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.
‘In a 3500-year-old Mycenaean Tomb, an artifact has been unearthed. An incomprehensible object in an impossible place; its age, purpose and origins unknown.
Its substance has scientists baffled. And the miracle it contains does not belong on this Earth.
It is an enigma with no equal in recorded history and its discovery has unleashed a storm of intrigue, theft and espionage that is pushing nations to the brink of war.
It is mankind’s greatest discovery… and worst nightmare.
It may already have obliterated one world. Ours is next.’
Blurb from the 2001 orbit paperback edition.
I find myself being rather ambivalent about Benford novels. Admittedly, the science is as accurate as it possibly could be, and if it does get above some people’s heads, Benford has provided an afterword in which he gives a ‘Quarks for Dummies’ lecture in some of the more important aspects of subatomic particles.
‘Timescape’ is a novel which, although listed in Pringle’s ‘100 Best SF Novels’, is rather dull and lacks pace and background colour.
‘Foundation’s Fear’ suffered from both a lack of characterisation and a sense of disjointedness in that the narrative was attempting to follow both Seldon and a pair of resurrected AI simulations.
‘Artifact’ however, is a very readable if lightweight piece, but does have its faults.
In structure it resembles very much the outline for a film including a short prologue sequence (which in a film would be shown before the main credits) set 3500 years in the past before the next chapter brings us bang up to modern day at the same location.
Claire Anderson is a feisty Boston Irish archaeologist excavating a Mycenaean tomb under the watchful eye of the Greek authorities, while Greece itself is transforming into a One-Party Socialist State.
Kontos, a brutish Greek archaeologist turned politician, is attempting to oust the Americans from the dig. Claire then discovers a strange cube within the tomb, carved from black stone with an amber cone protruding from the forward surface.
Tests on the cube produce curious results. It is, for one thing, radioactive.
Kontos proves to be a lecherous Greek as well as a Socialist. After a final showdown Kontos has the cube packed up, prepared to claim it as his own find. Claire and US mathematician John Bishop return to the tomb and reclaim not only Claire’s notes but the cube, which they feel quite entitled to carry off to the US with them.
Benford makes no attempt to question the moral basis of this. Indeed, it seems implicit within the text that such an act is necessary as the US is the only country capable of examining and learning the secrets of such an object, and the Greeks of course, would only be interested in it for its military capabilities, while the Americans, God Bless them, would be concerned only for the pursuit of science and the artifact’s peaceful applications.
The Greeks attempt to reclaim the artifact, but are thwarted, so they declare war on Turkey instead.
This may seem a flippant over-simplification of Benford’s portrayals, but had he attempted to put some shades of grey into depictions of the two races this would have been a far superior book. The American characters are uniformly honest, decent people while the Greeks are two-dimensional caricatures; corrupt, devious, lecherous and violent.
On a Hollywood level, America (and indeed the UK if one considers Bond movies to be representative of British cinema) often gets away with portraying evil foreign regimes in this cliched way, but one could argue that many recent productions of this type are aware of the ironic nature of their depictions, which border on self-parody, particularly in the case of contemporary Bond movies and Vin Diesel’s ‘XXX’
One expects an author in this day and age, particularly an SF author, to be more aware of the political and social nuances. No regime is truly evil. No democracy is truly good.
Sadly, the whole badly thought out political nonsense tends to detract from the artifact itself, a natural trap for two bound singularities (like two big quarks) one of which has been jarred loose but is returning like a heat-seeking monster to find its twin.
It’s a shame really. If there were less of the political and racial polarisation, this could have been something half decent.
‘In the century since the devastating War of a Thousand Suns, humanity has stagnated, staying in the cocoon of the Centrist Worlds while the rapacious pirates of Golen Space prey on ships that venture too far into the interstellar flux. And starship Impris, lost in the war years, has become the stuff of legend – used by the pirates as bait, even as the Centrist authorities deny her existence.
Renwald Legroeder, escaped prisoner and star rigger pilot, has seen what the government doesn’t want anyone to see. Framed for treason he flees – to save himself and clear his name. he returns to the realm of the pirates to find the truth behind Impris… to unmask the conspiracy that cost him his freedom… to tear off the blinders that have kept humanity from fulfilling its destiny among the stars.
Between Legroeder and redemption lie the pirates’ vengeance, if he is caught – and the perils of the Deep Flux, where no man has dared to fly. But with the help of a beautiful pirate renegade named Tracy-Ace/Alfa, he risks everything to uncover the secrets that can restore his reputation – and change the future of humanity.’
Blurb from the 2001 Tor paperback edition
The first hundred pages of this book were, I am sure, trying to persuade me that I would hate it. It begins with the escape of Netrigger Renwald Legroeder from the space-pirates of Golen Space.
A netrigger is a pilot who links into a cybernetic interface in order to guide a ship through ‘The Flux’ which is – as far as I can gather – that which we have until now called hyperspace.
Renwald returns to the civilised worlds and finds himself unaccountably charged with endangering the ship from which he was originally kidnapped by the pirates.
The keenness of the authorities to commit Legroeder seem to be linked to the disappearance of the ‘ghost-ship’ Impris and Legroeder’s claim that the ship appeared just before the pirates did.
Legroeder is bailed by a friendly female lawyer, attacked, and flees to an asteroid run by the Narseil (an amphibian alien race who were originally blamed for the disappearance of Impris.
The only way for Legroeder to clear his name is to join a Narseil mission to infiltrate the pirates (and investigate their links with the Cyborg Kyber humans) in order to discover their location and the truth about the missing Impris.
Despite my initial qualms it is an enjoyable read, although it is little more than a swashbuckling tale of derring-do transferred to outer space. Carver (his face is on the inside back cover) seems like a nice bloke and has even provided his e-mail address, for which I applaud him.
On the negative side, the romantic episodes are a little clumsy and the aliens an easily be imagined as men in rubber suits borrowed from Star Trek for the afternoon.
Carver evidently has a large fan base however, as this was nominated for the 2002 Nebula Award running against some stiff competition, which seems to me rather like giving Jeffrey Archer the Booker Prize, narrowly pipping Danielle Steele to the post.
However I would recommend reading this book. It’s fast paced, it’s engrossing. It’s fun. But a Nebula nominated novel in the 21st century needs to have far more than this to even get within a light year of consideration. It’s old-fashioned Space Opera, and although there’s nothing wrong with that it lacks the excitement and sense of wonder that some of the original pulp novels can still produce.
I suspect that there is a certain section of the SF author community who are – consciously or unconsciously – overinfluenced by TV or movie SF. Admittedly there is always the lucrative possibility that one’s work might be optioned for a film or a series, as this must be a very real consideration for modern writers.. Benford’s ‘Artefact’ is a classic case of a bad novel which yearns to grow up into a bad film and this book, although not so cinematically structured, has the same feel to it.
All the aliens are bipedal, humanoid and speak English.
The Kyber are – to all intents and purposes – The Borg, or at least have their machine-interface culture.
There is also an unconscious arrogance in novels like these which stems – I suspect – from an exigent attitude ingrained within US society whereby Americans see little of interest beyond their own borders. Indeed, Carver implies – from what we see of the society of Faber Eridani – that colonised planets will – if not colonised by Americans – at least follow an American social and political ideal. The planet has an Attorney General and – apart from Legroeder’s olive skin – nothing to suggest there is any ethnic mix.
‘Kim Kinnison, Number One man of his time, had faced challenges before – but rarely one as daunting as this. To him fell the perilous task of infiltrating the inner circle of Boskone, stronghold of galactic civilisation’s most deadly foe. Kinnison had to become a loyal Boskonian in every gesture, deed – and thought. he had to work his way up through the ranks of an alien enemy organisation, right into the highest echelons of power. Then it would be he who issued the orders – orders that would destroy his own civilization…’
Blurb from the 1973 Panther paperback edition
Kinnison’s wedding is rudely interrupted by Mentor of Arisia who enjoins him to ‘THINK!’ in big letters. The Patrol, of course, were a little premature in thinking that the forces of darkness (i.e. Boskonia) had been defeated.
Kinnison, having thunk, comes to the conclusion that the Earth will be attacked via hyper-spatial tube, and sets up defences in the nick of time. Then, following a zwilnik trail he discovers the planet of Lyrane, a matriarchy of powerful telepaths whose males are aggressive mindless animals.
Nadrek of Palain VII appears here, a character of whom Smith did not make enough use. As a child I was totally captivated by Nadrek’s outlook and philosophy, which was one of avoiding danger whenever possible.
Clarissa McDougall becomes a Grey Lensman and is posted to Lyrane to report on zwilnik activity.
There is another battle with the fiendish overlords of Delgon, some of whom are hiding out in Lyrane’s polar regions.
Kinnison, going undercover again, works himself into the retinue of Alcon of Thrale and eventually supplants him as head of Boskonian activities. However, behind Alcon of Prime Minister Fossten, who is revealed to be none other than Gharlane of Eddore.
What is interesting, given America’s recent policies on dealing with problems in the rest of the world is the Patrol’s idea of dealing with alien cultures.
‘Let’s civilize ‘em!’ as I think one of the military commandos puts it later in the novel. The US has, it seems, always been keen on forcing its culture on the rest of the world which, by the time of the Galactic Patrol, it has, since Earth has a world government which is very much US-controlled. Of course, one has to look at this from a historical and social viewpoint and not really expect Smith, revising and updating work from the Nineteen Forties, to be overly concerned with the future of the rest of the world, given that he considered his fan base to be young American men.
However, if one considers SF to be to a certain extent, the subconscious of the culture at the time at which it is written, it says a lot about the arrogance of US culture, an arrogance which sadly persists in some authors to this day.
The whole series, after all, is an ideological struggle between two cultural models, neither of which can tolerate the existence of the other. It doesn’t take Freud to work out what parallel models were in operation at the time.
It’s also worth noting that the Kinnison wedding is an unashamedly Christian one, the implication being that, with the exception of the alien Lensmen, all his human colleagues, family and friends are Christian also.
No Jewish Lensmen then?
‘To the harsh landscape of Sol’s fourth planet travel thirteen astronauts, the best scientists from eleven nations, on a history-making voyage into the unknown. The international crew of the Mars mission have spent nine months in space, crossing too (sic) million kilometres, to reach the last great frontier.
Their voyage is fraught with disputes, both personal and political, and their time on Mars limited to ‘footprints and flags’: yet while there they come face-to-face with the most incredible and shocking discovery of all.’
Blurb from the 1993 NEL edition
Released during a period which saw a brief flourish of Mars-related releases, Bova’s novel breaks no new ground, and invites inevitable comparison with Kim Stanley Robinson’s infinitely superior ‘Red Mars’ published in the same year.
Bova’s dual timeline structure – which returns from the contemporary narrative to examine the former lives of various crew members does little to add depth to the characterisations.
In fairness to Bova, the central character, Jamie Waterman, is an interesting creation; a geologist of Amerindian descent, whose parents have – to a certain extent – abandoned their roots in favour of a middle-class American lifestyle. Jamie has rediscovered his heritage through his grandfather and now, despite political difficulties and the added problems of international quotas, has been selected to be part of the first team to set foot on Mars.
The science is well-researched, the political aspects are a clear and important part of the novel, but Bova fails in giving us any real feeling of Mars itself. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars, in contrast, becomes almost a character in its own right, but on a first reading of Bova’s ‘Mars’ one is left with the impression that it looks a little bit like new Mexico.
Had this novel been shorter, one might not be so critical, but in its 566 pages, much is redundant and other issues are dealt with peremptorily, such as the Jewish biologist Ilona Mater’s reaction to the Russians. It’s a Hallmark plotline. Initially she irrationally blames all Russians for the massacre of her family, but later, when a Russian saves her life, her viewpoint is completely changed. This is simply too simplistic a device for such an emotive and complex issue which is not dealt with enough in the text to begin with.
Bova also, perhaps unintentionally, gives us rather caricatured characters from outside the US. The Austrian geologist – whom Jamie replaces on the mission – is depicted a sexist misogynist egomaniac. The English medical officer, Tony Reed, is initially a cowardly manipulator whose only aim seems to be to bed an unattainable female crewmember. He, in another Hallmark moment, ultimately faces his fears and saves the day.
The Russians are standard fictional Russians, efficient and humourless, but who display a more human face when disaster strikes. Conversely, the American characters, Waterman, Brumado and Pete Connors, seem to have no character flaws.
The mission eventually succeeds in finding primitive life on Mars and there are a couple of unimportant loose ends left for an inevitable sequel.
It’s a good novel for a long journey or a rainy afternoon, but pales in comparison with other Mars-related works of the Nineties.
‘The Fate of the ‘Ancient Planet’ Earth depends on the skill and courage of a single spaceship commander as the constellations war across the galaxies – a vivid intensely dramatic novel of the future every science fiction fan will want to read.’
Blurb from the 1967 Paperback Library edition.
Hamilton produces an interesting idea which is never really fully developed here. Originally written in the 1950s this 1961 version is an expanded version.
Jay Birrell is the Commander of the Fifth Squadron of Lyra, one the five sectors of space which was once controlled by Earth under the banner of the United Worlds. Although Earth still considers itself to be in charge of the galaxy the five sectors have long been autonomous and are ruled by the Commanders of their military fleet.
Interestingly, Hamilton tells us that when man ventured into space he found many E-type planets already populated by humans, suggesting either some form of convergent evolution or some seeding programme by agencies unknown. This mystery is not further explored or even mentioned, which is a shame since it would have made an interesting side-plot.
Almost as soon as the novel opens, Birrell’s ship is lured into a Star Cluster by ships from the Orion sector and he is kidnapped and questioned about the Lyrans’ plans for Earth. Birrell, mystified by the questions, manages to escape but is subsequently asked by the Lyran commander, Ferdias, to take his squadron to Earth to attend a commemorative ceremony.
It appears that Earth has become important as a figurehead and that the Orionids are planning to claim Earth and – inevitably – attempt to control the galaxy.
Once the Lyrans have arrived on Earth it transpires that the Orionids are indeed planning to invade, and Birrell has to convince a reluctant United Worlds government to let him deal with them. Hamilton makes some points about government bureaucracy obstructing the military in what they have to do to get the job done, but that problem is soon dealt with.
What follows is a standard action plot which culminates in a space-battle in which the forces of Lyra – aided by the remaining fleet of the United Worlds based on Earth – fight off the nasty Orionids. There is a twist in the tale however, as Ferdias himself has plans to control Earth – something which Birrell was warned of by Tauncer, the evil Orionid.
For something published in 1961 it reads as remarkably dated. Hamilton is a competent writer but fails to expand his original tale into something which would have seemed contemporary at the time.
There are some interesting features. The sections dealing with events in space work very well, taking into account the dangers of radiation, and proving the FTL ships with radar screens which translate FTL images into meaningful visuals. The rest of the science is, however, decidedly non-Einsteinian, and there appear to be no relativistic effects to the ships whatsoever.
Earth however is a disappointment and doesn’t seem a great deal different to the world we knew in the Sixties. The galactic society is disappointingly Americocentric and it stands to reason that of course the Headquarters of the United Worlds would be in North America.
‘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.
‘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.
“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.