I grabbed Polaris on a whim at the used bookstore. It looked like an interesting mystery set in the future—a future where humanity has spread to other planets, where entire civilizations have risen and fallen over a few millennia. With all this history between Alex Benedict and life back here on Earth, there are bound to be so many cool mysteries to explore. But when Alex and his partner, Chase Kolpath, begin investigating the sixty-year-old disappearance of the entire crew of the Polaris, people start trying to kill them. So they know they’re on to something.
Jack McDevitt elects to have a kind of Holmes/Watson relationship going on here. Though billed “an Alex Benedict novel”, Polaris is narrated by Chase. That’s fine, although I wish she had been mentioned on the back cover—there’s no indication that Chase exists until, after the prologue, the narrative turns first person but starts referring to “Alex”. A number of female reviewers on Goodreads have expressed ambivalence about Chase and her voice. On one hand, she is a strong female protagonist: a capable superluminal pilot who is often the one coming up with plans to get Alex and her out of mortal peril. At the end of the book, Chase is the one who speaks up and tries to change everything. That’s awesome. On the other hand, as those reviewers note and are more qualified to judge, Chase’s voice doesn’t necessarily sound very authentic. I think this is part of a larger problem with McDevitt’s characterization, though.
Neither Alex or Chase really display much in the way of character development. They end the book the same way they start. Alex is the somewhat eccentric but good-natured boss, an intelligent and insightful antiquities collector who isn’t afraid to be hands-on. Chase is the capable pilot and business partner. (We never really get a sense of what either of them does outside work to relax.) And, stubbornly, they refuse to learn throughout this adventure. There comes a point where Alex and Chase have travelled across the galaxy in their personal superluminal craft. Prior to this, vehicles they have been using have been sabotaged on two separate occasions. When they return to their spaceship, neither of them takes any pains to ensure the ship has not been compromised—I’ll let you guess what happens. It doesn’t exactly take a detective to see the pattern here.
As for the mystery of the Polaris … I was hoping for a more sinister explanation than the one we’re given. That’s not McDevitt’s fault, I guess, although the secret behind the mystery starts to look rather flimsy if you stare at its premises long enough. For example, in this universe really efficient superluminal drive technology exists—but there are a handful of superluminal ships, and they mostly accommodate fewer than a hundred people. Humanity has sprawled out and formed a loose Confederacy, but it seems to have stopped there. This doesn’t make much sense, particularly when population pressure is an important issue in the book. So there aren’t enough ships—why not build more ships?
This is an example of a more general malaise that perplexed me about humanity in Polaris. The mandatory incompetent police character, Fenn, spends more time trying to persuade Alex that there’s no real mystery here rather than investigating the very suspicious—and unusual—attempts on Alex and Chase’s lives. Chase remarks that the police on Rimway are unused to investigating crime because the crime rate is so low. If that’s the case, and Alex and Chase have been connected to a string of criminal events starting with the explosion at the reception and stretching onward … why are they not the top news story of that month?
It feels like everyone in Polaris has been switched with a semi-catatonic zombie. Where’s the drive to explore, that urge to innovate that makes us all human? Where is the passion? Chase mentions all the various human societies that have arisen—and fallen—since we expanded into space. Why does the Confederacy feel vaguely like “21st century America—in space!”? Communication is slightly easier, and there are hovercraft and faster-than-light ships … but that’s about it. Despite these utilitarian improvements to science and technology, no one really seems to live very differently from how those of us in the developed world live today. I like that McDevitt did not embrace the complete, nanotechnologically-driven posthuman future—a more embodied, meat-suit future is fine by me, but there has to be some kind of cultural novum for the reader to try to explore. In Polaris there’s nothing.
Writing mysteries, let alone mysteries set in space, can be tricky. As far as the plot goes, Polaris is fairly good. Alex follows a series of clues, dragging Chase along to narrate and rescue them when people try to kill them, and gradually the pieces fall into place. Indeed, it’s enough to mitigate some of my above criticisms—Polaris is flawed, but I still genuinely enjoyed it. If you enjoy laid-back science-fiction mysteries, this novel might work for you. I wish McDevitt had spent as much time on his characters and setting as he did the plot.