BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When an ancient FTL transmitter is unearthed, Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath go hot in pursuit of the missing Apollo artifacts buried in the mists of nine thousand years of history. Meanwhile, the once-lost ship Capella will soon return from a space/time warp with Alex’s uncle and mentor aboard.
PROS: Relatable characters; easygoing storyline; breezy read; interesting concepts; Apollo!
CONS: The Capella subplot may require having read Firebird.
BOTTOM LINE: Reading Coming Home revitalizes proper pride in humanity – what it has accomplished today and what it will design, do, and discover tomorrow.
Nine thousand years into the future, Alex Benedict operates a successful antiquarian firm. Acting as a broker, Alex and his assistant Chase Kolpath seek out new artifacts for clients. Their for-profit motive often angers traditional archaeologists but their love of history and the thrill of discovery always spurs their pursuit of new and alluring artifacts.
Coming Home follows Alex and Chase as they pursue the lost trove of Apollo artifacts. Remnants of humanity’s first manned space flights, they disappeared nine thousand years ago when Earth entered a new Dark Age. A few brave souls saved the artifacts but their location was lost. The sudden appearance of and early FTL transmitter intrigues Alex and Chase. It is odder still that their client’s grandfather, a once-prominent and now-deceased archaeologist never published his findings. Alex and Chase follow his trail to Earth to discover why such a man would have hidden his career-making find in his bedroom closet.
Meanwhile, events from the prequel novel Firebird intrude, and it appears the starship Capella, lost in a space-time warp, will be returning in a few months with twenty-six hundred souls aboard – including Alex’s uncle and mentor. Rescue efforts are underway but become controversial when experiments to null the effect of the space-time warp are deemed too risky to attempt by the Capella families. This distraction intrudes on Alex and Chase’s hunt for the Apollo artifacts, but they will not be dissuaded, even when attacked by an unknown assailant and blocked by misinformation at every turn.
Coming Home is the seventh Alex Benedict novel by Jack McDevitt. Books in the series have repeatedly been nominated for the Nebula award, with the third one, Seeker, winning in 2006. And it is easy to see why. McDevitt, a former motivational speaker and teacher, utilizes an easy, approachable style of writing that is both quotidian and exciting. Case in point: Chase Kolpath, through whose eyes the entire story is told, is as much concerned with purchasing a souvenir (a blouse with the Earth on it) on her trip to Earth as in solving the mystery that brought her there in the first place. The comic interplay of the desire for a trifle while caught up in one of the greatest archaeological mysteries ever readily connects with the ordinary life of the reader. Chase is like us in her concerns for little things but unlike us in that she is caught up in a grand adventure too. The combination of the mundane and the adventurous draws the reader in from the first moment and brings to mind the best adventure stories of Asimov, Heinlein, and Poul Anderson.
The story falls into a subgenre that I like to call “soft space opera.” The “soft” term can be read in two ways. The first, and most obvious, is soft in the sense of gentle. In McDevitt’s far future, humanity has eradicated most of its social problems. This is not to say that humanity lacks individual psychological complexities, but as a society, we have removed racial, religious, economic, political and even most technological problems. Faster than light travel is common, there is only one other sentient race so far encountered (the ensuing war with it is over), and everyone is pretty much able to do as she pleases without worry. Seems rather dull, doesn’t it? But in the hands of McDevitt, it is anything but. Excitement in this story, as in the other Alex Benedict novels, is created by the thrill of the chase, the surprise of the unexpected, and the repartee of camaraderie. The novel reads more like a Victorian detective novel than the galaxy-shattering Star Wars – for all its science fictional setting. This is not a space opera about wars and rumors of wars, but a space opera about humanity’s basic drive to voyage and discover, to learn and to find.
The second sense of soft is an oblique reference to the soft sciences. Though hard science appears in the stories (a key element of this novel and its predecessor Firebird centers on the star drive used by the Confederacy) it does not drive it. Instead it is anthropology, sociology, psychology, history and a dab of literature that really move Coming Home. These “soft” sciences are interwoven throughout the novel. Epigraphs at the beginning of the novel are an obvious indicator of this focus but so is the dialogue in defense of Alex and Chase’s career as well as Chase’s delving into and explanations of the galactic culture. Like all good historians, Chase borrows insights from the humanities as a way to reflect on the events around her in order that her readers may learn a little bit more about themselves. The humanistic impulse enlivens McDevitt’s exciting far-future adventure.
McDevitt’s work is a counter to all the apocalypses and dystopias so prevalent in science fiction these days. McDevitt holds out hope for humanity’s future, and sees our time as the great time of scientific and technological progress. By setting his story in the far future, McDevitt is able to create in the twenty-first century reader nostalgia for our own time and all its accomplishments. Reading Coming Home revitalizes proper pride in humanity – what it has accomplished today and what it will design, do, and discover tomorrow.
I love reading McDevitt. Every chance I get I devour one of his novels. They are quick but entertaining reads, wonderful for a weekend trip or snuggling up with by a fire. They are SF in the classic mold. The Alex Benedict novels, in particular, are an encomium both to history and the future wrapped gently in the blanket of a heartwarming tale of friendship and fun-filled adventure.
PS: Long-time readers of McDevitt will also appreciate the mention of Priscilla Hutchins that appears in this novel.