17 April 2007


Guest posted by Donna.

Jack McDevitt. Seeker. 2006, New York: Ace.

Chase Kolpath, the narrator of Jack McDevitt’s novel Seeker, is a grave robber. So is her boss, Alex Benedict. They’re good at it, too, but prefer to think of themselves as antiquities dealers.

Alex and Chase have made some significant finds during their careers, and have collected both friends and enemies along the way. Now they are on the trail of the biggest find of their careers and somebody wants to stop them, badly enough to kill them.

Their introduction to the case arrives with an old plastic cup with ancient lettering, brought to their office for appraisal by Amy Kolmer, a woman obviously ignorant of its true value but hoping for a quick sale. Analysis of the cup reveals it to be approximately 9,000 years old. The lettering is in an ancient language known as English, and their AI (artificial intelligence) gives an initial translation of Searcher or Explorer as the name of the ship it must have come from.

Alex Benedict is a very successful antiquities dealer. If there is one 9,000 year-old cup from a ship, there is a chance of more. All he has to do is find the ship.

Alex makes the decisions, but it seems Chase does all the legwork, and there is plenty of legwork involved. How did the cup come into Amy’s hands? What was the real name of the ship? Where did it sail from? Most important of all, where is it now?

An historian is able to tell them the ship’s name — the Seeker, one of two ships belonging to the ancient Margolians. Nine-thousand years before, the Seeker had left an America mired in religious and political oppression for a world where “not even God will be able to find us.” They were never heard from again. Their disappearance became one of the most enduring myths of human colonization, and one cup from that lost colony was sitting in Alex Benedict’s safe. He now had an even greater prize than just a ship full of treasure. He was on the trail of the Margolians, and he intended to be the one to finally answer the question of what had happened to the lost colony.

Eventually they find the ship, and another set of mysteries, and that’s where the science comes in.

Chase spends several chapters hunting down clues as to where the ship currently is. Searching through old ship logs and questioning owners of the cup over the previous 30 years may not seem like science, but it is. A large part of any scientific investigation is the gathering of evidence.

Among the bits and pieces Chase uncovers is evidence that the actual discoverers of the Seeker were killed in an earthquake and resulting avalanche 30 years previous. They had been with Survey, and had spent the twelve years following their retirement from Survey returning to the same location in space again and again, with no record of where they had gone beyond the incomplete memories of their daughter, a young girl at the time of the accident. Was it someplace they had found during their time with Survey? Finding the answer to that requires learning something about how to set up an efficient flight plan, then comparing that plan to possible variations that might account for a shift to study a G-class star at the end of its hydrogen burning cycle, a type that was of particular interest to them. The deviation tells Chase where to look for the Seeker.

The Seeker is found, full of dead colonists, mostly children. Eric theorizes that it appears they were trying to escape some sort of catastrophe. There are no live Margolians, and the only planet that once might have sustained human life now has an extreme orbit creating long winters where humans could not survive. Investigation of the Seeker reveals that many original parts had been replaced with those from its sister ship, the Bremerhaven. An empty space dock is also found, but the Bremerhaven is not. So a new question—what happened to the Bremerhaven?

What if a comet, or some other object, had hit the planet or passed nearby? Could it have caused the changes in the orbit of their suspected colony world? How big would it have to be? When would it have happened? Would the colonists have had enough notice to plan an escape? Could there have been two escape plans, one for the majority of the colonists, with another, less risky, plan to get their precious children back to Earth? If yes, where did they go with the Bremerhaven, when it no longer had star-flight capability? Where were they now? This time a friend, and her knowledge of astrophysics, provides the answers they need. How she does it, and what they find afterwards, you’ll need to read the book to learn. It’s a good read, and you’ll learn a bit about the movement of planetary bodies, too.

One more mystery they solve before the end — they also find out who’s trying to kill them, and why.


[originally posted on Scientific Computing World's education pages]

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