Fiction Reviews

A Talent for War

(1989 / 2013) Jack McDevitt, Headline, £9.99, pbk, 406pp, ISBN 978-1-472-20307-6


This is McDevitt's second novel following his Locus 'first novel' award-winning The Hercules Text (1986).  A Talent for War was published in 1989 but recently Headline has been re-publishing them in Britain with this one coming out in 2013 but which I have only just (2018) bought and read: it was a gap in my reading and I was keen to see how McDevitt transitioned from his solid hard SF debut to becoming established in what are essentially space operatic thrillers.  This novel is also the first in the Alex Benedict series which is set in the same universe (albeit later) as the Priscilla Hutchins sequence: both sets of novels together make up the bulk of McDevitt's oevre.

Some 9,000 years hence, humanity has spread to the stars. Part of human space came under attack from the alien Ashiyyur and so some human worlds went to war. One legend of these times was Christopher Sim and his hit-and-run small fleet of ships.

Jump forward many decades and there is now an uneasy peace between humanity and the telepathic Ashiyyur.  Meanwhile, antiques dealer Alex Benedict learns that his uncle Gabe has vanished along with the 2,600 other passengers and crew of the starship Capella while on a business trip. Alas, while humanity has touched the stars, starships do occasionally get lost in hyperspace never to return.

With the Capella gone, Gabe is effectively declared dead and Alex inherits his fortune plus a message that suggests that Gabe was onto something related to Christopher Sim and the likely real-space location of Sim's lost battleship.

Alex meets Chase Kolpath, a colleague of Gabe, and together they begin to unravel the mystery…

As said, this is the first in the Alex Benedict series which sees Alex and Chase solve interstellar mysteries. (The Priscilla Hutchins sequence is more space operatic thrillers, though the Benedict novels are thrillers as well as mysteries.) This first Alex Benedict offering is perhaps a little more complex than the subsequent, more straightforward novels. There is a heck of a lot of interstellar history to get through in order to establish the mystery of Christopher Sim and while this will satisfy those into world-building and future histories, I tend to get hooked by the core thriller and SF mystery elements of McDevitt's novels.  Yet, for those familiar with some of the other Benedict novels we can see the core elements of these at work in this book. There's the mystery wrapped up in a sci-fi setting, the partner PIs, the red herring, the murder attempt (we get at least two here) to halt our duo's investigation, loads of clues, and a firm conclusion. The latter it has to be said is a little dues ex machina about it, but what the heck: you don't read McDevitt for the conclusion or even the plot strength, but the gung-ho space operatic ride.  Here McDevitt delivers.

Jack McDevitt is, I unashamedly admit, one of my guilty pleasures: his stories are space operatic romps in an almost idealistic SF future in which interstellar travel for business (as well as leisure for the wealthy) is possible. And if you do have the cash (and Alex has just inherited a fortune) you can even rent a space craft of your own and off you go. OK, so sod the detail, you've got to admire the brio of McDevitt's writing and being swept along by it all.

Perhaps the slightly more thoughtful reader might wonder where all the futuristic space-going technology comes from? It is clear that much has been developed with time by scientists and engineers: so far, so standard. But I do wonder – given the lack of explanation and we are simply handed it to us on a plate (as with much of SF) – whether or not perhaps humanity's initial expansion into space, as portrayed by both the Alex Benedict and Priscilla Hutchins novels, was kick-started by the technological science message sent us in The Hercules Text?  OK, that's me musing.  The bottom line is that if you do like what are known as 'beach reads' – something light, and not that sophisticated, but thoroughly engaging – then McDevitt certainly delivers. Would possibly appeal to Robert J. Sawyer readers.

Jonathan Cowie

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