I first stumbled on McDevitt with Moonfall, and I was hooked. I have a hard time setting down his novels—McDevitt crafts compelling stories, laced with mystery, technology and interesting characters. Polaris is the second of three novels set in the same universe with “antiquarian entrepreneur” Alex Benedict as the central character. In this novel, Benedict and his assistant (and narrator) Chase Kolpath are thrust into and try to unravel the mysterious disappearance 60 years prior of six passengers of the starship Polaris. (I couldn’t help thinking of the Raymond Chandler novels as I read this one; McDevitt’s narrator tells the story with a grit and wit that made me smile at times like I do when I read Chandler.)
Besides marveling at the actual mechanics of writing that result in a story that’s difficult to put down (how do folks do that?!), a couple of things struck me as I read Polaris. First, this is the second novel I’ve read in the last 18 months or so where the implications of extending human life was associated with the story. I find this thread interesting in sci-fi because I think it not only hints at the biblical truth that death isn’t the way things are meant to be, but also that the implications of trying to correct that wrong ourselves plays out with some troubling and disturbing results.
I was also intrigued by McDevitt’s references to religion in Polaris. Some sci-fi authors are dismissive of or downright hostile towards faith, but McDevitt (at least in this novel) seems more respectful and curious than most. He’s like an inquisitive kid poking at a turtle in a shell with a stick—not with maliciousness but genuine curiosity to know what it looks like and how it behaves. I searched out some interviews with and articles about McDevitt, and in this one he confirms he doesn’t have any religious affiliation, but finds it a compelling subject:
McDevitt also makes occasional use of religious themes in his fiction, exposing his characters to circumstances that challenge their belief systems. Said McDevitt: “I have no [religious] affiliation, but I enjoy creating situations in which characters must confront what they say they believe.”And:
Commenting on the human and spiritual elements of his stories, McDevitt commented in Locus: “Anything that's intelligent almost by definition is going to want to explain its existence. That gets you into the area of myth, into religious cycles. I would expect that if you could go back far enough with any intelligent species, assuming there are others, you’d find religious systems. The real question might be, what becomes of the religious systems, in time? Maybe you toss those over the side. If science is the new religion, science fiction is maybe the new mythology. I think science fiction is a more noble effort at resolving some of these issues than religion ever was anyhow.”While I’m on a different page than McDevitt when it comes to faith, I do appreciate his recognition and explorations of faith as part of human experience. It’s part of what makes science fiction an attractive and interesting genre, at least imho.
Anyway, the first of these three Alex Benedict novels is still in the mail and the sequel (which won the Nebula) is sitting on my husband’s side of the bed, so I’ll have to wait to read my next McDevitt story. As for Polaris, I enjoyed it and would rate it with three out of four stars.