Deepsix, Jack McDevitt

EOS, 2001, 432 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-105124-1

[Disclaimer: I received a copy of Deepsix straight from EOS after winning one of their online contests. This review wasn’t solicited, but I always feel better specifying which books I didn’t buy.]

Every author has its own set of pet obsessions, and after half a dozen Jack McDevitt novels, it’s fair to say that he’s got a major fascination for history and archaeology. Invented future histories and archaeologies, mind you; his protagonists are constantly digging through ruins, uncovering past secrets and saving precious relics. That they do so in the far future, about ancient events (to them) that haven’t yet happened (to us) is part of the attraction.

Perhaps his best novel to date is The Engines of God, which starts with a bang as a team of archaeologists races against time to save alien artifacts from certain destruction from an imminent Richter-10 earthquake. If you want an idea of Deepsix‘s plot, take the tension of that opener and spread it over 400 pages.

The links to The Engines of God run a little deeper than that, actually: Deepsix takes place in the same universe, and also stars plucky pilot Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins. This time, the planet being threatened with total destruction is Maleiva III. At the start of the novel, mere days remain until it’s slated to be absorbed by a gas giant in a cosmic game of pool. But things are never simple in a McDevitt novel: Suddenly, after decades of neglect, a last-minute expedition discovers remnants of an advanced civilization. Interesting, but there are further complications: There aren’t enough ships nor qualified personnel to explore the planetary surface.

None? Not so fast: Hutch is nearby, along with a capable planetary lander. So she’s ordered to go take a look. Of course, stuff happens, tragedy strikes and before you know it, they’re stuck on the surface of the planet with no way to get back to safety. Ay-yay-yay, what next?

Well, what’s next is the bulk of the novel, a grand-scale rescue attempt involving treks over vast distances, fancy orbital mechanics, abandoned equipment from a disastrous mission decades earlier, tantalizing alien mysteries and a nick-of-time conclusion. McDevitt is too much of a professional to simply write a smash’em-up brawl, and so his heroes have to rely on their cleverness and toughness far more than their strength or aggressiveness. Running against them: corporate greed, human faults and simple incompetence. Whew!

As a straight-up action/adventure SF, Deepsix is maybe a touch too long, but it certainly fits the bill. The thrills are there and the delicious balance between hope and doom is effectively maintained. Characterization is initially shaky, but all characters come to emerge effectively —even the ones that may not be overly likable at first. Then there’s the writing; like most other aspects of the book, it takes a while to engage, but eventually develops its own nice little cruising speed. There’s no need to be fancy when writing a book of this nature, and so Deepsix flows unimpeded.

The problems arise when trying to consider Deepsix as anything more than a Science Fiction adventure. While there are enough interesting details, here and there, to set this story in a believable future, there isn’t much that’s startlingly new or original. The Engines of God could rely on a staggering concept, but Deepsix is merely an adventure. I suppose that most readers will be satisfied, but as far as the state of the art goes, this isn’t it.

But I don’t think it’s a serious problem for McDevitt. He’s written other fine adventures before (See Moonfall for his version of a catastrophe movie) and other more ambitious novels as well. This one happens to fall in the first category and not the second. I’ll be there for his next books, but hoping that they’ll be more similar to his other novels than the merely adequate Deepsix.

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