Ace, 2002, 511 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01102-0
The relationship between science-fiction and the unexplored frontier runs deep, perhaps all the way back to the origins of SF in pulp magazines, right alongside westerns. For many Americans, SF is synonymous with going “where no one has gone before”, replacing the old idea of a western frontier with another one: the universe as manifest destiny and Science Fiction as the only genre big enough to tell those stories. Conveniently enough, it’s also a type of story that needs no fancy variation: Go out there, explore, try to come back alive.
As it happens, Jack McDevitt has made a mini-career out of those type of stories. Chindi is the third in a series that riffs off the basic exploration plot, vaguely inserted in a Science Fiction universe that contains no surprises to even old-school SF readers. Much like The Engines of God and Deepsix (and, to a non-negligible extent, Ancient Shores and Infinity Beach), Chindi places a bunch of characters in front of alien artifacts, gives them a ticking clock and watches what happens next. This time around, series heroine Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins, re-introduced via a gallant ship rescue operation, is hired by a bunch of eccentric alien-chasers to investigate a strange phenomenon. In the established McDevitt tradition, this leads them to an alien artifact, then another and another… Meanwhile, one member of the group usually dies at every stop in the way and no one even thinks about turning back. It leads up to bigger and bigger artifacts, and maybe even to one of those elusive still-alive aliens…
Of course, regular McDevitt readers already know what to expect. Mini adventures in an alien environment, unexplained alien mysteries that the author has no intention of tying together, gigantic forces counting down to total destruction and slasher-movie deaths slowly whittling down our cast of character. (Along with a curious lack of self-preservation sense from said characters, as they all agree to keep on going regardless of the mounting body bags.) And yes, that’s pretty much what happens.
Unfortunately, there’s a lack of urgency to McDevitt’s style that makes it hard to care. Maybe I’m just getting more impatient with age, but despite the fun details, sense of exploration and clean-cut prose, I truly found it hard to get into the novel. See one adventure after another; guess which character is going to bite it. The last rescue sequence, while relatively original in the context of the series, takes almost a hundred pages of analysis and implementation. This is far too long at that point in the story, especially when the solution depends on a single line of dialogue that really stuck out earlier in the novel. Chindi grinds to a stop just as it should go flying. And as if that wasn’t enough, let’s just say that McDevitt has no more intention of wrapping up his enigmas than he did in previous novels. This presumably leads us to Omega, the next tome in the series.
It’s truly an old-fashioned SF adventure, though I’m not using the expression in an entirely kind manner. Beyond the alien artifacts and the fact that she’s gallivanting around the galaxy in a spaceship, there isn’t much that’s different in Hutch world’s as compared to ours. There’s no sense of a fully lived-in future: Technology is comfortably familiar (except for the FTL drive), society seems to have stopped evolving and almost everyone in the cast is a boring shade of American. While the Hutch sequence is all about deep-space adventures, its decor seems a bit too hastily put-together to convince. What’s more, McDevitt’s straightforward writing style brings nothing new to the table either. See me use “old-fashioned” as in “this could have been written at any time over the past thirty years.”
Of course, some people love that stuff. As entry-level material for neophyte SF readers, Chindi has the right attitude and nothing that a fan of Star Trek won’t understand. As a professional SF writer, McDevitt has enjoyed an almost unexplainable string of Nebula Award nominations —although it’s often hard to separate SFWA politics from literary value when it comes to the Nebula. I myself have enjoyed quite a number of McDevitt’s works (The Engines of God come to mind, not to mention the collection Standard Candles). But Chindi seems to be running over familiar ground once again, bringing nothing much in either style or content. Rather than recalling McDevitt as his best, it only shows McDevitt doing what he usually does, and that’s not quite enough to satisfy at a time where at least a dozen other SF writers are also turning out better material on a regular basis. I keep waiting for the McDevitt book that will reach above average and truly grab me, but I don’t see it coming. Maybe I should have a look at his latest short story collection.