Seeker, Jack McDevitt

Ace, 2005, 360 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01329-5

All right, dear reader, take out your white gloves and put them on: it’s time to give SFWA a little golf clap.

Why? Well, in a two-year period that saw the publication of superior works of science-fiction such as Peter Watts’ Blindsight, Charles Stross’s Glasshouse and Accelerando, Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin or Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, SFWA has deemed that Jack McDevitt’s Seeker is the best novel of 2005-2006.

Bravo, SFWA. Well done. (Golf clap)

But then again, we already know that as an organization, SFWA’s hopeless at -hm- pretty much everything that doesn’t get shoved under the usual “Griefcom-Writer’sBeware-MedicalFund” litany. (As I write this, the organization is doing frantic damage control to minimize the PR disaster that was the indiscriminate “DMCA takedown” of texts on a file-sharing site.) (And as I rewrite this, weeks later, SFWA is still stuck in another entertaining damage-control exercise about presidential candidates. Dumb SFWA, duuumb.) But SFWA particularly sucks at giving out awards. The mental midgets that log-roll each others on the nomination ballot have recently picked such all-time classics as Catherine Asaro’s The Quantum Rose and Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage as somehow being “best novels” of some sort.

Memo to SFWA members: “Novel of the year” is not the same thing as “most average novel of the year”.

Without any particular expectation -and reading Jack McDevitt will do wonders to extinguish particular expectations regarding his work- Seeker is not a particularly bad novel. It’s not particularly good, but it’s still a cut above anything I can remember from McDevitt’s post-Engines of God period. Most of the typical McDevitt tropes are there, but they’re acknowledged and even weaved in the theme of the novel.

But calling it “best novel” is foolish, and doesn’t just reflect badly on the ones giving the awards.

But let me take a deep breath. I banish the Nebulas from my mind. Happy thoughts. Okay.

Since this review has already spent far too much time bashing the Nebulas, let’s just talk about Seeker itself. If you’re already familiar with McDevitt’s fiction, you already know what you’re going to get: An adventure tale of far-future archaeology, using stock characters and as few changes from today’s world than are required in order to tell the story. McDevitt’s brand of science-fiction is comfort food for those who grew up reading the mainstream branch of SF and just want to replicate the experience. He’s not interested in genuine speculation, and I find it telling that his far-future characters usually spend their time looking at events in their own history.

So Seeker becomes an above-average McDevitt novel in acknowledging and integrating this fascination into its thematic thread. As the protagonists track down an artifact from a supposedly-lost spaceship, they too get some time to wonder how and why their civilization has remained stagnant. The answer isn’t too comforting. Props be given to the man, McDevitt can be pretty dark in his ruminations: There’s a limit to the Golden-Age-SF comparisons we can make about his work.

But I suspect that the novel works best as a Science Fiction procedural adventure, in which a tiny clue comes to reveal yet another tiny clue, which eventually (through a series of risky adventures) unravels an entire mystery. There’s adventure for all: aliens and lost spaceships and despicable antagonists and a plucky narrator to tell it all. Once firmly launched, Seeker is a pleasant read, and McDevitt is an old pro at playing with the usual SF elements. The prose is clean, the characters usually stand out, and if the story could easily be tweaked to a contemporary Tomb-Raider-style thriller, few fans will be put off by the result.

On the other hand, readers can certainly be disappointed if they’re expecting more than an above-average McDevitt potboiler. There’s little that’s innovative, new, threatening or even exemplary about this novel. Of all the SF novels published in 2005-2006, Seeker doesn’t fit in my recommended Top-10 and I can’t find anything in it that would justify such a distinction. And that brings us back to the whole “Nebula Award” business. There are ways to rationalize it: If the Nebula has become “an award we give to our own members in order to thank them for services rendered to the organization”, then there’s little we can say about SFWA’s decision. But then they shouldn’t be surprised to find out that no one takes their little clubhouse award seriously. Serious readers will go hunting elsewhere for a reliable list of novels that represent the best that Science Fiction has to offer.

(Since you ask: After a few years in the wilderness, the Hugo Awards are once more relevant, but I think that the best awards in the business are consistently the Locus Awards: Their top-15 long-list, subdivided in SF and fantasy novels, is a reliable guide to what’s worth reading every year.)

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