Fiction Reviews

Coming Home

(2014) Jack McDevitt, Headline, £7.99, trdpbk, 358pp, ISBN 978-1-472-20757-9


It is the year 11,273 AD, and humanity has spread out into the local spiral arm. Faster-Than-Light (FTL) drive means that travel to nearby stars takes days and further afield weeks. Journeys within a star system still take days, or at best hours, due to the cost of and lack of fine navigation jumping into and out of hyperspace. The more developed colony worlds have populations of millions, or even a billion, and not as great as that of early 21st century Earth (~7 billion and rising). Other notable developments include that of artificial intelligence (AI) and all space craft and most homes have their own, personalised AI…

Eleven years earlier, the starship Capella and its 3,000 passengers and crew vanished. The ship was thought gone. Such losses were rare, but not unknown, especially with ships that had an earlier star drive. However a few years ago a message from the Capella was received. The message had been directed to where a nearby colony world would have been years ago, but the Capella was nowhere to be found. Much theorising later and it was thought that what had been happening to these ships was that they had been caught up in the space-time wake of a long-since-passed black hole and had become trapped in hyperspace; not only that, trapped where time ran slowly: it appeared as if the passengers and crew might not even notice their predicament as for them hardly any time would have passed. But now it seemed as if there was a real shot at rescuing Capella for, if the calculations were to be believed, it was shortly due to materialise for a few hours into normal space.

Antiques hunter and dealer, Alex Benedict has more than a passing interest in Capella and her rescue as his uncle Gabe is one of the passengers. Alex, being a bit of a minor media celebrity (due to his occasional derring-do exploits) helps those proposing the rescue obtain balanced media coverage so as not to boost everyone's hopes especially as it will not be possible to rescue more than a minority of those on Capella in the short time it is in normal space…

Meanwhile Alex is asked to identify an old object left in a shoebox by someone recently died. It very surprisingly turns out to be an old ansible (FTL) communicator, a Corbett transmitter, from the earliest days of interstellar exploration. It is so old that it pre-dates the dark ages a thousand years or so after humanity first ventured to the stars and is an extremely valuable antique. This sets Alex and his assistant – Chase Kolpathwho happens to hold a civilian space pilot license (well, this is almost a post-scarcity society McDevitt envisions) – off on a hunt to track down other possible surviving artefacts from the first days of space travel: there may even be relics from the old NASA days. This Hunt takes them to the home world Earth at the same time as plans are being made to bring the Capella home…

This is the seventh of McDevitt's Alex Benedict stories – previous ones include Polaris and Echo – but fret not, you do not need to have read any of the previous ones to enjoy Coming Home : this novel stands by itself perfectly well. True, if you have read McDevitt's other Alex Benedict stories then you will pick up on some inconsequential passing references, but to readers new to this universe these simply add colour without impeding the reader in any way. Indeed, for seasoned McDevitt readers there is even a fleeting reference to Hutchins, the protagonist of McDevitt's other series of books (including Deep Six, Omega and Odyssey) set in the earliest days of star travel. (If anything, having read Coming Home, these brief, oblique passing references will encourage many to seek out these other works.)

If you are not familiar with McDevitt, then saying that Coming Home is typical of his space opera adventures will not mean much, but it is and that means that if you enjoy it then you will lap up his other works. His storytelling simply breezes along embellished with recognisable tropes and SFnal themes so that the reader soon become immersed in the yarn. Having said that, this is not hard SF, widescreen space opera of the likes of Paul McAuley, Alastair Reynolds, Iain Banks et al. This is more lightweight fare that is more than enjoyable enough provided one does not inspect it too closely. As rollicking adventures as McDevitt's are, in addition to the usual and expected SFnal suspension of disbelief (FTL travel etc), his plots' internal logic and integrity tend to fail with just a little scrutiny. For example, in Coming Home many works of Shakespeare were apparently lost during the dark ages following the initial centuries of interstellar travel. But, in addition to the few that survived, a few more were found much later in data archives in the colony worlds. Why it took so long to retrieve this is explained by not knowing for what to look; after all, if you do not know of a title (because it has long since vanished from human memory) then how can you search for it? Yet this is not satisfactory, because if they knew of 'Shakespeare' (because some of his works had survived) then, even if they did not know the titles of his 'lost' works, why did they not just use the bard's name as a search term?  Heck, they even have AIs to do the data-trawl legwork! And, here again, things are less than satisfactory. Having AIs and a good knowledge of consciousness science, why are not AIs more involved in running things, or even just being more business and life partners to humans? So best not look too closely at the story. Having said all that, McDevitt pens great little adventures using now traditional SF tropes on a familiar, almost pulp, SF canvas. And there is not much wrong with that; this is part fundamental SF distillate.

Coming Home is a good, solid, mid-level SF read. Added to it are a number of familiar McDevitt trademarks. There is 'the countdown', in this case to the predicted re-emergence of Capella (whereas, for example, in Deep Six it was the time to the death of a dying world). There is the misdirection of a character or two hiding a secret. A mystery to solve, and a wrong to right. All wrapped up in futuristic, but homely (think Star Trek style philosophy), interstellar setting. It is, superficially at least, great stuff and a proverbial page-turner.

McDevitt has a respectable following in the US and a smaller, but nonetheless significant one, over here in western Europe. Indeed, more over here might like to try him out. Enjoy this, and you will certainly like his other dozen or so other novels.

Jonathan Cowie

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