Jack McDevitt

Seeker, Jack McDevitt

Ace, 2005, 360 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01329-5

All right, dear reader, take out your white gloves and put them on: it’s time to give SFWA a little golf clap.

Why? Well, in a two-year period that saw the publication of superior works of science-fiction such as Peter Watts’ Blindsight, Charles Stross’s Glasshouse and Accelerando, Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin or Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, SFWA has deemed that Jack McDevitt’s Seeker is the best novel of 2005-2006.

Bravo, SFWA. Well done. (Golf clap)

But then again, we already know that as an organization, SFWA’s hopeless at -hm- pretty much everything that doesn’t get shoved under the usual “Griefcom-Writer’sBeware-MedicalFund” litany. (As I write this, the organization is doing frantic damage control to minimize the PR disaster that was the indiscriminate “DMCA takedown” of texts on a file-sharing site.) (And as I rewrite this, weeks later, SFWA is still stuck in another entertaining damage-control exercise about presidential candidates. Dumb SFWA, duuumb.) But SFWA particularly sucks at giving out awards. The mental midgets that log-roll each others on the nomination ballot have recently picked such all-time classics as Catherine Asaro’s The Quantum Rose and Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage as somehow being “best novels” of some sort.

Memo to SFWA members: “Novel of the year” is not the same thing as “most average novel of the year”.

Without any particular expectation -and reading Jack McDevitt will do wonders to extinguish particular expectations regarding his work- Seeker is not a particularly bad novel. It’s not particularly good, but it’s still a cut above anything I can remember from McDevitt’s post-Engines of God period. Most of the typical McDevitt tropes are there, but they’re acknowledged and even weaved in the theme of the novel.

But calling it “best novel” is foolish, and doesn’t just reflect badly on the ones giving the awards.

But let me take a deep breath. I banish the Nebulas from my mind. Happy thoughts. Okay.

Since this review has already spent far too much time bashing the Nebulas, let’s just talk about Seeker itself. If you’re already familiar with McDevitt’s fiction, you already know what you’re going to get: An adventure tale of far-future archaeology, using stock characters and as few changes from today’s world than are required in order to tell the story. McDevitt’s brand of science-fiction is comfort food for those who grew up reading the mainstream branch of SF and just want to replicate the experience. He’s not interested in genuine speculation, and I find it telling that his far-future characters usually spend their time looking at events in their own history.

So Seeker becomes an above-average McDevitt novel in acknowledging and integrating this fascination into its thematic thread. As the protagonists track down an artifact from a supposedly-lost spaceship, they too get some time to wonder how and why their civilization has remained stagnant. The answer isn’t too comforting. Props be given to the man, McDevitt can be pretty dark in his ruminations: There’s a limit to the Golden-Age-SF comparisons we can make about his work.

But I suspect that the novel works best as a Science Fiction procedural adventure, in which a tiny clue comes to reveal yet another tiny clue, which eventually (through a series of risky adventures) unravels an entire mystery. There’s adventure for all: aliens and lost spaceships and despicable antagonists and a plucky narrator to tell it all. Once firmly launched, Seeker is a pleasant read, and McDevitt is an old pro at playing with the usual SF elements. The prose is clean, the characters usually stand out, and if the story could easily be tweaked to a contemporary Tomb-Raider-style thriller, few fans will be put off by the result.

On the other hand, readers can certainly be disappointed if they’re expecting more than an above-average McDevitt potboiler. There’s little that’s innovative, new, threatening or even exemplary about this novel. Of all the SF novels published in 2005-2006, Seeker doesn’t fit in my recommended Top-10 and I can’t find anything in it that would justify such a distinction. And that brings us back to the whole “Nebula Award” business. There are ways to rationalize it: If the Nebula has become “an award we give to our own members in order to thank them for services rendered to the organization”, then there’s little we can say about SFWA’s decision. But then they shouldn’t be surprised to find out that no one takes their little clubhouse award seriously. Serious readers will go hunting elsewhere for a reliable list of novels that represent the best that Science Fiction has to offer.

(Since you ask: After a few years in the wilderness, the Hugo Awards are once more relevant, but I think that the best awards in the business are consistently the Locus Awards: Their top-15 long-list, subdivided in SF and fantasy novels, is a reliable guide to what’s worth reading every year.)

Chindi, Jack McDevitt

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.

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.

Infinity Beach, Jack McDevitt

Avon EOS, 2000, 510 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-102005-2

This is not a simple book to review. The easiest commentaries are raves or trashings, because it’s so much fun to be unequivocally of one opinion that you can just keep on writing until you’ve reached your self-imposed word count. On the other hand, books with both good and bad points require a more careful approach, which often results in a more incisive and satisfying review.

There is another category of book, however, that’s nearly impossible to review, and it’s the type of book that arouses no interest whatsoever. Forgotten a week after reading, barely remembered when it’s time to make up best-of lists, or even representative bibliographies, these books basically have no existence outside their own covers.

And Jack McDevitt’s Infinity Beach comes perilously close to being a forgettable book. Much like the author’s body work to date, it contains a few good ideas and a weak execution exacerbated by unneeded padding. Sure, McDevitt’s done some exciting work (The Engines of God), but he’s also responsible for a few stinkers (Eternity’s Road) and many more indifferent novels (A Talent for War, Ancient Shores). His premises are rarely matched by his development, and his characters are, more often that not, strictly perfunctory. But he keeps turning out novels, and given his average level of quality, he’ll stay in the business for a few more years.

But it’s not novels like Infinity Beach that will help him gain new die-hard fans. In theory, it’s supposed to be a story of “second contact”, in which a murder mystery is solved by a victim’s clone-sister who, in doing so, incidentally comes to reveal the truth about a so-called “failed” contact mission.

As mentioned previously, this actually sounds like a decent premise. McDevitt’s usual fascination for future historicals (in which his protagonists uncover historical secrets still quite in our own future) is exhibited once again. The dynamics between victim-sister/clone-investigator were promising.

But the novel starts, after a quasi-meaningless action vignette, with a slow-as-dirt introduction of characters, universe, past events… Our clone protagonist starts investigating, slowly, and -slooowly- discovers various clues that might lead her to uncover the secret. Slowly.

And the pace only seldom improves, losing itself in meaningless side-trips, irritating subplots and a generally frigid pacing. I eventually got the feeling that McDevitt himself wasn’t too interested in what’s happening and that I shouldn’t feel too guilty if I didn’t care either.

Yet I’m not ready to call Infinity Beach a bad book. Looking retrospectively on the content of the novel, there seems to be everything there for me to enjoy. So why didn’t it “take”? Why did I found it boring rather than engrossing? Could it be a random fluke, result of subconscious rumblings somehow affecting a book that, at any other time, wouldn’t be so badly considered?

Alas, I can’t even muster the intention to re-read this book in a year or two. So I’ll compromise and instead state that I will, in any case, try McDevitt’s next. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be one of his good ones!

Note: The UK edition of the book has been re-titled Slow Lightning. No comments.

Standard Candles, Jack McDevitt

Tachyon, 1996, 248 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-9648320-4-6

As a marginal Jack McDevitt fan, imagine my surprise as I browsed through the Science-Fiction Book Club’s latest catalogue and discovered a mention of the previously-unknown title Standard Candles. A trip to amazon.com later, I had found out that this was McDevitt’s first short story anthology, and that it had been published in 1996 (!) by a small publisher.

Given that I’ve read all of McDevitt’s other books, my surprise was compounded by the complete absence of Standard Candles from his bibliography. Granted, McDevitt’s latest publisher (Harper Prism) doesn’t list other publishers’ books, but still… So I ordered Standard Candles, curious to see what McDevitt had produced in short-form SF.

The SFBC edition of Standard Candles is a slim (248 pages) volume containing 16 stories. Given that one of them is more than fifty pages long, the remainder of the stories in this book are fairly short and can be easily read in one time.

I have a special fondness for single-author collections because they tend to succinctly summarize everything you want to know about an author’s interests, style, strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, in this case, it brought back memories of how, if McDevitt can be great, he can also be insufferably annoying.

For each Moonfall, Engines of God and Hercules Text, suspenseful novels against backgrounds of hard physics, archaeology and SETI alien contact, there’s A Talent for War, Ancient Shores or Eternity Road, disappointing stories that barely explain their own premises and suffer from pointless detours, unresolved events and depressing finales. And so the pattern repeats itself in Standard Candles, in 248 short pages.

McDevitt is not a conventionally optimistic SF writer. His stories are filled with fallen civilizations, sentient stupidity, matrimonial failures and malfunctioning technology. His roots in classical studies inevitably bring us back to boom-and-bust cycles, to uncertain futures and the possibility of total systemic collapse. Even his most optimistic scenarios always include signs that, gee, idiots will always be with us.

Ironically, historian McDevitt often writes Science-Fiction stories in the vein of physicist Gregory Benford, about scientists stuck with very ordinary problems and extraordinary discoveries (“Standard Candles”, “Cryptic”, etc…)

It’s no mistake if this book is classified as being “Science Fiction/Literature” on its dust jacket, especially after reading “Translated from the Collossian” (aliens go around stealing classical literature) and “The Fort Moxie Branch” (about a mysterious library of lost literary gems). Is it a coincidence, however, if these are two of the book’s best stories?

Similarly enjoyable are the two great stories related to chess. “Black to Move” is a chilling (if overlong) story of alien cunning explained in chess terms. “The Jersey Rifle”, on the other hand, is a charming, quasi-comic tale about The Best Chess Player in the World.

There’s nothing charming about most of the book, however. A typical McDevitt conclusion resides heavily on the threat of future Very Bad Things. A welcome exception is “To Hell With the Star”, which certainly ranks up there with the best of the SF wish-fulfillment fantasies. But McDevitt is, by and large, a melancholic, pessimistic writer. Nothing wrong with that, but taken in long sustained doses, it does put a dampener on your day.

Standard Candles is still a worthwhile anthology: McDevitt delivers more often than not, and provided one doesn’t read all the stories one after the other, the dark and depressing tone is a change of pace. More significantly, Standard Candles is a pretty spiffy summary of everything that interests the author, from classical history to hard physics. Fans will love it; non-fans are advised to wait until they’re fans.

Moonfall, Jack McDevitt

Harper Prism, 1998 (1999 reprint), 544 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105112-8

Science-Fiction is often considered, justifiably or not, an escapist literature. One could make a good case that the ultimate escapist stories are end-of-the-world tales, and SF has made a tradition out of such drama. Whether we’re due to be destroyed by aliens, asteroids, black holes, plagues or nuclear war, we can vicariously enjoy other people’s plight while our lives are comfortably uneventful. Jack McDevitt finely upholds this SF distinction with Moonfall.

The novel takes place in April 2024. While Americans are rushing to fill their tax papers and casting their ballots for the presidential primaries, scientists across the globe are preparing for a spectacular solar eclipse. During the eclipse, an amateur astronomer discovers a comet. Slight problem: the comet is going to impact the moon with such force that it’ll shatter it.

Unfortunately, humans now have a presence on the Moon, and only hours after the vice-president inaugurates Moonbase, all six hundred residents must escape. As if losing the Moon isn’t enough, some scientists then announce that the impact will send multiple fragments crashing down on Earth, some as big as the one which destroyed the dinosaurs…

You could do a checklist of expected elements in a disaster novel and Moonfall would have most of them. A large cast of characters. Disaster vignettes. Nick-of-time escapes. Media commentary. Politicians of all stripes. Stupid bystanders. If nothing else, McDevitt has done his homework in order to fulfill readers’ expectations.

So far so good, but McDevitt’s novel has two significant weaknesses that diminishes its overall effect. The first is almost inherent in disaster novels; the second one is more serious.

All disaster novels are based, of course, on the disaster. As such, a disaster happens only once, or -if it is averted- not at all. The rest is either apprehension or consequence. Catastrophe novel continually toe the line between impatient readers and let-down readers. Moonfall mitigates the problem with two crises, but spends far too much of its time in overdone suspense.

The second problem is that McDevitt, by and large, misses the opportunity to create a gallery of compelling characters. Disaster novel characters are usually divided in heroic and anecdotal groups. Moonfall‘s core is fine, with a likeable vice-president and his entourage, but the other recurring characters are not given the chance to shine and distinguish themselves, with the result that they’re often indistinguishable from the one-shot characters seen only in a vignette and then gone forever. Not only would Moonfall have been a substantially shorter novel without these diversions, but the focus of the work would have been strengthened on the vice-president plot, which is really the central axis of the novel.

Still, don’t get the impression that Moonfall isn’t a particularly enjoyable perfect piece of summer reading. “Not exciting enough” is a broad enough criticism that it can apply to some jaded readers and not to others simply in search of a good read. Richly detailed, carefully researched, Moonfall does so many things right than it’s ungrateful to be pickier than what it deserves.

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.

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.]