Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Devil's Eye by Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt has become one of my favorite writers in the past few years, with his combination of plots focused on mystery and discovery, his knack for the small but effective detail of setting or character, and his skill at including the mundane nuts-and-bolts aspects of events in a way that makes things more interesting and believable, creating a story of exciting events that still seems to take a place in a world where you can easily imagine regular people going about their lives.  The Devil's Eye is the fourth book in Jack McDevitt’s series about far-future antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot and assistant, Chase Kolpath.  (Preceded by A Talent for War, Polaris, and Seeker.)  I’d personally recommend reading the Alex Benedict series in order, but each book is quite accessible on its own, including this one.

Benedict receives a strange and frightened message from Vicki Greene, a celebrated young horror author.  Benedict has never met her, but she asks for his help, and soon Benedict discovers that she is transferred a large sum of money to his bank account.  He tries to get in touch with Greene to find out what she wants, only to discover that she has undergone a voluntary mind wipe, a procedure usually used on unreformable repeat criminals that irrevocably destroys memory and personality.  Baffled by these events, Benedict feels obligated to find out why Vicki Greene turned to him for help, and just what it was that terrified her so much.

The search quickly takes Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath to the distant planet of Salud Afar, an isolated world in the galactic halo far outside the boundaries of the Confederation that unites most of humanity.  It has been only a few decades since the people of this world threw off the yoke of a brutal dictatorship that ruled the planet for centuries, and the nations of Salud Afar still struggle to escape either falling into chaos or returning to the old regime, still looked back on fondly by many citizens.  Meanwhile, tensions between humanity and the Ashiyurr, the only others sapient species humanity has ever encountered are growing, spreading fear across the isolated world.  There, under an all but empty sky, 20,000 light years from the nearest human planet, Benedict and Kolpath hope to retrace Greene’s steps and find out who or what drove her to destroy her own mind.

The Devil's Eye is an enjoyable entry to the Alex Benedict series, continuing its predecessors’ style of science fiction historical mystery.  The central mystery is intriguing and unfolds at a good pace.  Like much of McDevitt’s work, the story maintains a sense of groundedness, for lack of a better term, that is uncommon in science fiction.  The main characters are interesting but still relatively normal people with ordinary interests and concerns-I can envision them hanging out with friends or just puttering around the house on an idle weekend more readily than I can most fictional characters.  The same is true of the setting, aided by the fact that the Alex Benedict books are all narrated in first-person by Chase Kolpath.  This made me feel more immersed, and has the dual effect of both making the future portrayed seem more tangible and making Kolpath’s forays into places and events outside her normal experience seem more ominous and eerie.  In general, I like how McDevitt uses the first-person perspective, and he's good at incorporating seemingly inconsequential details into Kolpath's narration- her occasional asides about her world's entertainment and pop culture, for instance- that make the character more alive and more sympathetic.

The book is not horror, but much of it does have an eerie and sinister atmosphere.  The world of Salud Afar is an appropriately creepy environment, its night sky utterly black and empty except for a single star, the eponymous Devil’s Eye.  The planet’s society, strewn with the physical and psychological scars of a brutal police state that existed within living memory, gives the feeling of a “haunted” world, still living in fear.

The Devil’s Eye is like the first book in the Benedict series, A Talent for War, in that the mystery revolves around a specific person who the reader comes to learn about and sympathize with without ever “meeting.” I liked this personal aspect, as it gave more emotional punch to the secrets Benedict and Kolpath unravel.

The Devil's Eye is well worth reading for McDevitt fans, and for people who like science fiction with a strong mystery element.  I look forward to seeing what McDevitt does next.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Out-of-Context Conversation Theatre

I'm standing in line at the store last week, and there's a fellow behind me on a cell phone.  I pay him no mind until I hear him say:

"Yeah, we're having him shot in Salt Lake City next week!"

Well, that piqued my interest.  He was silent for a moment, and then followed up with:

"Yeah, yeah.  We're bringing a crew up from California."

Now, I know criminal overlords don't openly discuss gangland slayings on their cellphones when they're in line at Walgreens.  But I was still slightly relieved when I heard him start talking about camera equipment a few moments later.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Science fiction and the space program

Not long ago, at least by this blog’s glacial standards, SF Signal and its weekly mind meld feature featured the question of whether or not science fiction has held back the real-life exploration of space, as recently claimed by astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The idea is that science fiction and unrealistic portrayals of space travel make the real thing seem boring and disappointing by comparison, diminishing the public’s interest in real space travel.

I find this implausible for a few reasons. The biggest is that I don’t think science fiction has enough influence on the public consciousness to be a serious factor in the way Aldrin suggests. Everyone has heard of Star Trek and Star Wars, but I don’t think the average person compares what they hear about real space travel to science fiction, even subconsciously. The people who are sufficiently immersed in science fiction to seriously make that sort of comparison seem if anything to be more likely than average to be in favor of space travel, in my experience, so if science fiction has any effect it seems more likely to be the opposite of what Aldrin suggests.

Another problem is that unrealistic or fanciful portrayals of other forms of technology don’t seem to have retarded their development or diminished public interest. The portrayal of computers and the Internet in movies is frequently ridiculous, but that doesn’t seem to have harmed the development of computers or the public’s interest in them; people don’t turn their noses up to real PCs because they don’t act like the ones in movies. The same could be said of weapons, surveillance technology, or forensic science, to name a few.

More generally, exaggerated or idealized depictions of a thing usually make people more interested in that thing, not less. I’d be shocked, for instance, if the movie Top Gun made viewers less interested in military aviation, or if movies about idealistic political crusaders and reformers made viewers less interested in real politics, or if Kill Bill made people less interested in katanas. In my experience, seeing an idealized fantasy version of something is what strengthens interest, both because it initially draws attention and because it makes people want to make the fantasy reality.

A personal example: I know plenty of long-time students at the martial arts school I go to who first became interested because of martial arts movies. Martial arts movies are seldom very realistic; even the relatively down-to-earth ones are often a lot smoother and prettier than the real thing. The movies also usually fail to convey what being on the receiving end of a punch to the gut or a triangle choke feels like, and leave out things like watching someone vomit because they got kicked in the groin on the day they forgot to wear their cup. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that martial arts movies have increased public interest in the martial arts and the number of practitioners. To give another personal example, I cover local government for a small newspaper. I see the nuts-and-bolts of real politics on a regular basis, and I can assure you that seeing it up close is a lot less likely to inspire enthusiasm about politics than watching The West Wing.

If anything, I think more realistic science fiction is less likely to inspire interest in real space travel than more fanciful SF. I love hard science fiction, but I think that most people- and especially impressionable kids- are more likely to say, "Wow, space is really cool!" from watching Star Trek then from watching a realistic portrayal of space flight, with all its limitations. This is by no means a criticism of hard SF; it’s not science fiction’s job as a genre to push any particular viewpoint.

If SF does hurt public appreciation for science, it would be not by presenting unrealistic science and technology that leads to disappointment with the real thing, but through the heavy reliance of media SF on "science gone wrong/tampering in God’s domain" type stories. This sort of plot and theme is far more common in movies and television then in science fiction books, I think due to a combination of who produces written SF vs. media SF and the constraints imposed by the different forms. However, this trope never involves space flight, as far as I’m aware. (I suppose the movie Event Horizon could be considered an exception, but I doubt anyone watched that movie and thought, "We should abandon all research into spacecraft propulsion to make sure nobody accidentally opens a gateway into Hell.") It’s almost always applied to biological science and technology, or to robots and computers.

There are several factors leading to lack of public enthusiasm for space travel, I think, but science fiction is not among them. I have my own ideas on that front, but this post is long enough already.

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