species we’d discovered. The other Benedict novels – there are three more – follow a similar pattern, of Benedict and his aide/pilot Chase Kolpath traveling around the galaxy to unearth clues to a historical mystery, yet none of them worked nearly as well for me as Talent did.

The Devil’s Eye is the latest Benedict novel, and it covers similar ground: On the way back from a visit to Earth, Alex receives a message from popular horror novelist Vicki Greene asking for help, with the cryptic line that “They’re all dead”. But when they get back home, they find that Greene has had her personality wiped after transferring a large sum of money to Alex’s account. Feeling honor-bound to figure out what drove her to this extreme, Alex and Chase follow up on her recent activities, travelling to the isolated world of Salud Afar, a planet rich in ghost and horror stories, in addition to having come out from under the yoke of a brutal dictatorship just a few decades earlier. And they do discover what happened to Ms. Greene, about halfway through the book, at which point it becomes a very different story, one of moral conflicts and government cover-ups and appeals for help in the face of impending tragedy.

A Talent For War was a game-changing novel for Alex’s universe, and it’s difficult to do that in every story (and to his credit, McDevitt hasn’t tried), but it also makes it a tough act to follow. More importantly, Talent was both a portrait of a flawed hero – a hero of the past war, whose nature Alex had to figure out – and a story in which Alex had to make some tough choices for himself, even though there were some clues that maybe the mystery were better left unsolved. Talent is more of a character drama than the other McDevitt novels I’ve read, in addition to being an exciting adventure, and having some compelling vignettes sprinkled through it. It works because it’s the complete package, and McDevitt pulled it off with unusual subtlety.

The Devil’s Eye feels like it’s trying to recapture the power of Talent (the intervening two Benedict novels have been essentially straight-up mysteries), and mixing things up a bit by using the mystery to get into the larger story, in which Alex and Chase have to decide whether to reveal what they’ve learned, and then whether they can do more to help. (It’s difficult to describe the second half of the story without ruining the surprises of first half.) But unfortunately the second half is not nearly as interesting as the first half, and it felt very heavy-handed. There are some good moments in it, in particular Chase ends up being the hero of the day in the way that Alex usually is, but the machinations of the characters in the second half often felt routine to me, and the outcome seemed fairly clear from the outset. The first half, with its mysteries and atmosphere and moments of adventure, is much more intriguing and exciting.

McDevitt’s strength in the latter Benedict novels is that atmosphere, which is grounded in the settings of the places the characters visit, and their histories. That’s the case here, too, as the mysterious locales of Salud Afar are a little bit corny, and a little bit spooky, which I think is the intention. It’s the SF equivalent of a haunted house, or a local legend where no one’s quite sure whether it has any basis in truth or not. For example, the isolated village where a cyborg is reputedly buried and who rises from the grave to claim new victims, or the mysterious light in the Haunted Forest. The book’s strength is all the more impressive since Benedict’s universe is pretty low-tech for a far future novel (at least, a modern one), being of about the same tech level as Asimov’s Foundation books (McDevitt’s writing reminds me of Asimov’s from time to time, actually). The sense of wonder is in the world building, not the tech.

One of the weaknesses of the Benedict novels after Talent is that they’re narrated by Chase, whose voice never really rings true to me, and who I think is a much less interesting character than Alex. And Alex isn’t even a Sherlock Holmes type who’s best revealed through an everyman narrative; he’s rich and smart, but not truly exceptional, and being inside his head in Talent was much more interesting than seeing him from Chase’s point of view.

(Unsurprisingly, I said many of the same things in my review of the previous Benedict novel, Seeker.)

The book overall rates for me as “pretty good”, but at this point I don’t think McDevitt’s going to recapture the excellence of Talent. The Devil’s Eye has its moments, and the series is entertaining enough that I’ll keep reading them – mainly for the setting and the mystery (I think space opera mystery is an underexplored genre, and I wish more writers were working this territory). But his writing seems more geared for the mainstream than for the high tech SF fan, which isn’t bad, but I often think it could be more than it is.

Jack McDevitt: Seeker

Review of the novel Seeker by Jack McDevitt.

I’m a big fan of McDevitt’s second novel, A Talent For War (which was recently reissued), but I was disappointed in its first sequel, Polaris, and I’m equally disappointed in Seeker.

I think the fundamental problem is that the adventures of antiquarian Alex Benedict and his aide Chase Kolpath have quickly become fomulaic: Discover that at some point in the past something went mysteriously missing, slowly draw back the slender thread of evidence which has survived the years (or millennia) to the present day, and then unravel the mystery, usually with some present-day danger thrown in. In Seeker, the quarry is the nine-thousand-year-old colony ship Seeker, which was apparently stumbled on by some government surveyors, who died before they told anyone their secret. The Seeker was one of the first big colony ships from Earth, which left in the 27th century, and its value could be incalculable. Meanwhile, Alex and Chase have to contend with the surly owner of the relic which put them on the trail, as well as a secret foe who seems to want to kill them for mysterious reasons.

All three Benedict books have basically the same formula, so why does Talent work so well for me when the other two don’t? First of all, it’s narrated by Alex, who is a much more engaging character than Chase, who narrates the other two. Indeed, Alex seems like something of a heel when Chase talks about him, while he’s more sympathetic – and fallable for more likeable reasons – in his own voice. Second, the moral ambiguities that Alex uncovers in Talent‘s historical figure are more powerful and better drawn than we see in the later books. Lastly, Talent is a novel which changes the status quo of its hero and his world – a tough trick to plausibly pull off in three consecutive novels.

McDevitt’s strength is to present his settings with the proper sense of scale, the vast timeframes, the stature of the historic figures, the loneliness of abandoned or lost ships, stations and planets, the feeling of opportunities passed. He doesn’t get it all perfect (human civilization feels too contemporary to feel like it’s nine thousand years in the future, for instance), but it works well enough. He’s also good at writing a page-turner, with enough suspense and anticipation to make Seeker enjoyable.

But it feels like something’s missing, an essential weight to the story, or depth to the characterization. So, like Polaris, Seeker is merely light reading. A good change of pace from some of the heavy stuff I tend to read, but whether I’ll continue following Alex and Chase in the future, I don’t know.