The Engines of God, Jack McDevitt

Ace, 1995, 419 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00284-6

I have already confessed a weak spot for cool cover illustrations, so I won’t go over it again. But everyone should know that the gorgeous Bob Eggleton painting on the cover of Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God was the only reason why I bought the book. This time, no excuses, no justification and no feel-good rationalisation.

So it’s both a relief and a letdown to find that the scene represented by the cover occurs in the very first pages of the novel: One xeno-archaeologist and his pilot (protagonist Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins) taking a leisurely sight-seeing stroll on Saturn’s moon Iapetus. The sight to see? An ice sculpture, left behind by an alien race long gone.

One thing that can be said about The Engines of God is that it doesn’t stay at the same place for too long. After this short prologue, we (along with Hutch) find ourselves evacuating Quaraqua, an extra-solar planet soon due for terraforming. The problem is that archaeologists discover a major site only days before the start of the terraforming process. Since it all begins with a nuclear liquefaction of the ice-caps, -along with Richter 16.3 earthquakes- Hutch and the archaeology team have to race against time to get everything (and everyone) out of there before the big kaboom.

McDevitt uses this tense, exciting section to introduce both a small roster of characters (soon to be fleshed out in the latter parts of the novel) and the context in which The Engines of God takes place; your basic mildly-dystopian future, along with an overpopulated Earth and clueless politicians calling for an end to the space program (shoo! shoo!). FTL communication and travel might be humanity’s saving grace, but as Hutch will eventually discover, they might not even be enough…

Along the way are extinct alien races, tantalizing mysteries, nick-of-time escapes, spectacular visuals, a dash of tasteful sex, destruction and death. Truly the ingredients to a satisfying SF yarn, and that’s mostly what we get here. Of course, Hutch is a likable character and McDevitt knows how to fascinate his readers. The Engines of God is the kind of novel that reaffirms why you’re reading “this Buck Rogers stuff” while inserting a few cool sociological ideas in your head during the process.

Of course, said readers shouldn’t expect a perfect work. For instance, more than a few loose ends aren’t properly tied up (an usual McDevitt tic); sequels are possible. The death of certain characters appear more gratuitous than anything else, even if that was probably the author’s intent. While McDevitt offers adequate answers to the questions raised in the novel, I couldn’t help but feel that more would have been possible. The conclusion is also ultimately depressing, although not in the immediate time frame.

Still, most should find what they’re looking for in The Engines of God. Solid science, fast action, claustrophobic tension, awe-inspiring finale. It’s difficult to find better. There’s more here to the book than just a pretty cover. It’s definitely worth the paperback price (hey, now that I’ve bought it, I have to rationalize my purchase!) or the library loan. Give it a try; maybe you’ll discover an author. I know that McDevitt can now count me as one potential fan.

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