Fiction Reviews

Octavia Gone

(2019) Jack McDevitt, Pocket Books, £6.99 / Can$11.99 / US$8.99, pbk, 441pp, ISBN 978-1-481-49798-5


This came out in 2019 in N. America with the paperback's first release in 2020.  From the master of light adventure, space opera this is another in the Alex Benedict series, and, though can be read as a standalone novel, it is actually part of the Alex Benedict series of which the previous is Coming Home (2014).  Indeed, the story picks up where that one left off (though there is brief exposition to bring readers up to speed).

It is the 12th millennium (nine thousand years hence) and humanity has reached the stars and colonised several Earth-like worlds.  On one, Alex Benedict is an antique dealer who has an administrative assistant (who is also a small starship pilot) called Chase Kolpath who as a hobby writes up their escapades (hence the novel you are reading).

Alex and Chase are welcoming back Alex's archaeologist uncle, Gabe, who had been presumed lost for many years in hyperspace when the starship Capella and its 3,000 passengers and crew vanished (though it is not strictly necessary for this book, see the previous novel Coming Home).  Gabe notices that a mysterious artefact is missing from his home he had bequeathed to Alex; the artefact had an uncertain origin (it had even been speculatively attributed to some unknown alien civilisation) but had belonged to someone associated with the Octavia black hole research station.  The Octavia station had been orbiting a black hole, thought to be one end of a wormhole, 11 years ago when it bafflingly vanished.  'Bafflingly', because it was a safe distance from the black hole and the timing of its vanishing coincided with an extremely narrow window when it was out of communication with the nearest colonised world.

Alex set about tracking down the artefact, with Chase, for Gabe.  It could be that the artefact might shed light on why the Octavia station disappeared…

As said, McDevitt is the master of light adventure, space opera and the Alex Benedict series (which complements the Priscilla Hutchins / Academy novels set earlier in the same universe) are amiable, private investigator style escapades: thinkPaul Temple or, better, Lovejoy in space.  And invariably, this adventure takes them off world both to the site of where the Octavia had been by the black hole, but also to a world visited by one of the Octavia crew and a planet that is the home to a friend of another of that crew, among other places.  All this in a bid to dig further into the most likely of the various theories that had been put forward for Octavia's disappearance as well as to find out the true source of the mysterious object that had been in Gabe's possession…

I confess I have a certain fondness for McDevitt's light space opera; they are comfy adventures as well as all good reads.  They are a guilty pleasure of mine, being unchallenging, not that sophisticated and the SF all standard treatments of core tropes as oppose to novel explorations.  But there's nothing wrong with that: SF's standard toolkit still entertains.  True, in the past, I have been critical of just a few Alex Benedict novels whose plot, on closer inspection, had some fundamental flaws.  However, on this occasion, plot-wise Octavia Gone is logically more robust.  And, while the Alex Benedict novels can be read as standalones, there has also been a slow development of the characters across the books.  Indeed, Octavia Gone sees a more mobile, hence the possibility for greater involvement, of one of the 'characters' in future stories.

Do give McDevitt a try.  If you like this one then you'll be bound to enjoy any of either the Alex Benedict or the Priscilla Hutchins / Academy novels.  Further, McDevitt can also do something with a little more meat.  His first novel, The Hercules Text (1986) garnered a Locus Award for best debut as well as a Philip K. Dick Special Award.  Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the star-faring technology almost casually used in both the Benedict and Hutchins stories (especially given the apparent minimal technological development between these two series centuries apart in the same universe) stemmed from The Hercules Text?  But maybe I'm being too fanciful?

Jonathan Cowie


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