When I was a lad no older than ten, I was pretty sure I was going to become an archaeologist. This assumption regarding my future profession was based pretty much entirely on having just seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and figuring that the career would lend an air of respectable academic credibility to my existing plan of becoming an international jet-setting photographer. And I reckoned I could combine the two into one fantastic gig that would keep me rolling in cool shirts, wicker furniture, and seedy Chiang Mai bars where I’m known only as “the American.”In time, I move don to assigning myself other professions — ghost buster, spy, and eventually, crime reporter in a seedy small town where most of my nights involve staring at a dead hooker floating in a motel pool while asking the sheriff, “What’s her story, Mac?” He replies, “Isn’t that…your job?” And thus begins another crawl through the sleazy underbelly of Florida.
Even at that age, my Indiana Jones phase, I’d already formed the hypothesis I still stick to today when I prowl the galleries of the Museum of Natural History (I also attend their galas which, sadly, I have discovered to be somewhat less elegant than I’d hoped; lots of free, bad prosecco, though): that many of the relics of the past to which we attribute a religious or mystical origin were probably just the GI Joe figures of their time.
Author Jack McDevitt takes the guesswork, extrapolation, interpretation, and occasional total bullshit of assessing the meaning of ancient detritus and ruins and places them in the future, in a time when humanity has begun uncovering the ruins of long-vanished alien civilizations (and a few living ones, but mostly of a primitive nature). He adds more than a dash of adventure, usually in the form of a team of researchers landing on an unknown planet and stumbling into tons of horrible situations, and plenty of the bureaucratic frustration that makes the work of archaeology, often performed under the auspices of an academic institution full of bickering board members, so frustrating. The series that emerged, known simply as the Academy series, has run for seven books, the first (The Engines of God) published in 1994 and the most recent (Starhawk) in 2013. They each feature the recurring character of Priscilla Hutchins, a pilot who frequently finds herself a part of or leader of a ragged band of stranded researchers who have to think, and sometimes shoot, their way out of predicaments that include everything from bloodthirsty crab monsters to horny flowers to predatory cats that strut around on two legs to exploding planets. In the background of it all is the mystery of a race known only as the Monument Builders, and a periodic cataclysmic event that wipes out entire civilizations.
McDevitt handles tales of cosmic archaeology like mystery novels, something that unifies them with his second major series, the Alex Benedict series, about two space antiquities dealers who manage to involve themselves in a series of bizarre mysteries and conspiracies. The universe of the Alex Benedict books, which McDevitt began in 1989 with A Talent for War and the most recent of which is 2014’s Coming Home, is technically not the same as the one inhabited by Priscilla and the hapless bands of academics she shuffles around a dangerous galaxy, but it might as well be. Both series take place in universes that are more or less the same, with the only significant difference being that in Alex Benedict’s stories, humanity has encountered one other intelligent race – and of course, we immediately went to war with them, the aftermath of which still strains relationships. Both series deal with space exploration in terms of archaeology, either for research or for profit, often both. And both confront the readers with sometimes maddening mysteries reflective of just how malleable our idea of the past can be. Either we are assigning meaning to artifacts with very little context, or admitting entirely our inability to figure them out; or we are discovering that the facts of recorded history are equally as malleable, and often times, completely at odds with what actually happened.
The three main characters of these series – Priscilla in the Academy series, and Alex and his pilot/fellow antiquarian Chase Kolpath – are as engaging as the mysteries and action in which they find themselves. Priscilla is an exceptional, confident pilot who often finds her confidence tested when she’s forced to survive situations well outside the bounds of her training (why she ever agrees to visit a planet’s surface with some bookish academic is beyond me at this point). Beyond piloting, little else matters to her. Chase Kolpath is a similarly talented pilot, but she is a bit happier to live the swanky life. And Alex is somewhere between snobbish playboy and quirky intellectual, a man whose career scouring the spaceways for remnants of the past is complicated somewhat by how much he loathes space travel. All three are believably flawed and believably heroic, neither tipping the one way into anti-heroism or the other into super-heroism. They’re people you’d want to hang out with…but not always.
A man writing a female lead can be tricky (the Academy series sticks with Priscilla; the Benedict series books alternate between Chase and Alex being the main point of view). Witness George R.R. Martin, for example, who when writing from a female point of view seems to think women spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how the fabric of their tops feels brushing against their nipples. I’m sure if that feels exceptionally good or bad, it might cross your mind, but not always. On the opposite end, many male writers feature female protagonists by retreating into the realm of, most of the time, military discipline that removes the need to more fully understand a female character (or any character, for that matter). But both Priscilla and Chase are well thought out and well-written characters. They occasionally fall in love, or want to get dressed up, or just want to fool around. And they escape exploding planets or deadly space stations full of traps. Who doesn’t want to do that? Which is to say, they’re well-rounded and believable, regular people – when they’re not busy fighting vicious carnivorous sparrows or trying to figure out how a ship full of scientists vanished into thin…well, thin lack of air.
Other series feature elements of archaeology. Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, for example, is built around the discovery of primitive alien ruins that humanity uses to build an image of the long dead aliens, only to later found out they were totally wrong about everything; it’s just that really high-tech stuff tends to disintegrate after a while, where as primitive leviathans like pyramids stick around for eons. But the series eventually abandons the concept of space archaeology in favor of a story about the impending arrival of a race whose sole purpose is destroying any trace of sentient life in the universe. In McDevitt’s books, archaeology remains front and center. By looking at how we might tackle interpreting the ruins of an alien culture, we explore how we do the same with our own.
Last year, whilst traveling about in Ireland, I fell in with a Newgrange tour guide who got increasingly upset as the day went on by the many explanations people assign to Celtic symbols and structures. The truth is we have no dependable basis for any of these interpretations. The claim that this or that pictograph has this or that meaning is purely conjecture, much of it developed as late as the mid 20th century and often not by anyone particularly well versed in the fields of archaeology or history. Ancient Celts – to say nothing of those who came before them – didn’t write down explanations or record their rites. We have no Rosetta Stone for them. We’re just guessing. The ancient history of Africa is similarly grossly misrepresented or totally unknown. We get a lot wrong, and we make a lot up, sometimes with the best of intentions and sometimes with what we think is proof. But in the end, we’re just doing the best we can in a dark room. So many of our assumptions about what particular artifacts mean or how particular historical narratives go is so ingrained that it becomes almost impossible for someone to accept that it might be all wrong, even in the face of newly discovered (or rediscovered) evidence.
McDevitt takes this exact same predicament and puts it in the far future, in outer space, involving dead aliens. Somehow, it’s easier for us to explore the limits of knowledge and vastness of ignorance if we’re not doing it to ourselves or to stories we’ve been taught as fact since childhood. In the case of the Alex Benedict novels, this is even more overt, since many of the artifacts Alex and Chase track down are from the early, sketchily recorded days of human culture in space. The gulf of time and place, and the spotty first-hand account of the era (which, in the books, can be thousands of years ago), makes the early era of human space travel as remote and esoteric as the alien cultures Priscilla encounters – or the ancient human cultures we ourselves still grapple with trying to to understand.
But mostly, he just writes really fun, exciting books that are blend of space opera, space mystery, and space archaeology. They are page turners, each and every one in both series, and it’s not unheard of for me to start one in the evening and find myself up at 5am, still excitedly reading it and wondering how Chase and Alex are going to solve the mystery or how Priscilla is going to escape this seemingly hopeless life and death situation. You’d think from reading them that McDevitt had a background in some field related to antiquities or, I don’t know, private investigation for an upscale auction house or something. But he doesn’t. He was in the Navy for a while, and drove a cab,and even worked as a border guard. But the futuristic world he creates is exceedingly believable, and his portrayal of what hunting artifacts and excavations in space might be like is a thoroughly convincing look at how things could go, right down to glaringly stupid decisions that put everyone in peril but are nevertheless totally believable as something overeager and naive humans might do, actually frequently do.Priscilla, Alex, and Chase aren’t interstellar Indiana Joneses (well, maybe Priscilla is; that woman escapes a lot of collapsing ruins), but their future makes me excited about our past in the same way Indiana Jones did – although even though they are dealing with alien relics too, they’re substantially less ridiculous than the time Indy did the same.