Jack McDevitt
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A Talent For War

Ace, © 1989, PB, 310 pp, ISBN #0-441-79553-6
Reviewed November 1996

This is just the sort of space opera SF that really excites me: Larger-than-life characters changing the course of history for entire planets, indeed, for all of human civilization.

Of course, by the time A Talent For War gets underway, all of these characters have been dead for two hundred years. There isn't even anyone left alive who knew any of these people, and these figures are thus viewed and revered much as we 20th century Americans view and revere the figures of the American revolution.

Briefly, two centuries earlier an alien race, the Ashiyyur, was invading human space. The major human powers - Earth, Rimway, and others - did not get involved, because they did not perceive a real threat to themselves. So the Ashiyyur started conquering the worlds at the edge of human space. But a small fleet of frigates, led by a man named Christopher Sim and his brother Tarien, held them off for long months until an alliance was struck that brought the major powers into the fray and repelled the invaders. Christopher Sim, hailed as a brilliant strategist, was killed in the final confrontation between his forces and the Ashiyyur.

The story opens with Alex Benedict learning that his uncle Gabriel has died, and that he was on the trail of something big related to that great war. The file that Gabriel bequeathed Alex is stolen before Alex can view it, and he begins a long quest to unearth what his uncle had discovered, and to learn the secrets of the war that both sides have kept hidden for two centuries.

Much of the book involves Alex sorting through the information he unearths from various planets in human space, and the peculiarities of the rear-guard war that Sim was fighting. For instance, at one point Sim managed to evacuate Point Edward, a planet with a population of 20,000 people. The Ashiyyur bombed the city into oblivion, although it was certain that they knew it was deserted, and there was no record of them behaving in such a manner previously. Generally they attacked only military targets, not civilian ones. And there was the legend of seven of Sim's crewmen who deserted him before the final battle, replaced by seven other figures who Sim recruited at the last minute for what was surely a suicide mission. But there was little information about any of these figures - either the deserters or their nameless replacements.

Gratifyingly, A Talent For War avoids the paranoiac government-cover-up approach that many other novels might take. There are hidden secrets here, but they are hidden by the meticulous efforts of these two-centuries-dead people for very specific purposes. The story is one of revelation rather than one of suspense and shadow-fighting.

The book contains several subtle themes. Perhaps the most interesting is that of how to conduct a war. The Ashiyyur - who are telepathic - fight wars by strict ritual. Sim did not do this; he was greatly outnumbered, and thus fought a war of sneak-attacks and hit-and-run ambushes, and was regarded as dishonorable by the aliens. Exactly how far Sim was willing to go in his goals, and the toll it took on him, is one of the revelations of the book.

Of course, the notion of "necessary lies" vs. the virtues of having the full truth known is another theme, and the latter is extolled by a not-quite-entirely-convincing revelation at the very end (although it does explain some of the story's mysteries).

I found A Talent For War to be a real page-turner, and very effective at portraying its legendary figures without falling into comic-book grandiosity. I think it's McDevitt's best novel.

Update: I re-read this book in 2006 after reading the follow-up, Polaris. I enjoyed it, but felt it didn't hold up as well on re-reading. Of course, maybe it's just that my tastes have changed in a decade.

It's mostly the end of the book which doesn't hold up for me: The motivations of the Ashiyyur are rather murky, and their stated motivations - trying to prevent another war - are a little hard to believe. And there's really no exploration of whether they were right or not in their belief.

The book's framing sequence and the fate of the figure it concerns is still something of a mystery to me, even after this re-reading. McDevitt does a fine job of subtly revealing several other mysteries in the book, but I think this one is a little too subtle: How'd he end up where he did, and who was responsible? Again, the motivations are rather murky, which makes it difficult to tell; motivation is so important when trying to draw an inference.

I was disappointed, I suppose, that the book didn't have new depths to reveal on re-reading. It's still a lot of fun, though.

The Engines of God

Ace, © 1994, PB, 419 pp, ISBN #0-441-00284-6
Reviewed January 1996

McDevitt seems to tackle subjects that are very difficult to handle well (for which I applaud him, actually), though the results are expectedly mixed. Although sometimes not very focused, The Engines of God is an enjoyable book, and a more solid one than McDevitt's next novel, Ancient Shores.

Once humanity goes into space, it discovered various monuments and structures on various worlds in local galactic space, and most provocative being a sculpture of a large, winged, reptilian-seeming biped on Saturn's moon Iapetus. The thing is apparently a full-scale self-portrait, since appropriate footprints are found in the undisturbed dust not far away. The questions, then, are: What race built these monuments? Why did they build them? What happened to them?

The protagonist of the book is Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins, a shuttle pilot who ends up employed by and allied with the various scientists investigating the monuments and their creators, and who is therefore in the middle of all the action.

"The action" takes many forms. The first section of the book occurs on Quraqua, a world once inhabited by sentient beings, who apparently went extinct a few centuries previously. Although in many respects a standard science-fictional detective piece, this segment is given added urgency by a deadline imposed by the "owners" of the planet, a human corporation who plan to begin terraforming it to provide a new world for humanity to migrate to. As an exercise in suspense and frustration at the circumstances, this section is carried out very well, as McDevitt employs a wide range of methods for conveying the urgency of the situation to good effect. In a sense, it's a textbook suspense story.

The next section is not as successful; travelling to the apparent homeworld of the Monument-makers, our heroes' ship is damaged, and they spend interminable pages trying to figure out how to survive dead in space until help arrives. Once help does arrive, they head down to the planet where they discover that the Monument-makers are either extinct or have simply left, and are beset by the aggressively carnivorous life-forms thereon, a sequence which quickly becomes a (fairly well-executed) horror yarn.

The mystery of the Monuments eventually unwinds to reveal that waves of mysterious objects penetrate our arm of the galaxy every 8000 years or so, seemingly programmed to seek out and decimate planets containing intelligent life. The book doesn't go much farther than that, and therefore begs the question, "Who's sending out the waves, and why?" Along the way, though, McDevitt does explore some interesting issues, such as the frustration a species must experience if they use up all their fossil fuels without developing the power or means of leaving their solar system (a circumstance that we on Earth might find ourselves in before too long). One model provided is that of a species which achieved starflight, and then the homeworld was effectively bombed back into the bronze age, and had to climb back. However, they were unable to return to their heights, and eventually died out (on that world, anyway).

The Engines of God is not a particularly character-driven story, and McDevitt's efforts at injecting character-oriented drama in the story (mainly involving Hutch's love-life) end up fizzling. A sub-plot involving the breakdown of Earth's environment is also left in the background.

A blurb on the cover compares this novel with Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama, and the analogy is apropos, as both novels deal in detail with the exploration of alien technologies and cultures. Engines makes the aliens a bit more accessible than does Rama however, and although not the intellectual equal of the latter novel, Engines is ultimately more rewarding for its familiarity.

Ancient Shores

HarperPrism, © 1996, PB, 371 pp, ISBN #0-06-105426-7
Reviewed December 1996

Ancient Shores kicks off with one of my favorite plot templates: the science fiction mystery. By that I mean that someone finds something which isn't where it ought to be, from everything we know about science or history. The question then is, how could it possibly be there? How did it get there? What exactly is it? In James P. Hogan's novel Inherit the Stars, the "it" is a 50,000-year-old human skeleton in a spacesuit on the moon. In Ancient Shores, the "it" is a sailboat, in perfect condition, buried on a farm in North Dakota, a site which, 10,000 years ago, was underneath a giant lake.

The novel unfolds on two levels: First, the mystery of how the boat got there, who built it, and what happened to these people. Second and more important, how the world reacts to the discovery of the boat and subsequent events as the mystery is pursued. McDevitt handles both points expertly, but not without a few bumps along the way.

The mystery aspect unfolds neatly as our heroes - antique airplane restorationist Max Collingwood and chemist April Cannon - reason that there might be a dock for the boat around somewhere, leading to the discovery and unearthing of The Roundhouse on an Indian reservation. The roundhouse, it turns out, contains a device which can teleport people to one of several specific destinations - all apparently on alien worlds.

Sadly, for this reader, the mystery is not pursued much beyond that point: We never learn who the owners of the sailboat were, what happened to them, why they abandoned their network of planet-hopping devices, or learn much about more than a couple of the alien worlds. This is not, however, the primary emphasis of the novel, but McDevitt pushed all the right buttons in his handling of the mystery aspect that I can't help but feel disappointed that it wasn't further explored. On the other hand, tackling such grand questions is difficult to do satisfactorily, so perhaps it might have been even more disappointing had McDevitt pursued that aspect.

(McDevitt does briefly introduce an apparently invisible alien into the story, who takes on the role of a poltergeist. Unfortunately, this creature adds nothing too the story, as it has no role in the resolution of the novel.)

The reactions of the world to the discoveries are handled in much greater depth. In movies - for instance, Independence Day - it's common for events to be shown through the eyes of a number of characters to try to convey an "everyman" perception of what's happening, but SF films rarely do so at the expense of the action; who cares if the aliens caused the stock market to crash when there's big-budget butt to be kicked? In Ancient Shores, though, McDevitt creates new characters at will, some of whom have a limited role to play and others of whom pop up later on.

The boat and Roundhouse are constructed of a hitherto-unknown transuranium element which resists decay (i.e., aging), and we therefore see companies and employees afraid that their businesses will become obsolete when no one needs to buy more than one or two cars in their lifetime. Less stable people are convinced they must destroy the Roundhouse before the aliens could return. One televangelist believes one of the worlds connected to the Roundhouse is Eden (which is, in fact, what it is christened) and that if humans return then they'll be defying god's will. Thousands of people converge on North Dakota to visit the Roundhouse, and the Detroit Lions consider relocating there. The stock market does crash, and panic ensures around the world. The UN moves to declare the Roundhouse the property of the world. The US government is forced to act.

McDevitt's modus operandi in the asides which make up much of the novel's color is to describe his character's background and thoughts, and follow them through their actions in dealing with the events. After a while you end up with the notion that most 'normal people' are a little nutty (which actually doesn't seem far-fetched). McDevitt's writing style is friendly and accessible - almost "classic", in that he might have been just as comfortable writing in the 50s as the 90s - although it has a tendency to lapse into an uncomfortable familiarity, such as the businesswomen who "just flat-out enjoyed sex". He also tends to paint his characters as perhaps a little dumber (or overeager) then I could easily swallow, such as their decision to explore a few of the alien worlds without pressure suits or even much weaponry, and they end up paying a price for that, although the readers knew for a hundred pages that it would have to be paid.

The novel's conclusion involves a political gambit by a number of famous individuals (Stephen Jay Gould, Ursula LeGuin, Gregory Benford, Stephen Hawking, and others) to throw themselves in-between the government and the Roundhouse on live TV, to prevent the former from destroying the latter. (A 'to get it you'll have to go through us' approach.) While this could plausibly have forestalled the government's effort, I had trouble believing that it would be a permanent solution; nonetheless, that's where the novel ends.

On balance, Ancient Shores is highly entertaining, although it feels not quite polished enough. Nonetheless, this sort of SF is right up my alley.

Infinity Beach

HarperPrism, © 2000, HC, 435 pp, ISBN #0-06-105123-3
Reviewed February 2000

When I read McDevitt's first novel, The Hercules Text, my impression was that it was very much like Carl Sagan's Contact, only not quite as good. This was a disappointment at the time, since I started reading McDevitt with his fourth novel, Ancient Shores, and worked backwards, enjoying each book more, the pinnacle being the excellent A Talent for War. I picked up Infinity Beach because of the cover blurb: Humanity, it seems, is alone in the cosmos. A thousand years from now, we've colonized nine worlds, but encountered no sign of alien life, not even a bacterium. The last mission to find aliens, launched from the planet Greenway, ended in an engine failure forcing the mission to abort. But, it seems just possible that the official story of the events of that mission, the voyage of the Hunter, are not quite right. Maybe there is something out there.

Infinity Beach is the story of Kim Brandywine, a young woman in an era of long-lived people. A public relations specialist for one of the few institutes that still nominally strives to find aliens (by creating stellar novas at defined intervals to indicate our presence and intelligence), she's the close-sister of Emily, one of the four crew of the Hunter. Emily and the other woman, Yoshi Amara, both disappeared the day the Hunter returned, and Kile Tripley, the mission's backer, disappeared and was presumably killed in a huge explosion near his home in a remote part of Greenway's sole continent. The pilot, Markis Kane, left Greenway and died several years later.

But Kim gets a call from an old professor - a relative of Yoshi's - who believes that the official story is wrong, and that the Hunter did make contact, and maybe brought something back with them, something which is connected to the explosion, and which may still be there.

So Infinity Beach turns out to be a mystery story, as Kim and her friend Solly attempt to learn what's been covered up for 27 years. As it turns out, this is a fairly similar plot to A Talent for War, but the journey and ultimate payoff are not as rewarding.

For starters, the mystery itself has relatively little to do with science fiction; it's basically a "where have they hidden the truth?" story. There's something in the valley near where the explosion occurred, and there's enough peripheral evidence to prompt Kim to take more drastic action and finally head out to learn what really happened on the Hunter mission, but it's all relatively small potatoes until Kim finally takes the steps to really track down the true, key information, which she really could have done a long time ago. So it doesn't quite "feel" like a mystery, with each step building on what went on before.

The final payoff is reasonable, but it doesn't have that extra little twist that Talent had to resolve a mystery which you might not even have realized was there, which made Talent especially satisfying.

Infinity Beach is at its best when it's being a suspense novel, such as when Kim goes diving in a rushing river near a burst dam, or investigates Markis Kane's house submerged in the lake created by the bursting of the dam. And to his credit the high stakes Kim plays for do not leave her life unscathed. But, ultimately, although this was an entertaining novel (and a page-turner in places), it felt like less than it should have been. Pity.


Ace, © 2004, PB, 381 pp, ISBN #0-441-01253-1
Reviewed May 2006

Polaris returns to the universe and protagonists of McDevitt's second novel, A Talent For War. Since that novel, Alex Benedict has reestablished his antiquities business on Rimway, one of the main worlds in humanspace, and Chase Kolpath is now his employee and starship pilot. After returning from a successful expedition to an ancient space station, Alex and Chase are offered the opportunity to view and buy some artifacts from the Polaris, a spaceship which, some sixty years earlier, was viewing a rare stellar event with a group of dignitaries on board. Shortly after the event, Polaris indicated that they were about to return, and then lapsed into silence. A ship sent to investigate found the Polaris adrift in space, empty, with no sign of its crew. Their fate was never uncovered.

Alex and Chase attend a private viewing of the artifacts along with the Mahza, the dictator of a small country on Rimway who is also going to buy some artifacts. A bomb threat prompts the building to be evacuated, and then a bomb really does go off, destroying all the artifacts except those which Alex was carrying to buy. Alex sells most of the artifacts to his clients as promised, but keeps two for himself.

Shortly thereafter, Alex's place of business if burgled, by someone who apparently looked through the two Polaris artifacts he owned, and reports arrive of someone doing the same with the other artifacts he'd procured. Apparently someone is searching for something in one of the artifacts. This sends Alex and Chase on a mission to find out who's looking through the artifacts, why, and what happened to the passengers and captain of the Polaris all those years ago.

It's been a while since I've read a Jack McDevitt novel, since Infinity Beach, actually. I ran out of gas because I found his stories - though charming in their way - to be fairly light. I picked this one up for the book discussion group I attend. Polaris continues this trend, being essentially a mystery story with science fictional trappings. McDevitt seems to have basically developed into a mystery writer in the tradition of Dorothy Sayers or Margery Allingham, sending readers down blind paths and focusing mainly on the "how'd they do it?" feature of the 'crime'.

McDevitt doesn't have either of those authors' flair for characterization, though, as Alex and Chase are both very flat personalities here. This is evident since neither of them seems to have much of a social life. Basically, they're not connected to the world beyond their professional interests, which is hard to believe as they're both fairly friendly, gregarious individuals. But they lack distinguishing characteristics beyond the basic wit and smarts necessary for a detective novel of those variety. Moreover, Alex seems kind of arrogant and wussy (all at once!) in a way that didn't come through in A Talent For War.

McDevitt also seems to have adopted the pattern (judging from the blurbs on his other recent novels) of writing books from the point of view of a female character, and Chase narrates this one. Her narrative is fairly bland and doesn't really provide a different spin on events than we'd get from Alex (who narrated Talent); indeed, she doesn't even seem like a very convincing female character.

McDevitt's strong point here is his ability to create and depict evocative settings, even though the settings are often just one point along the larger journey. Polaris depicts the impact of a white dwarf with a larger star, a rarely-visited space station with its friendly simulated captain, and a rustic coastal town, among others. McDevitt has a great skill for naming places and things and painting a vivid picture of them, making you almost feel like you're there (or would like to be there). Without this, Polaris would be thin indeed.

The mystery is fair, and raises an interesting moral dilemma. It's kind of obvious, though, and McDevitt doesn't really provide many alternative routes down which the mystery could proceed, so sometimes it's easy to predict even what the outcome of a single scene will be. I think he kind of didn't aim high enough by making the explanation be what it turns out to be rather than something even more fantastic (which is hinted at in the prologue but doesn't really go anywhere).

I would summarize Polaris as "light beach reading". There's nothing wrong with that, really, but it's not a deep of sophisticated story on any level. So for that reason, it will probably be a while before I tackle another McDevitt novel.

hits since 13 August 2000.

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