My life in outer space

McDevitt – Jack

Omega – Jack McDevitt (2003)

Omega (The Academy, #4)

McDevitt is a tad frustrating. He’s a highly competent writer and one can’t fault his science or his characterisation. The ‘Academy’ novels (of which this is the fourth) have been highly enjoyable and I’m sure there are legions of readers out there who want more of Priscilla ‘Hutch’ Hutchins, Academy pilot and now, somewhat older, in an executive role within the Academy itself.
The Omega Clouds – agents of destruction which seem to be able to recognise right angles and other signs of intelligent life – have been studied intensively. Apart from the fact that they are based on nanotechnology, there is very little else discovered about them. One is heading toward Earth and will arrive in around a thousand years.
Meanwhile, elderly scientist Harold Tewkesbury has been studying a series of novalike explosions (his students have called them ‘Tewks’) that have shown up along Omega wave fronts.
Additionally, around 3000 light years from earth, a planet with a pre-industrial civilisation has been discovered, and an Omega cloud will reach them within months.
Hutch is determined to find a way to divert the Omega cloud and/or persuade the indigenes to abandon their coastal cities and move inland.
My frustration with McDevitt – putting aside for the moment his Americocentric view of the universe, which I have covered in previous reviews – lies with his alien races.
Very early on in this novel the Academy are trying to salvage what they can from an already Omega-scarred world which is about to be revisited. In a large auditorium they find a statue of what could be the architect; a tall alien beastie but wearing garments that overly resemble Twentieth Century European attire. In a previous volume we had a similar occurrence where a representation of a long-extinct wolflike creature showed him wearing a dinner jacket.
Think about it Jack! What are the odds that aliens, no matter how humanoid, would evolve the dinner jacket? It may seem that I am splitting hairs here but these are the things that ruin my enjoyment of the novel, which is a shame because on the whole it’s one of the best in the series so far.
There are wonderful characters, fascinating scientific anomalies, vast world-destroying clouds and… these Walt Disney aliens.
The race that Hutch is trying to save are cute green webfooted large-eyed bucktoothed beasties who look very like the creatures on a children’s show called Goompahs. They fall into that category of alien design beloved of ‘Star Trek’ and its clones, where the civilisation is basically human, but the people look different.
A third of the way into the novel they began to annoy me and I was at the point of hoping the Omega cloud would arrive prematurely and save me the trouble of reading any more about them.
Fat chance of that, as it turned out.
McDevitt tries to make a point about the cuteness factor. Many companies petition the Academy for permission to travel to Lookout for various money-making purposes, virtually all of which are refused. Humanity is completely engaged with them and their possible extinction, and at one point Hutch asks herself whether there would be so much public interest if the aliens had been unappealing insects?
Not enough is made of this, however, which is a shame as it is an issue that relates to how we deal with endangered species. The cute ones get all the attention, while threatened species of snails or beetles seldom appear in petitions or Facebook appeals. McDevitt missed an opportunity here which may have raised the bar on this book a tad.
It is by no means a bad novel, but one feels that as a nominee for the Nebula award this is surely missing something, and not just the world outside America.


Ancient Shores – Jack McDevitt (1996)

Ancient Shores

‘Tom Lasker is about to have his life turned upside down. In the midst of his wheat fields two thousand miles from any ocean, he digs up the remains of a forty-two foot sailboat in near perfect condition. It’s true the wheat fields had once been on the shoreline of a great inland sea, but that was ten thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age. Stranger still, the vessel is made from alien materials and bears an impossible atomic code.

When a subsequent discovery is made, a structure called the ‘Roundhouse’, the region becomes the focus of dangerous political conflict and self-seeking ambition, for the Roundhouse is revealed to be the doorway to another world….’

Blurb from the 1996 Voyager paperback edition

When a farmer in North America digs up a yacht of unfamiliar design on the shore of a sea which hasn’t seen water in ten thousand years, people start getting interested.
The yacht and its sails (looking brand new) attract a far different sort of interest when it’s discovered that they are composed of an impossible and stable transuranic element.
Later, a local scientist begins to wonder what else is buried in the area and something is discovered buried in Native American Territory.
It is a building, christened The Roundhouse which, as well as being confirmed along with the yacht as being of extraterrestrial origin, is a teleportational gateway to other worlds.
As in ‘The Hercules Text’ McDevitt focuses on the effects of this discovery upon the world or rather (a regular thing for McDevitt) on the USA. In this instance, however, he may be forgiven for his Americocentricity as much of the novel is concerned with the relationship between the government and Native Americans who ostensibly own the land on which The Roundhouse is situated.
Interestingly, we visit a selection of random characters whose lives have been changed (for better or worse) by the discovery. Otherwise we follow three main characters, fighting to stop the government from destroying what could be our gateway to the stars and our first meeting with extraterrestrials. This is set against a background of depressing headlines, stock market crashes and religious extremists hanging about and shouting ‘Work of The Devil’ or whatever religious extremists generally shout at extraterrestrial structures.
There is one disembodied extraterrestrial which comes in through the Roundhouse and seems to give people rather too religious experiences. It’s a superfluous element which seems a little pointless. The aliens were made far more interesting by their absence. Throwing a holy ghost into the mix so late in the novel seems a trifle odd.
All in all though, it’s a decent enough novel with good characterisation and a realistic view of the local community.
See also Frederik Pohl’s ‘Gateway’.

Infinity Beach – Jack McDevitt (2000)

Infinity Beach

‘We are alone. That is the verdict, after centuries of Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence missions and space exploration. The only living things in the Universe are found on the Nine Worlds settled from Earth, and the starships that knit them together. Or so it’s believed, until Dr. Kimberley Brandywine sets out to find what happened to her clone-sister Emily, who, after the final unsuccessful manned SETI expedition, disappeared along with the rest of her ship’s crew.

Following a few ominous clues, Kim discovers the ship’s log was faked. Something happened out there in the darkness between the stars and she’s prepared to go to any length to find answers. Even if it means giving up her career… stealing a starship… losing her lover. Kim is about to discover the truth about her sister – and about more than she ever dared imagine.’

Blurb from the 2001 Eos paperback edition

In a future where Humanity has expanded out to a handful of settled planets and seems to have culturally stalled, Kim Brandywine is working for an institute still trying to search for Extraterrestrial Life. Kim is haunted by the death of her clone-sister Emily who was on an exploratory voyage and who disappeared, along with another member of the crew, without trace after she returned. The two male survivors of the Hunter Expedition were subsequently involved in a mysterious explosion at Mount Hope on their home planet, an area which has since had sightings of ghostly apparitions.
Emily is contacted by the grandfather of the other missing girl who believes that there is something more to their disappearance than meets the eye.
Initially cynical, Kim begins to uncover small pieces of evidence which leads her to suspect that something is very wrong with the official story of the voyage of the Hunter and, facing opposition from her employers and the families of the now-dead crew, becomes determined to uncover the truth of what happened to her sister.
McDevitt gives us a gripping scientific detective story which combines a first contact situation with brilliantly evocative moments of ghostly horror and an old unsolved murder.
Interestingly, McDevitt succeeds well in realising a planet settled some six hundred years ago which now has experts researching its own history and archaeology. It makes for a very well-rounded society, if a tad Americocentric. The structure is well thought out, although perhaps a little cinematic. It is a bit of a cliche for the hero/ine to be not believed/discredited/fired and then have to solve the mysteries while the authorities are snapping at her heels.
All in all, though, it’s a cracking piece of work. Nothing groundbreaking, just a solid piece of well-written SF with a detective thriller twist.

Chindi – Jack McDevitt (2002)

Chindi (The Academy, #3)Chindi by Jack McDevitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘The universe has been explored – and humanity has all but given up on finding other intelligent life. Then an alien satellite orbiting a distant star sends out an unreadable signal. is it the final programmed gasp of an ancient, long-dead race? Or the first greeting of an undiscovered life form? Academy starship captain Priscilla Hutchins and the once-maligned Contact Society are about to learn the answers… to more questions than they could possibly conceive of asking.’

Blurb from the 2003 Ace paperback edition

Once more, Hutch is piloting a group of alien-hunters. This time it is the much maligned First Contact Society, who have discovered part of a transmission emanating in orbit around a neutron star.
As much as one wants to love this book (and one can’t really fault it as a decent SF novel) one can’t help feeling that McDevitt is repeating himself on several levels. Again Hutch gets close to a man, and yes, he dies tragically. Almost simultaneously, the artist Tor, one of Hutch’s ex-lovers, manages to grab himself a berth on this new expedition, along with an undertaker and a famous starlet.
It appears there is a network of stealth satellites scattered through at least our part of the galaxy and they are recording and transmitting data to somewhere else. That somewhere else happens to be an odd arrangement of gas giants, their attendant moons, rings and one building set on a moon which orbits this whole arrangement and its spectacular views.
The Retreat, as it is named, is abandoned but had two occupants who are buried nearby.
However, this is not the relay’s destination, for the party discover, refuelling from the gas-giant’s plentiful hydrogen, an asteroid converted into a ship which, it transpires, is a vast travelling storehouse of images and artefacts collected from thousands of races.
Hutch, having lost her newest man in an explosion at the neutron star, does not want more of her passengers to die, but they do. Some are attacked and eaten by angel-like aliens on an idyllic world.
Then, they insist on exploring the Chindi – as they name the ship – and, as was expected, it decides to leave.
There is then a race against time to rescue Hutch’s ex-lover, left behind on the giant asteroid ship.
Again, McDevitt’s Americocentricity is irritating, although I was amused that Hutch, accessing the news from Earth, was reading about a new serial killer in Derbyshire, a county already famous for its violence and multiple murder mayhem.
McDevitt’s aliens are irritating too, as so far, the races have not been alien enough. In the Chindi one of the first things the explorers find is a tableaux of some world where a wolf-like creature is standing before a table wearing a dinner jacket.
Thinking this through, quite apart from any issues of sexism, one has to say that the jacket, not even specifically the dinner jacket, as a fashion phenomenon, is not that recent and occupies a tiny fraction of the diverse gallimaufry of humanwear, and is also a generally western concept. For an alien race of wolf-like creatures to have come up with something similar and to have been discovered by humanity in the epoch in which this fashion was popular rather stretches my disbelief. These are Star Trek aliens, furry or bumpy-headed humanoids who think the same way we do, or at least, the same way Americans do.

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Deepsix – Jack McDevitt (2001)

Deepsix (Engines of God, #2)Deepsix by Jack McDevitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘With less than three weeks to go before a rogue gas giant collides with the world known as Deepsix, Priscilla ;Hutch’ Hutchins and her crack team land on the surface to record and salvage as much of the planet’s ancient civilisation as they can before it is lost forever.

But as they struggle to make sense of this strange uninhabited world with its stone cities under ice, unexpected predators and inexplicable hints of impossible technology buried in the rubble, their only means of escape is suddenly destroyed. The clock ticks relentlessly toward an unavoidable apocalypse. They must find some way to get off Deepsix before it plunges into the depths of the rampaging gas giant.’

Blurb to the Voyager 2001 paperback edition

The sequel to ‘Engines of God’ sees Hutch – the diminutive pilot introduced in the aforesaid novel – once again involved in last-minute xeno-archaeology.
The planet Maleiva III (Deepsix) is about to be cannon-balled by a rogue gas-giant which has entered the system from the depths of space. Although explorers visited the planet twenty years previously to investigate its six-billion year old biosphere and the highly evolved predators which inhabit the world it is only now that it is about to be engulfed that evidence of a sapient but apparently extinct civilisation has been found.
Hutch, being the only pilot with a lander capable of visiting the planet and near enough to reach the planet in time, is asked to head a team to try and salvage what artefacts and evidence they can before Maleiva III is destroyed.
In ‘Engines of God’ of course, Hutch was on another planet helping a team to excavate an alien temple before terraforming destroyed all evidence. Thankfully, that is where the similarities end.
‘Deepsix’ is a much tighter novel in that McDevitt confines the action to one location and the alien mysteries, far from being a backdrop, complement the unfolding human drama and provide a perfect balance between the two.
McDevitt, as we cannot fail to be aware, is an American. He has a great eye for character and detail, but one wonders whether he ever really stopped to consider whether any interstellar culture as this could really be populated so heavily by Americans.
There is one Frenchman and a Russian, I must point out, but that seems to be McDevitt’s only concession to a multi-cultural society.
On the other hand, if the network of human colonies, ships and of course Earth itself (which seems to have been taken over by the US. The cynical columnist McAllister at one point mentions the ratings for the WorldBowl) is a metaphor for the US, then it is not a pleasant comparison, and rather a damning portrait.

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The Hercules Text – Jack McDevitt (1986)

The Hercules Text

“From a remote corner of the galaxy a message is being sent. The continuous beats of a pulsar have become odd, irregular… artificial. It can only be a code.

Frantically, a research team struggles to decipher the alien communication. And what the scientists discover is destined to shake the foundations of empires around the world – from Wall Street to the Vatican.”

Blurb from the 1986 Ace Science Fiction Special paperback edition.

McDevitt’s Debut novel is almost a text-book examination of the effects of a superior culture on a more primitive one. In this case, Humanity is the primitive culture, in receipt of a radio message, sent one and a half million years ago from a binary star system outside the galaxy; so far in fact that our scientists can only conclude that the G2 sun and its pulsar companion were artificially created.
Harry Carmichael is a senior administrator at an American Space Centre where the message was discovered and is being decoded.
Rimford, America’s answer to Professor Stephen Hawking, along with a number of other experts, is asked to join the project. Also involved are a priest and working scientist (the Rev. Steele) an attractive linguistic psychologist (Leslie Davis) and an extraterrestrial-obsessive astronomer (Ed Gambini)
The alien transmission turns out to contain a vast amount of information which the team slowly decipher.
Despite the fact that McDevitt unravels the effects of the alien transmission in a sequence of events which seem portentous and inevitable, there are some aspects of the narrative which are weak due to their unlikelihood.
I think most people – having thought it through – would not think it a good idea to announce to the world that we can now tap the energy of the Earth’s magnetic field, rendering fossil fuel and other energy sources redundant. For the President of the US to do it is quite unbelievable, but this is what he does. As one might expect this triggers a stock market crash and economic chaos.
The consequences then extend to the USSR who threaten to initiate nuclear war unless the data is shared, and into religion, where various fundamentalist sects lay siege to the Space Centre, some claiming that the aliens are the creatures of Satan while others claim them to be God’s Children.
Slowly, most of those involved come to the conclusion that we are not ready for the knowledge of the aliens and the scientists destroy the data.
The focus of the novel is on the effect on US society which detracts somewhat from its power since the only other interested party appears to be the Soviet Union.
The narrative is interspersed with American headlines cleverly showing the ripple effect of the initial discovery of the broadcast and the later alien revelations.
As in the movie ‘Species’ and the story ‘A for Andromeda’ comparisons have to be made symbolically with the original story of Pandora who was sent in the form of a gift from Zeus (from the sky) only to become a curse to mankind.
Ironically, the female characters are few. There are no female scientists, apart from Leslie Davis, the linguistic psychologist who helps to translate the alien text and give insight into the psyche of the aliens themselves. She is under-used and employed mainly as a human interest element in the life of Harry Carmichael who is himself in the throes of a divorce and concerned for the future of his diabetic son for whom the data of the aliens could provide a cure.
It is a competent first novel and heartening to see that McDevitt in later novels puts female characters to the fore, even if his Americocentricity continues unabated.

Engines of God – Jack McDevitt (1994)

Engines Of God (Engines of God, #1)

‘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.