Monday, 20 February 2017

Coming Home by Jack McDevitt

I have never read a Clive Cussler book. It's just not my normal sort of fiction, although I have nothing in particular against it. Reading Jack McDevitt's Coming Home, though, I kept thinking that this book was an awful lot like what I would expect a Clive Cussler book to be, just set in the future, with space-hopping treasure hunters and antiquarians, instead of being bounded by the confines of the Earth.

In this case, the fabulous lost treasure the main character, Alex, and his assistant Chase is hunting are artifacts of early spaceflight, lost in the wake of climate change and social disruption on Earth. They think they might have a lead, but at the same time, they're waiting to see if a spectacular rescue can be made for a spaceship on which time is more or less standing still as it fades from view and back again. One of the passengers is Alex's uncle Gabe, trapped there for, from our perspective, eleven years, and from his perspective, a couple of weeks.

I complain frequently about notions of history that fall into one of two cardinal errors - that the people of the past were utterly alien, or that the people of the past were exactly like us, just with funny hats. Both are arguably wrong.

This, however, is a science fiction book that that falls further into the second of the two errors than pretty much any book I have ever seen. Apparently if we jump several thousand years into the future, technological abilities will have changed, but people will be exactly the same. We'll have the same arguments about artifacts. Daytime talk shows will be the same. The mannerisms and speech patterns are the same. Vacationing appears to be exactly the same, except some of the cruise ships are interstellar. Academia seems to be the same. Politics.

Everything has changed, but it seems that nothing has changed - every technological change has resulted in something exactly like what we have today. If that's your theory, you can go for it, but it's a bit jarring. I kind of figure some things would be different, you know?

This also brings me to a common difficulty in science fiction, one for which I'm not sure there's a great solution. Whenever characters want to refer to something in the past, writers almost always end up giving us two examples we know, then one they make up, just to make it seem like their 31st century folks aren't obsessed with us for no reason. On the one hand, if you're trying to make an analogy, you want it to be understood by your readers. On the other, it is sometimes jarring when this repeatedly means that everything they want to illustrate happened in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, with one fictional 25th century one thrown in.

But even the thrown-in one can be a bit jarring, because we don't know to what it's referring. From the first two examples, we can pretty much figure it out, but to my ear, it always rings a little funny. Funny as in amusing, not as wrong. You know, Genghis Khan, Donald Trump, and Grand Marshal Polkaroo of the Polka Dot Door Galaxy. (Look, I don't know what Polkaroo did, but to be in that company, it's got to have been bad, right?)

I truly don't know how to get beyond that as a problem. As long as people reach back for examples in the past to illustrate their futures, there may not be another way to do it. Still, it always jars me just a little. It's never enough to turn the tide on a book, but often enough to make me smile wryly at yet another attempt.

At any rate, I am a little staggered that a book in this series won a Nebula. I haven't read the one that did, but this is such a straightforward treasure hunting adventure that I can't imagine another in the same series being a whole lot more literary.

But if what you're looking for is action-adventure that reads like it could be happening in the here-and-now, but there are spaceships, this wouldn't be a bad bet.

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