Engines of God – Jack McDevitt (1994)
‘Two hundred years ago, humans made a stunning discovery…
In the far reaches of the solar system: a huge statue of an alien creature, with an inscription that defied all efforts at translation.
Now, faster-than-light drive opens the stars to exploration, humans are finding other relics of the race they call the Monument-Makers – each different, and each heartbreakingly beautiful. But except for a set of footprints on Jupiter’s moon, Iapetus, there is no trace of the enigmatic race that has left them behind.
Then a team of scientists working on a dead world discover an ominous new image of the Monument-Makers. Somehow it all fits with other lost civilizations, and possibly with Earth’s own future. And distant past. But Earth itself is on the brink of ecological disaster – there is no time to search for answers. Even to a question that may hold the key to survival for the entire human race…’
Blurb from the 1996 Voyager paperback edition
Here, McDevitt introduces Priscilla Hutchins, known to everyone as ‘Hutch’, a pilot who works for ‘The Academy’. The Academy (it was not clear to me whether the full title was within the text or not) is a xenoarchaeological organisation, obviously working Off-Earth on sites of alien ruins.
In the 23rd Century, humanity has travelled out to the stars, finding few habitable worlds. One Earthlike world exists, but is occupied by the Nok, a pre-technological race currently engaged in a world war.
Hutch is contacted by Richard Wald, an old archaeological friend who is travelling to another world, Quraquat, whose intelligent residents seemed to have undergone periodic rises and falls in their social development before disappearing altogether.
Richard’s speciality is the Monument makers, an Elder Race who seem to have left giant sculptures lying round the galaxy. On Jupiter’s moon, Iapetus, there is an image carved in ice of one of their race while on Quraquat’s airless moon there is an impossible city built of perfectly square blocks of stone which appear a) to have no purpose and b) to have been attacked at some point by weapons which left its surface broken and charred.
The xenoarchaeologists on the surface of Quraquat are working against time to excavate a temple since Earth has deemed Quraquat to be a world which can be terraformed and used to settle a human colony.
Richard and Hutch discover clues on Quraquat which lead them to the home world of the Monument makers. It is then discovered that the periodic destruction of planetary civilisations (which appears to occur every 8000 years) is due to the intervention of some other agency.
A wave of the destructive ‘Engines of God’ appears to be issuing from deeper in the galaxy on this cyclic basis and is preset to recognise and destroy organised structures, such as right angles.
McDevitt is a proficient SF thriller writer and here once more gives us mystery, sense of wonder and cliffhangers which are bound up in the fascinating dangerous and exciting world of archaeology.
Seriously, McDevitt is at his best when his archaeologist characters are involved in their work. He obviously knows and loves his subject and is particularly astute (as most scientists/SF writers tend to be) when having to deal with the politics of the profession, which gives his work an added dimension of realism.
‘Engines of God’ is divided into three sections, which gives it a somewhat disjointed feel, despite being linked by Hutch. It isn’t helped by having one of the main characters killed at the end of section one, which, although a brave move, was possibly a mistake.