Coming Home by Jack McDevitt

Rating 6.5/10
An interesting angle for space-based sci fi.

Thousands of years ago, artefacts of the early space age were lost to rising oceans and widespread turmoil. Garnett Baylee devoted his life to finding them, only to give up hope. Then, in the wake of his death, one was found in his home, raising tantalizing questions. Had he succeeded after all? Why had he kept it a secret? And where is the rest of the Apollo cache?

Antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot, Chase Kolpath, have gone to Earth to learn the truth. But the trail seems to have gone cold, so they head back home to be present when the Capella, the interstellar transport that vanished eleven years earlier in a time/space warp, is expected to reappear. With a window of only a few hours, rescuing it is of the utmost importance. Twenty-six hundred passengers - including Alex’s uncle, Gabriel Benedict, the man who raised him - are on board.

Alex now finds his attention divided between finding the artefacts and anticipating the rescue of the Capella. But time won’t allow him to do both. As the deadline for the Capella’s reappearance draws near, Alex fears that the puzzle of the artefacts will be lost yet again. But Alex Benedict never forgets and never gives up—and another day will soon come around…

This is the seventh novel of Jack McDevitt’s to feature the artefact hunter Alex Benedict and his assistant Chase who live deep in outer space, 9,000 years in the future. In Coming Home, they turn their detective skills towards solving one of the greatest mysteries in the antiquities business - what happened to a treasure trove of items related to the Golden Age of humankind’s space exploration, which were hidden when a second Dark Age led to the complete collapse of the Earth’s economy.

Having happened thousands of years ago, and with very little information remaining from that time on Earth before humans eventually advanced far enough to leave the planet and build colonies elsewhere, Alex has to retrace the movements of archaeologist Garnett Baylee, who found a Corbett transmitter from that period but bizarrely hid it at the back of a cupboard. Unfortunately the trail is 20 years cold by the time it re-emerges and after Alex and his assistant Chase are attacked visiting Earth to retrace his footsteps, it’s clear that somebody doesn’t want the truth to be told. Meanwhile, tensions are rising as the lost ship Capella resurfaces for a scant few hours before sinking once again into the timewarp - not due to appear again for another five years. With experiments on possibly manipulating the ship’s drive not providing absolute results, a moral conundrum is developing - with a 95% chance of success do you try anyway but possibly kill everybody on board, or do you guarantee that only a few people will be saved before it once again disappears?

As this is a recurring character, the tone is obviously different than from a completely stand-alone book. Coming to the character and the writer as a first timer I felt that there were some interesting ideas there, but I did have the feeling that I was missing something to a certain degree and this meant I was less invested in the characters than I perhaps would have been if I’d started from the beginning.

There are two stories running in parallel - the attempted rescue of the Capella, and Alex’s investigations into Baylee - and both are given roughly the same weight in the book as Alex’s uncle is on the Capella and has therefore been missing for 11 years. To me personally it felt like I was reading two shorter books put together. The search for the Corbett struck as being an opportunity for McDevitt to develop more of the backstory of what happened to Earth and highlight the significance that items from the very beginning of space travel will have for people millennia into the future, and the investigation as it unfolds is interesting, but ultimately I had far more interest in the Capella, because it had a wider ranging impact on people.

There is a significant level of debate in the book around whether antiquities that are salvaged should be given to museums or sold to private collectors, which focuses the story very much on people and the importance of history rather than glittering descriptions of thundering through space, and this is an interesting angle for space-based sci fi, but to get the most out of the characters I would suggest starting with the first in the series, A Talent For War, which hopefully would generate more of an investment in the outcomes of Coming Home.

Alex Benedict #7
Publisher: Headline, November 6, 2014

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