Ancient Shores, Jack McDevitt

Harper Prism, 1996, 372 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105426-7

In High School, we once had a question on a geography exam which went a bit like this: “Why are we sure that there weren’t any other advanced civilizations on Earth centuries ago?” The correct answer being, of course, that we would have found artifacts and other signs of their presences. Given modern scientific methods, it’s a fair bet to say that—despite more than a few new-age fantasies—no other civilizations roamed the earth before ours.

I often thought back to that exam question when reading Jack McDevitt’s Ancient Shores. The novel begin when one farmer hits a “rock” in a field in North Dakota. As any good farmer knows, rocks must be taken out of fields before they can break machinery (I’m speaking from personal experience, here) So they dig, dig, dig… and find a full-sized yacht. A few pages later, we discover that the boat is made of “impossible” element 161…

Ever since seeing that gorgeous Bob Eggleton illustration on the cover of The Engines of God, I’ve been having these weird urges to try some McDevitt. I finally broke down in the Ottawa Public Library “New Arrivals” section, borrowing McDevitt’s latest paperback release, Ancient Shores.

For the most part, it’s an acceptable book. The existence of alien artifacts on Earth produces some very believable reactions, but also more than a few doubtful thought processes. Most of the news snippets about economic collapse due to indestructible materials are, to me, unlikely. Business has too much inertia to experience the rapid downturn exhibited in the novel.

This quibble aside, the book moves quickly enough to satisfy anyone. Only the last part drags, mostly because we know where the novel is going. The ultimate conclusion hovers between the over-dramatic and the just right.

Characters are handled the right way, but there are far too many secondary characters introduced once in great detail, and then never to be seen again. There are times where I miss Brunner’s approach in Stand On Zanzibar, with chapters being explicitly designated as being background material, subplots or integral to the main story.

But by far the biggest problem with Ancient Shores is the impression that we’ve only read the first novel in a series. By the end of the book, many possibilities have been opened, and the effect is more one of dissatisfaction than of mind-expansion. Have I mentioned the possible presence of an alien life-form that’s not even solved by the end of the story?

It occurred to me that Ancient Shores shares interesting similarities with Stephen Gould’s Wildside: A doorway to other worlds, the combat of a smallish band of explorers against government orders to take over the artifact, etc… Unfortunately, Wildside is a better book: In the end, reader reaction to Ancient Shores is likely to be one of vague satisfaction rather than definite liking. Too many loose ends (and possibly too many knots) are left to give a sentiment of satisfaction. Too bad, because McDevitt sure knows how to write in a way to hook the reader.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go take some rocks out of nearby fields…

[September 1998A Talent For War (Jack McDevitt), despite its name, is not a military SF novel. Instead, expect -if possible- a far-future story where an initially shallow pseudo-historian tries to uncover a historical enigma more than two centuries old. Of course, there are various action sequences sprinkled here and there. Pretty good stuff, but just don’t make the mistake of reading the first hundred pages, letting it lie for a few days and then go back to it; you’ll be hopelessly confused with the dozen of important character names. As ever, McDevitt writes clearly and the result is an unusual novel that can be read easily. Not as good as it could have been (tightening up the action could have been useful) but a good choice.]

[October 1998Eternity Road, by Jack McDevitt, is a disappointment. Despite his knack fro creating engaging plots around far-future archaeological/historical investigations (no less than four of his novels have this motif), here he fumbles and the result is overlong and short on satisfaction. Eternity Road takes place roughly a thousand years in the future, most of these years after the catastrophic fall of our civilization. The plot, roughly, is a quest toward a legendary place through post-apocalyptic countryland. Yes, we’ve seen this elsewhere. Though there are several odd quirky details to keep up our interest (the bank and the A.I. scenes are fun), the novel feels too episodic, to quickly wrapped up, too ordinary to be remembered fondly. It takes almost forever to start, and then cuts off almost in mid-story. Not up to McDevitt’s usual standards, and not really worth your time unless you’re a post-apocalyptic buff or a McDevitt completist.]

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