Review: Octavia Gone by Jack McDevitt

Octavia Gone by Jack McDevitt
Hardcover: Saga Press, 978-1-4814-9797-8, $27.99, 375pp, May 2019
Paperback: Pocket Books, 978-1-4814-9798-5, $8.99, 440pp, February 2020

Any discussion of this eighth installment in the Alex Benedict series (in which a dealer in antiquities stumbles across a historical mystery to investigate in each novel) will necessarily spoil an element of the seventh.

That element is the return of Alex’s uncle, Gabe, which, along with other things in Coming Home (such as its title), made me think that was a nice stopping place for the series (which opened with his disappearance). I think that may have been the plan, too, because the gap between the seventh and eighth volumes was longer than any since it was turned into a series with the second[1]. Even when this did come out, I wasn’t intending to get it but things eventually worked out so that I did. The return of Gabe also makes the subtitle, “An Alex Benedict Novel” almost a misnomer. In the first, essentially stand-alone, novel, Alex was the narrator. In the subsequent novels, Chase Kolpath (his pilot and girl Friday) became the narrator and Alex becomes an object in Chase’s universe of perception. In this, Alex retreats further to the background as the first three-quarters or so of the book focuses more on Gabe and one of the key discoveries occurs then. However, the first half or so contains no real discoveries at all as the actual investigation into the mystery doesn’t really kick in until after that, focusing instead mostly on Gabe’s return and adjustment to having, in essence, traveled over a decade into the future and on the fact that there actually is a mystery to eventually be investigated.

The mystery is that, about a decade ago, four scientists were investigating a black hole from Octavia, a space station which was orbiting it, when the station disappeared. Gabe and Alex undertake more or less separate lines of research with Chase sometimes accompanying Gabe and sometimes Alex. The usual searches for and meetings with people who might have been involved or have known something occur, artifacts are followed up on, multiple seeming dead-ends are encountered, and eventually breakthroughs occur and things progress as they usually do in the novels of this series. Along the way, the characters confront and reassess their relations with the artificial intelligences which are such an important but under-appreciated part of their civilization which works on a science fictional level and, presumably, a symbolic one as well.

All in all, this would probably work well (perhaps better) for a reader new to the series despite it seemingly being so focused on backstory, because the backstory is made clear and the series would be shiny and new, and it’s not a bad book or a labor to read. Still, I’d recommend reading the older ones instead. And for me, I rarely read so many volumes in a series, yet enjoyed the seven I’d read so much that I felt I could read the next mystery episode indefinitely, yet was also satisified when the series seemed to reach a stopping place. This belated episode, which changes the chemistry and pushes the serial arc further, didn’t really rekindle my enthusiasm. The mystery was fairly average, took too long to get to, and its resolution was underwhelming (though it is clever how the parts relate), and the most interesting part of the book, while conceptually central to it, was slighted in terms of the actual narrative focus and dramatic action devoted to it.

[1] It’s presumably irrelevant to the fiction, but another change is that of publisher, as the series has moved from Ace to Saga/Pocket. Also completely irrelevant to the fiction but something I just want to say, is that this Pocket paperback is a very nice book as a physical object and reading experience, with generous inner margins, a firm spine but flexible covers and paper, nice looking title page, typography, style, etc.

Review: The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF: Volume 5, edited by David Afsharirad

Tradepaper: Baen, 978-1-4814-8406-0, $16.00, 319pp, June 2019 [1]

  • “Love in the Time of Interstellar War” by Brendan DuBois
  • “Going Dark” by Richard Fox
  • “The Scrapyard Ship” by Felix R. Savage
  • “Broken Wings” by William Ledbetter
  • “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon
  • “Once on the Blue Moon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • “Crash-Site” by Brian Trent
  • “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer
  • “Hate in the Darkness” by Michael Z. Williamson
  • “Homunculus” by Stephen Lawson
  • “Not Made for Us” by Christopher Ruocchio
  • “The Erkennen Job” by Chris Pourteau

The fifth edition of The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF opens with a preface by the editor who muses on the series’ five-year voyage before giving way to an introduction by David Weber who again muses on the horrors of war coupled with the benefits of speculating on it and its future.

Despite the introduction, only half of this anthology is military SF, with the other half fitting better under the “Adventure” portion of the title. Stephen Lawson’s superb “Homunculus” is a case in point. Want to colonize Titan via a tiny little telepresence robot which you can use to construct habitats out of polyethylene “legos” extracted from the environment? Or at least think it’s a cool idea? Then read this story! The crisis in this milieu arises when a kid goes missing and a cryovolcano quake causes him to be trapped in a ruptured and deadly part of the habitat. The only hope for saving him involves those little robots and the powers of chemistry. Other good adventures include William Ledbetter’s sort of neo-pulp adventure “Broken Wings,” which involves two unlikely heroes (one overweight and one paraplegic) confronting pirates and Brian Trent’s “Crash-Site” in which competing groups of almost larger-than-life adventurers race to recover a biotech prize from a downed starship. I also enjoyed “The Erkennen Job,” Chris Pourteau’s future-noir tale in which one corporation controls the solar system but is riven with faction. One scientist in the employ of one faction may upset the balance of power in the system if another faction’s assassin doesn’t complete his mission. That hard-bitten (yet oddly sentimental) assassin forms an unexpected alliance with an idealistic cop as both, for their own reasons, try to get their man. Varying the dark tones, Felix R. Savage’s “The Scrapyard Ship” goes for a bit of humor as a couple of shapeshifting traders crash-land on a world where they get involved in interstellar politics while trying to get a replacement ship.

Even among the more restricted form of military SF there are some unconventional pieces. I thought James Beamon’s “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” was one of the best stories of the year and was amazed that this “year’s best” was the only one to select it. No one should miss this alternate history tale of the Crimean War with a street urchin press-ganged into combat aboard an airship crewed in part by vampire attack monkeys. Christopher Ruocchio’s “Not Made For Us” is another excellent tale of a soldier more or less compelled to fight. In this case, he and some companions are thrown into battle with a gigantic ship full of horrors and the combat is not the sleek and choreographed violence of Hollywood or the clear morality of political speeches, but is a messy, desperate flailing about full of physical and moral confusion. The editor acknowledges in the preface that he is friends with the author who works for Baen but “challenge[s] anyone to read ‘Not Made for Us’ and chalk up its inclusion to nepotism.” Challenge declined: it’s a very powerful piece. While not in the league of those two stories, Brendan DuBois’ “Love in the Time of Interstellar War” also dealt interestingly with its young soldier and his efforts to die well, win a lady’s favor, and help fend off alien invaders. Suzanne Palmer’s “Thirty-Three Percent Joe,” like “The Scrapyard Ship,” is another story with a humorous element regarding an incompetent soldier’s internal prosthetics and their efforts to keep him alive and has received a favorable response from many readers.

One thing readers might like to know is that several of these stories are in series but all those have definite conclusions and only one (“Hate in the Darkess,” among other issues) seems to suffer if the reader isn’t already familiar with the other tales. That aside, there are certainly stories I’d like to see in here which didn’t make the cut and I did scratch my head over the inclusion of a couple that did but some readers may love them and not like some of the ones I’ve highlighted. Regardless, there are many fine and varied stories here which should especially appeal to those looking for the good ol’ stuff but which should also include some gems for those differently inclined.

[1] This is a reformatted, but otherwise unchanged, reprint of a review which originally appeared at Tangent Online on June 16, 2019. I’m reprinting it because this book came out in 2019 and I want all my reviews of books published from 2019 onward to be available here.

Review: Arkad’s World by James L. Cambias

Arkad’s World by James L. Cambias
Hardcover: Baen, 978-1-4814-8370-4, $24.00, 293?pp, January 2019
Paperback: Baen, 978-1-9821-2432-8, $8.99, 394pp, January 2020

In 2211, Arkad is a homeless orphan living on the mixed-tech streets of Ayaviz on the strange, tidally locked planet of Syavusa. Ever since his mother died when he was very young, he’s been the only human in a world of multiple species. Shortly after our story opens, one of the other species mentions having seen others like him. He dashes off to search for them and eventually finds three people who are set on finding a lost starship somewhere on the planet’s surface. Arkad stretches the truth a bit by saying he knows where it is and becomes their guide in exchange for their promise to take him off-world when they leave. A picaresque journey over a good chunk of the planet follows, during which the group encounters pirates, mercenaries, and thieves, as well as a couple of varieties of Elmisthorn, a species which has conquered many worlds, including Earth. In fact, the main value of the ship is that it’s full of cultural artifacts which may help the humans resist the Elmisthorn’s efforts to modify them into compliant members of their “Family of Species.”

Along the way, Arkad learns that his companions aren’t all as human as he first thought, at least in a simple sense (and there’s something odd about Arkad, himself). Jacob Sato, a rejuvenated man of 78 with teaching and military experience, is the leader and, mostly through him, Arkad learns that Ree Bright is a woman whose modification by the Elmisthorn didn’t take and that Baichi is an amalgam of human biology and Machine technology (Machines being a powerful non-biological civilization among the many biological ones). Beyond being an attractive female to Arkad, Baichi is the closest thing to a fellow young person (being fifteen but having only been conscious for ten years after coming online as semi-mature) and both are outcasts of sorts (since Baichi is an example of a failed program of hybrids designed by the Machines to fight the Elmisthorn), so they develop a special bond.

Mostly through Arkad’s guidance, the newcomers become familiar with the Itooti, Pfifu, Vziim, AaaAa, Kchik, Psthao-psthao, and many other races who all have colorful speech patterns, physiques, modes of technology and construction, ethics, etc. Mostly through the newcomers’ guidance, Arkad learns more about the Elmisthorn and other species which mostly pass through Syavyusa rather than having a widespread permanent presence there.

Within this book, there are several references to other books such as Oliver Twist, The Wind in the Willows, and Treasure Island. This conveys both some of the specifics (as this book includes an orphan, has talking critters, and has a treasure hunt) but also conveys some of the general sensibility. A specific element of the sensibility is that those books precede the “YA” or “juvenile” markets. This, despite being a fairly long book [1] with hints of sex and some violence, is kid-friendly without being entirely adult-exclusive.

I enjoyed the first three-quarters of this book but two problems with the last quarter hurt the book overall. Neither one was necessarily fatal by itself but the first let the second hit with full force. The first relates to the fact that I’m not generally a fan of plot-less “quest” stories. Even so, I was enjoying this, but the encounter with the thieves was just one too many incidents too nearly the same as others. While the journey went over land and sea and river and desert and more, it was all just terrain and, while the crew fought pirates and mercenaries and thieves and more, it was all just fighting. The second and most serious problem is with the ending which I mostly can’t talk about but it’s not convincingly plotted and there’s a more serious issue with the characterization, which I can touch on in a general way. While the characters were mostly well-conceived, they didn’t Learn Better or change in any meaningful way [2].

There were also trivial problems and I’ll note two. The first involves the indistinct naming of the people, places, and things. For instance, on a single page, we get people named Fafof, Effa, Papfapa, Fafpip and, in a single phrase on that page, places named “Aefef, Effaf, and even Fiuf.” (And, really, none of these things, places, or people beyond the four main characters turn out to be important though some of them, including Fafof and his Pfifu companion Pfup, feature in an embedded O. Henry-like story in Chapters 10-11 which is excellent.) The second involves small-scale repetitions or contradictions or lapses such as a second description of how the Pfifu run on land as if the first had never occurred, or Arkad initially not knowing about the Elmisthorn invasion but then talking about his mother having referred to it, or having an apparent red herring about the imminent failure of Arkad’s e-reader-like device (which doesn’t even cause him to take advantage of an opportunity to transfer its contents to Baichi).

All that said, this novel does have many great strengths. As I mentioned, the characters are initially strong. The setting is vividly realized. As poorly as the aliens are named, they are richly conceived, and it’s a delight to see how different they are and how this can cause complications and strife but how they basically get along (or fail to get along) about the same with each other as they do with themselves. I particularly enjoyed the changed perceptions that Arkad and we have about one of the superficially least appealing species and even the Elmisthorn are not monolithic. Also as I mentioned, the terrain can’t carry a book by itself, but this is a variegated and strongly-depicted planet. The action scenes on it are not always tightly plotted but are generally exciting and a couple of deaths (one in action, one not; one major, one not) are effectively shocking. The novel is also generally serious but has moments of humor. In one scene, Sato wants to wait for dark to make an escape but realizes that region of Syavusa has no dark and says, “What an inconvenient planet.” And one element I was afraid I might tire of but never did was the third-person present-tense adjective-noun identifiers in the Itooti manner of speech in which “Clever so-and-so asks stupid Arkad why he does such-and-such” and “Embarrassed Arkad asks generous so-and-so to forgive his ignorance” or the like.

In sum, if you’re looking for something that feels like tightly-plotted hard SF, I wouldn’t recommend this but would instead point to Cambias’ superb first novel, A Darkling Sea. However, if you’re looking for something that feels like a Vancian planetary romance this could suit.

Postscript: I want to congratulate Baen’s proofreader (or any and all responsible parties). It was wonderful to read a book in which I noticed no proofreading errors.

[1] It’s not as long as its page count might indicate, however, due to generous font size and whitespace. Based on reading time and a very rough wordcount, I estimate this would be about 260-300 pages of an average paperback.

[2] Given the opportunity, Arkad does begin to wear more clothing and, with less need to steal, he does become a little more honest and so on, but little else changed. (Also, one thing that Arkad does (or fails to do) early on is never satisfactorily addressed and so seems retrospectively out of character or random.)