Plodding pacing and a wooden narrator make reading Jack McDevitt’s ‘Octavia Gone’ feel too much like a chore

July 14, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 14, 2019

Octavia Gone, a recently released Jack McDevitt novel, is the eighth novel in the author’s Alex Benedict series. I’ve previously read Polaris and Seeker, respectively the second and third books in this science fiction sequence, and I thought that the new entry has a lot in common with those volumes — for better and for worse.

Genius treasure hunter and antique merchant Alex Benedict and his sidekick, starship pilot Chase Kolpath, once again find themselves investigating a disappearance in deep space. The subject of their probe this time is Octavia, a distant research station orbiting a wormhole.

The outpost is paired with a cannon that peppers the phenomenon with pods in an attempt to locate the opposite end of the wormhole. After Octavia drops out of contact, a starship that’s dispatched to investigate finds the cannon. However, there’s no sign of the station itself, the quartet of people it carries or the short-range shuttle they used to transit between station and cannon.

The heroes’ interest in Octavia is piqued by the return of Alex’s uncle, Gabe Benedict, who had been missing and feared dead after the disappearance of the Capella, a passenger transport on which he’d been traveling. That starship accidentally sailed into a time warp; although those on board only aged by three weeks, 11 years actually passed in regular space by the time it re-emerged.

Not long before his fateful trip, the sister of one of the missing Octavia crew asked Gabe to investigate one of her brother’s possessions, a strange silver trophy bearing indecipherable characters. Gabe’s obsession with the artifact leads his nephew and Kolpath into a strange and frustrating quest for explanations about why and how the station vanished.

The key adjective in that previous sentence is frustrating. The trio run into so many dead ends that the book’s pace virtually grinds to a halt. (I had the same issue with Polaris.) Granted, this kind of thing happens in real-life investigations, but McDevitt really seems to be going overboard on verisimilitude.

‘Octavia Gone’ by Jack McDevitt.

Matters are not helped by the narrator, Kolpath, who over the course of the inquiry begins dating the owner of a private library. Unfortunately, Kolpath — who is young, intelligent, skilled, steel-nerved and beautiful — burns with all the romantic passion of a damp cigarette butt. Kolapth’s stormy love affair, which in the hands of a different author might add some spice to a rather staid tome, made me want to quit reading Octavia Gone altogether. In this sense, the cover blurb — in which Stephen King calls McDevitt “the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke” — rings all too true; those titans of science fiction were hardly known for creating vivid, nuanced characters.

Eventually, the leading characters begin to get a handle on the facts and start making progress. Even so, a key part of the book, in which Kolpath and Gabe Benedict hop aboard the starship Belle-Marie and journey to a series of strange worlds, comes off as more dull than exciting.

The shame of all this is that McDevitt is a gifted author who can craft some enthralling scenarios. As evidence, take the following passage — essentially the lone action scene in Octavia Gone — in which the characters investigate a long-abandoned vehicle:

I was still looking at the control panel. “I wonder if there’s any chance we could power up the AI? Talk about a gold mine.” 

Gabe waved it away. “Dream on, kid. It’s been here too long. The AI’s dead.” 

“I know. I’m just kidding.” 

He took a deep breath. “I have to admit I’d love talking to something eight thousand years old.” 

“Maybe—” 

“Forget it, Chase. It would be a waste of time.” 

The AI appeared to be in a black box with curved edges. The box was set inside a metal container. 

We checked the galley and the washroom, but of course neither contained anything of interest other than the remains of a completely withered magazine in a holder. 

There were two storage cabinets in the rear. We’d just opened one when [Belle-Marie’s artificial intelligence] Belle broke in: “We’ve got some activity here, guys. But don’t go outside to look.” 

I took the blaster out of my belt and tried to move Gabe away from the hatch, which was now just a large opening. But he wasn’t going to allow a woman to take the lead. “Wait,” I told him. 

A picture blinked on inside my helmet, sent by Belle. The shrubs surrounding us appeared to have come to life. Vines were moving, pods expanding and contracting almost as if they were breathing. “Uh-oh,” said Gabe. He had his back to me and was holding on to seats on either side and standing so I couldn’t even see past him. Finally he edged over. “Careful,” he said. 

Tendrils were creeping in through the air lock. 

“That doesn’t look good.” 

“We’d better get clear.” Gabe got his blaster out and looked down at the moving vegetation. He got within a step or two before one of them whipped around his right ankle and brought him down hard. He pulled the trigger and blew away most of what remained of the air lock. A cluster of vines and branches immediately began to crowd through. I put my own blaster back in my belt, grabbed the cutter, and tried to use it to free him. Belle was telling us both to stop, to get away from the open hatch. The vines were coming after us quicker than I could slice through them. A couple of them wrapped around my wrist and I lost the weapon. 

If you’ll allow me to resume bellyaching, I also found myself exasperated by the milieu that McDevitt has fashioned for the Benedict novels. Humanity has settled many worlds and can cross vast distances in weeks; the species has been traveling to space for nine millennia. And yet most of the communities Benedict and friends visit seem no more exotic than an upper-middle-class Ohio suburb. Yes, Kolpath notes that humans have stagnated somewhat, but it was disappointing to read that one ancillary character knew a scientist on the ill-fated Octavia through a bridge club.

Finally — and this is truly nitpicking — I grew tired of a typographical affectation that appears throughout the Benedict novels: All dialogue that’s heard over a radio transmission or spoken by a computer is rendered in italics. I can’t tell you why this came to bother me, but it did.

The bottom line here is that, barring a strong endorsement, I’m likely finished with McDevitt’s Benedict stories. While Octavia Gone has some fun and intriguing moments, too often this narrative stumbled when it should have soared.

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