Welcome to the Science Fiction Hyperdrive Blog. I'm currently reviewing novels, but I hope to get along to movies soon. As an author, I am very busy, so please be patient with the posts. I welcome all comments and will answer them as soon as I can!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Review of The Jupiter Legacy, by Harry Harrison

When science fiction icon Harry Harrison died earlier this year (August 12, 2012), a great satirical voice was lost. Harrison's brilliant and funny series of novels based on his character James Bolivar DiGriz, otherwise known as the Stainless Steel Rat, inspired a generation of humorous science fiction and fantasy writers, including the estimable Christopher Stasheff. Besides his wickedly funny novels, Harrison also wrote serious science fiction (Make Room! Make Room!, the inspiration for the film Soylent Green) and was a remarkable anthologist.

The Jupiter Legacy is a rather dated, but fun science fiction novel based around the theme of infection arriving from space. Although the original, Plague from Space, was published before Andromeda Strain, it never achieved the status of the latter and was, in fact reissued in 1982 as The Jupiter Legacy to take advantage of the popularity of Michael Crichton's novel.

Harrison's novel contains nothing of the serious and suspenseful Andromeda Strain. It is particularly dated in terms of its treatment of women and technical knowledge, but that might be because Harrison intended the book to be funny. When I started reading, I assumed it was a serious treatment of the subject, but as I read through it, I found myself laughing at quite a bit, so I ended up concluding that it was a satire and decided to live with that.

The story is centered around Sam Bertolli, an intern at Bellevue in New York City at some unspecified time in the future. The Pericles, a rocket returning from Jupiter, exhibits strange behavior and sets down in the middle of Kennedy Airport. Sam is dispatched to treat the survivors who weren't squashed when it set down. He is teamed up with Dr. Nita Mendel, a pathologist from the hospital who has experience with germs. "Her hair was a natural red that bordered on russet, and even the shapeless white lab smock could not conceal the richness of her body."

Some of the funny characters in the book include Killer Domingues, Sam's ambulance driver, and General "My friends call me Cleaver" Burke. The dialogue is crisp and fast, the book moves very quickly and the humor is subtle.

It's a good romp, but be prepared for a real 1950's feel to the book, including bugaboos from Jupiter!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin

A Game of Thrones

by George R. R. Martin

Spoiler Alert!

Many people in the fantasy community consider this book to be a great novel. One quick look at the 5 star reviews on Goodreads tells you as much, but there is the additional cachet of having been nominated for the Nebula Award (1998) and World Fantasy Award (1997) and having won the Locus Award (1997) and the Best Novella Hugo Award (1997 — for Blood of the Dragon, the Daenerys Targaryen chapters).

With these thoughts in mind, I approached the novel with a completely open mind. I was ready to be duly impressed.

The first few chapters did not disappoint. I greatly enjoyed the introduction of the Stark family. Eddard (Ned) Stark is the Lord of Winterfell, one of the former Seven Kingdoms which are now one kingdom united under Ned's old friend and comrade King Richard. Ned is married to Catelyn, a royal daughter of the House of Tully. Their children include sons Robb, at fourteen, Bran at seven, and Rickon at three. Their daughters are Sansa at eleven and Arya at nine. In addition, Ned's bastard son, Jon Snow, lives with them and he is about the same age as Robb.

The scene that really caught my eye near the beginning of the book is when the family finds a direwolf (an extremely large wolf and the symbol of their house) who had died with a set of antlers stuck inside her mouth. Apparently, she had recently given birth to six puppies. Jon talks his father into allowing them to each keep one of the pups for their own. Six pups, six Stark children -- it was impossible to resist.

When King Richard comes to visit, we discover that the symbol of his house is the stag and he has come to ask Ned to be the Hand of the King, the second most powerful position in the realm. Catelyn does not miss the symbolism that the mother direwolf had died because of a stag and she is very apprehensive about the appointment.

I was delighted with these first few chapters. Martin has given us a set up that is almost mythical in proportion and my expectations were very high. It had the potential to be a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions. Two close friends occupying the most powerful positions in the kingdom. You have Ned, the Apollonian, set against Richard, the Dionysian. You have a kingdom that is falling apart because of mismanagement. Richard is married into the Lannister family, a devious, dangerous and incestuous bunch. In the world they live in, winter is coming and winter lasts years, sometimes decades. During the winter, wild things from the north come down to terrorize people. And on top of all that, there are two children left from the old king that Richard deposed still alive and trying to raise an army on a nearby continent. All of this had me excited to read the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, for reasons I cannot understand, Martin decided to make all of his protagonists stupid. As I continued to read, doubt set in. When Ned gets to court, he underestimates all of his and the king's enemies, then he puts himself, his retainers and his daughters directly in harm's way, leaving himself no way out. I'm not the only one who thinks he's stupid. His enemies, one after another, tell him so directly to his face and it just doesn't register. His wife then abducts Tyrione Lannister, brother of the queen, and that seals Ned's fate, proving that she is nearly as dumb as he is. However, neither of them get the prize as the most moronic character in the novel -- that distinction goes to their daughter, Sansa.

Once Martin strays from his beautiful set-up, everything falls down around him. Astute readers will begin to see that the antagonists are one-dimensional characters, paper thin and about as engaging as an old doily. There are only a few characters that are written fairly well. I would say that Tyrione Lannister, Jon Snow, and Arya Stark are all very well developed characters, lost in the midst of a sea of stupidity.

Rather than developing a theme and seeing it through to its logical conclusion, Martin simply kills off his characters. The wonderful promise of conflict between Ned and Richard is cut short when Richard gets gored by a boar during a drunken hunt. Finally, when Ned walks into the Lannister trap and gets his head taken off, it's almost a relief to have one of the most stupid characters gone. The fact that Sansa walks him to his execution, thinking he's going to be released, speaks volumes for her mental capability.

The promise of the conflict between Ned and Richard dissolves, we never see the supernatural creatures from the north come sweeping into the land, and the great war between the Dothraki and the seven kingdoms falls apart when Khal Drogo stupidly allows himself to die from superficial wounds (admittedly, the Dothraki are stupid barbarians by definition).

Aside from the stupidity that rules the story, Martin introduces a level of brutality that is truly alienating, unless you have a predisposition toward that sort of thing. This novel is a bloodfest, full of excessive gore to no point that I could see. If an author uses violence to make a point, I have no problem with it, but there is simply no point made in this novel. Nor does the book hint in any way that the sequels will have a point.

To the bloodlust, Martin adds rape and incest. Daenerys Targaryen's time with the Dothraki is offensive to an excessive degree. After killing their opponents, the "warriors" proceed to rape every single woman they encounter among the vanquished. In fact, throughout the novel women are little more than devious, self-centered sexual toys, playthings for the stupid or deceitful men. I found nothing of any redeeming quality in the novel.

So, here we have a series of scenes which do not develop any kind of meaningful story, filled with stupidity, violence and sexual depravity. I do believe that the Marquis de Sade would have loved this novel!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review of Chindi, by Jack McDevitt

By Paul W. Baker

Spoiler Alert! This review contains detailed information on the plot and resolution of the novel Chindi, by Jack McDevitt. It is recommended that you read the novel before you read this review. I also recommend reading The Engines of God and Deepsix, the first two novels in the series, before you read Chindi. It’s much more satisfying to read the entire series in sequence.

For those who haven’t read any of McDevitt’s Academy novels, a detailed introduction to the series is available HERE. Additionally, my reviews of The Engines of God and Deepsix are available through the index on the right hand side of the page.

Chindi continues to develop the various themes that Jack McDevitt started seeding with the first book in the series.

The Earth continues to deteriorate under the burden of man’s existence. Overpopulation, drought, economic ennui, degrading weather patterns, religious strife and global warming all serve to hasten the downward spiral.
Yet humans continue to go on as if nothing was wrong. The news headlines continue to be both bland recitations of meaningless power drivel, tawdry personal shortcomings and dire predictions. Life goes on and everyone pretends that everything is okay.

People continue to be defined by their own shallow self-interest. Most everyone puts their own career and personal happiness above all: relationships, species growth, population control and the general health of the society.

The protagonist of these novels, our superluminal pilot, Hutch, is no exception, although she does possess other attributes that make us like and care for her. She herself cares for other people, she thinks positively about the universe and she has a fundamental understanding of how it works. She’s not obsessed with power, wealth or the manipulation of others.

Author Jack McDevitt again uses many of the same devices that made the other Academy books successful. He starts us out with a Prologue set in the past – in this instance, it is June 2220 – only two years before the main action begins. This time frame for the Prologue is also during the period just prior to the main action which took place in Deepsix.

Unlike the other Academy novels, McDevitt does not break Chindi out into three or four sections, but rather simply goes chapter by chapter.

This book also contains the close escapes that mark most of McDevitt’s work and particularly the Academy novels. With such an intense degree of action, I’m quite surprised that the Academy novels have not been turned into movies or television. In most of the books, these great escapes are not germane to thematic development, but are used to keep the reader glued to the page. However, the themes explored in Chindi are based on the concept of risk.

The novel begins when a research vessel near a neutron star intercepts directed radio waves in the year 2220. Unable to trace them down to a source, the project leader, Pete Damon (a popular personality because of his program on the net explaining science to laymen), sends off all of the data to the Academy for review.

Two years later, on the verge of resigning from the Academy, Hutch is asked to perform one final mission. A group known as “the Contact Society” wants to mount a mission to investigate the radio waves. Their leader, George Hockelmann (McDevitt has a lot of characters named George and they do seem to die), is an extremely wealthy businessman who has always dreamed of contacting an intelligent alien society. He has built a starship, which he is willing to donate to the Academy, but first he wants to load up his friends and go investigate the radio waves, using Hutch as pilot. She reluctantly agrees and boards the City of Memphis with George, Pete, Herman (George’s best friend) and Alyx Ballinger, an entertainer who does both live performances and sims, as actor, producer, and director. She is, of course, fabulously beautiful. They will pick up two other passengers along the way.

I find it a bit surprising, in the Academy universe, that scientists would be so skeptical of the Contact Society. In a world where intelligent aliens are known to exist (the Noks), where some intelligent species somewhere created the Omega clouds, where they know that several intelligent alien societies existed recently (the Hawks and the Monument Makers), and where there are a number of archeological sites on other planets, evidence of previous intelligent existence, why would scientists denigrate any group seeking to find intelligence? This seems like a vestigial prejudice, something left over from our time that somehow carried forward into 2222.

For that matter, on first thought, it is at least mildly surprising that the Noks are so easily dismissed. Pretty much everyone refers to them as “the idiots” because they cannot seem to evolve past the point of constant warfare. It has occurred to me that McDevitt might be trying to make a point about our own society – inferring that we are idiots for continuing to make war. In some of the other Academy novels, Gregory MacAllister repeatedly refers to most of humanity as “morons”, people so caught up in their religions or politics or social beliefs that they cannot see the big picture – that all they are doing is reproducing, contributing waste, destroying the earth and adding nothing to human development and understanding. Most readers, of course, would strongly disagree with the sentiment, especially if presented head-on. But by presenting these thoughts in the example of the Noks and through the polarizing character of MacAllister, McDevitt is able to distance himself a bit from an unpopular opinion.

Part of the ridicule of the Contact Society from the world in general, and the scientific community in particular, is to set up a conflict between the “amateurs” seeking to make a breakthrough in contacting an intelligent species and the “professionals” who are certain they will not only fail, but make a blunder of it as well.

The two passengers they pick up are a funeral director, Nick, and an artist, Tor. It turns out that Tor had dated Hutch years before, but put up no resistance when she broke up with him, so she assumed he didn’t care. In fact, Tor had fallen for her immediately, but didn’t want to seem pushy. Years later, when he heard about the contact mission through his friends in the Society, he volunteered so that he could have a second opportunity with Hutch.

The relationship between Hutch and Tor is a good example of the shallow nature of the people that inhabit the Academy universe. When he knew Hutch previously, Tor was a failure as an artist, which was one of the reasons she dumped him. He worked hard and became very good, partly so that he might have a second chance with her. And she is actually very impressed that he is a good, successful artist. The dynamic is typical male behavior played against typical female behavior. Tor knows, for example, that Hutch will think less of him if doesn’t volunteer for dangerous assignments. And, of course, Hutch knows that she will feel that way, too. These appear to be simply archetypal reactions, behavior that could be demonstrated in a lab using any heterosexual male and female. But it is another example of how, despite great scientific advances, people remain the same.

The book is also an example of Gregory MacAllister’s assertion in Deepsix that any time you put men and women together in a room the IQ drops dramatically.

As these members of the Contact Society follow the radio signal to its origination point, another ship follows it to its destination. There they discover the remains of what was once a living planet, destroyed in nuclear war, an old moon base and gigantic stealth satellites that receive the incoming signal. While attempting to dismantle one of the satellites, something happens which destroys the ship. Hutch and her group on the Memphis race to find out what happened.

After picking up the body parts, the group decides to investigate the moon base. It becomes apparent that the inhabitants were cut off from the planet after the nuclear annihilation and died from lack of food and oxygen. Hutch has to babysit the amateurs who are mucking up scene. Herman even attempts to steal an artifact. While investigating, they discover that someone else had cut their way into the base long after the inhabitants had died, but they have no clue who or why.

The AI on the Memphis, Bill, discovers that there are a second set of stealth satellites in orbit, pushing the radio signals even further out into space. They follow the signal and discover a habitable planet, one that looks much like earth and that does support advanced life. There is a beautiful, intelligent flying species that they name the “Angels”. George and the others immediately want to go down to meet them, but Hutch is reluctant. Her past experience tells her that no matter what they look like, the situation could present great danger. The others somehow talk her into going.

It is a mistake from the beginning. In the first place, you would think that a policy would be in place to prevent humans from barging into worlds where the technological level is low or non-existent. In fact, humans have not interacted with the Noks because they are believed to be inferior. Even Star Trek has a non-interference protocol that prevents them from blundering into societies that do not have warp capability. For that matter, when McDevitt gets to the next book in this series, Omega, the World Council has a Protocol in place that prevents interference.

But George and the others go wading in and get attacked by the Angels. Both Herman and Pete are killed and the others are stunned and appalled that such beautiful creatures could behave so barbarically. Hutch is vindicated.

But Hutch’s courage is called into question quite a bit in this novel regarding the question of risk. She has already seen too many people die from taking stupid risks: Richard Wald, her archeologist friend delaying too long at Quraqua, George Hackett and Maggie Tufu taking foolish chances at Beta Pac III, another four dead at Deepsix and an entire ship just recently destroyed playing with a stealth satellite they didn’t understand. She sees herself as fully justified in advising caution. It certainly doesn’t mean that she is a coward, it just means that she is actually using her brains, something the others seem to have given up on.

Even after the death of his two close friends, George Hockelmann still feels like they did the right thing by attempting contact. Really? With a species that was not technologically advanced? What do you gain from that? I thought the whole purpose of George’s mission was to contact a species that was at least as advanced as our own. The mission becomes completely muddled after that fiasco – now all they want to do is to “see what’s out there” and that then allows them to do anything they want.

But they do have a technological string dangling in front of their eyes: the radio signals. In each system, there are two sets of stealth satellites, one trio receiving signals, a second trio processing and resending them.

They move on to the next system receiving the signal, except that nothing is there and the signal appears to be going out toward a galaxy. Bill does some digging, however, and finds that the signal passes through twin gas giants on the outskirts of the system. The team moves to investigate and they find two things: first that there is a moon in a vertical orbit that has a house on it and, second, that there is a spaceship orbiting one of the gas giants.

The house they find is quite large and had once been occupied by two very large creatures. It is filled with bookshelves, has a courtyard in the center, and has been frozen by exposure to space for a very long time now. The view from the house - the gas giants with their ring systems and moons - is awe-inspiring. McDevitt's description of the scene is truly fine writing, worth the price of admission on its own.

But the spaceship orbiting one of the gas giants is huge. At first, they think it is an asteroid. Indeed, it appears to have been built from an asteroid. Alyx names the ship the Chindi, after the term Navajos use for a "spirit of the night". With Tor's support – and against Hutch’s better instincts, George decides to investigate. As the trip has gone on, Hutch has come to realize that she returns Tor’s affection and it irritates her that he has pushed for boarding the Chindi.

They discover that the ship is actually automated – a roving museum, picking up artifacts and broadcasting events via the stealth satellites, a vast network of live entertainment, experienced sometimes thousands of years after it had occurred because it is broadcast at the speed of light. Fascinated, George breaks in and establishes a base to begin his investigation, along with Tor and Alyx. There is intense pressure to get it done now. Not only is an Academy team on the way (under the direction of a runaway egomaniac, Maurice Mogambo), but they have determined that the Chindi is simply using the gas giant's upper atmosphere to refuel and it will be leaving soon. To be caught on the Chindi during acceleration with limited air and power would be to invite death. Dedicated McDevitt fans already know (more or less) what is about to happen.

As soon as the Chindi shows signs that it is about to leave, the team scrambles for the exit, but they are a little late. Alyx manages to make it to the lander, but Tor gets stuck on the vehicle. George, appropriately, gets swept away into space during the acceleration.

Throughout the novel, McDevitt balances the preciousness of life against the accomplishments of risk. After what Hutch has been through, she opts for life. George, on the other hand, has made the decision that no matter what happens to his life, accomplishment is most important. The problem with dying while accomplishing something is that you do not live to reap the rewards. One has the sense, as George floats away into the soup of the upper atmosphere, that he has just realized this basic truth. Throughout the novel, George's major concern was not to make great discoveries, but rather to receive the accolades of accomplishment. He is so concerned that Mogambo will ride in and take all of the credit that he ends up sacrificing the reward. Mogambo, on the other hand, is distressed that George's team has made all of the discoveries and he is scheming to spin the publicity to his own benefit. With George gone - and given the gullibility of the press - this is actually quite easy.

The crux of the story comes down to the realization that the Chindi is not using FTL propulsion, but rather is running at sublight speed. When it reaches cruise velocity, it is travelling at .25 of light speed - this is a velocity that no Academy ship can match. Thus, Tor's life is in serious jeapordy.

Hutch provides the solution: to use several ships tied together with a massive object, so that they can obtain a greater speed and enter hyperdimensional space loaded with mass. While in hyper, they dump the load and come roaring out into regular space slightly faster than the Chindi. This proves to be another problem in that the engines are overheated and they cannot slow down enough.

At this point, Hutch throws all caution to wind and risks her own life for the reward of saving Tor. She jumps into a shuttle loaded down with go-packs and air tanks and brakes the shuttle till the fuel is gone, then she jumps out and uses the go-packs to continue decelerating. Tor makes a net of cables and when she comes roaring in over the Chindi, he catches her and they both break free.

The scene contains all of the usual excitement that McDevitt generates in his bold rescues. The picture of Hutch soaring in over the Chindi at high velocity and catching the net is brilliantly written and completely absorbs the reader, much like the conclusion of Deepsix.  Hutch is a stunning hero.

It also tells you a great deal about Hutch that she is willing to take a serious risk - not for her ego - rather, she risks everything for her own personal happiness. As we see in the later novels, she marries Tor and they have several children.

But this is the end of Hutch as a pilot. For the remainder of the series, she will be tied to a desk at Academy Headquarters. It is a terrific way to go out. And for her, the reward was certainly worth the risk.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review of Deepsix by Jack McDevitt

Paul W. Baker
Spoiler Alert!  This review contains detailed information on the plot and resolution of the novel Deepsix. It is recommended that you read the novel before you read this review. Although it is not absolutely necessary to read The Engines of God, the first novel in the Academy series, before Deepsix, I think it is much more satisfying to read the entire series in sequence.
For those who have read neither novel, a detailed introduction to the Academy novels is available HERE.  Additionally, my review of The Engines of God is available HERE.
Deepsix is the second of Jack McDevitt’s Academy novels, chronologically following The Engines of God by about 20 years. All of the same conventions of McDevitt’s Academy universe apply equally to Deepsix, with the advancements from The Engines of God added on, namely that Omega clouds have now become an accepted (although still not understood) part of the universe - still under investigation - and that the planet Beta Pacifica III has now become a major archeological site following its discovery by Hutch and Frank Carson.
Hutch still works for the Academy as a superluminal pilot, but she is now nearing the age of fifty. Of course, thanks to advancements in medicine, she still looks and feels like a twenty-something "babe". As the novel opens, she has just made a drop at the archeological site on Pinnacle and is picking up an exobiologist, Randall Nightingale, and some others for a return trip to Earth. Nightingale was the team leader for the first mission to Maleiva III twenty years before and was held responsible for the deaths of several of his colleagues, even though it was not primary his fault. His return to Earth at this time coincides with an expedition to Maleiva III (now renamed Deepsix) to observe its destruction as it collides with a rogue gas giant.
In fact the Wendy Jay, captained by Marcel Clairveau, an old friend of Hutch, is currently orbiting Deepsix with a large group of scientists. The onboard scientific community, there to observe the cosmic carnage about to occur, finds previously unnoticed ruins, evidence of an intelligent life form. Since no other ships or archeologists are available to the Academy on such short notice, they send Hutch to investigate. She brings Nightingale and several others to the surface with her and the novel takes off.
Each chapter is introduced with a quote from one of the world’s most revered critics (and one of McDevitt’s deepest characters), Gregory MacAllister. He begins as a pompous, self-centered elitist who takes great pride in attacking those as conceited as himself, especially religious leaders and anyone else (besides himself) who makes pronouncements about the state of the world or the nature of existence. But I would strongly advise against taking these little quotes for granted, because there are amazing nuggets of wisdom hidden there – they demonstrate that MacAllister is not all hot air and that he has actually thought some things out. I have taken excerpts from these quotes and sprinkled them around this review to show how McDevitt has worked thematic development into introductory quotations.
Consistent with many of McDevitt's works, the novel begins with a Prologue, which is a flash to the past: October, 2204 (two years after the incidents described in The Engines of God). In this case, it describes Nightingale's first trip to Deepsix, detailing the deaths of the six mission members who were killed by swarms of red birds with large beaks. It sets up Randall Nightingale as one of the novel's protagonists and tells the true story of the incident, which would later be distorted to implicate Nightingale as the Academy's public scapegoat for the mission's failure.
This is fairly important because around that very time, Gregory MacAllister lambasted Nightingale as a coward:
Obviously, MacAllister had no idea what actually happened on Deepsix, nor did he care. As long as he could find someone to make his point, "Mac" did not care what happened to his or her life as a result of his writing.
…when his people most needed him, Randall Nightingale fainted dead away. He was rescued by Sabina Coldfield and dragged to safety by that estimable woman at the cost of her own life… Coldfield… was worth a dozen Nightingales.
Normally, I do not especially like the use of an opening flashback. It is, of course, a quite valid and well-used technique of novel writing, but it has become a handy crutch that is way over-used. And McDevitt does use it over and over in his novels. That being said, he used it extremely effectively in The Engines of God and does so again here. I think telling the true story of the original incident on Deepsix really does help to set the stage and particularly to set up the later relationship between Nightingale and MacAllister.
Beyond the Prologue, the book is broken into three parts.
Part 1 - Burbage Point
The first part launches the novel into the "present time" of November, 2223. The remainder of the novel occurs over three weeks, ending shortly after December 9, 2223, except for an Epilogue, which wraps up the story at the end.
The story covered in Part 1 establishes the scientific team, Hutch's mission to look for artifacts, the arrival of the luxury liner, Evening Star, the stranding of Hutch's team on the surface of Deepsix (along with MacAllister) and the evil that Ian Helm does.
Yes, McDevitt trots out his villain from The Engines of God. Although Helm was portrayed as an unlikable character in the former novel, at least his motivation was believable and somewhat understandable. Here, he comes across as one-dimensional and flat. In fact, the entire sequence where he purposely disposes of the only lander that could come to Hutch's rescue feels forced and entirely unneeded. I think it might have been better to simply say that no ship possessing a lander was close enough to arrive in time for the rescue. This act of omission would have saved a few pages in a very long book and would have eliminated one of the only flaws in an otherwise amazing narrative.
The first part of the novel brings us quickly to the important things that McDevitt wants us to think about in Deepsix. These themes were partially opened up in The Engines of God, but McDevitt develops them to a very high level in this novel.

Extraterrestrial archeology sounds glamorous because its perpetrators dig up transistor radios used by creatures who’ve been gone a quarter million years. Therefore it carries an aura of mystery and romance. But if we ever succeed in outrunning the radio waves, so we can mine their broadcasts, we’ll undoubtedly discover that they, like ourselves, were a population of dunces.” ~ Gregory MacAllister
One of the primary assumptions of the Academy universe is that the people are very, very much like us in some fundamental respects, mainly that there is a ceiling to cultural development and we've already reached it. Technology might change some of the situations, such as the sims replacing television, but participation in a three-dimensional sim does not bring any kind of awareness or elevated sense of being. Indeed, the sims only tend to reinforce our basic cultural iconography. Instead of watching a romance or a war drama, you are allowed to participate as your icon replaces a character. It's still a romance or war drama, essential in every other respect to a television show or movie.
McDevitt's characters are still concerned with the same things we are: ego, relationships, career, dining, and death.
Coming together on Deepsix are Hutch, Randall Nightingale, Kellie Collier and Chiang Harmon (two volunteers from the Wendy Jay) and, of course, Gregory MacAllister. He was added to the mix when he brought a young journalist and pilot from the Star to the surface. An earthquake killed the journalist and pilot, as well as one of Hutch’s volunteers, and destroyed both landers, stranding these five on the surface with the cosmic collision less than three weeks away.
The fragility of Nightingale's ego, contrasted against the overpowering ego of MacAllister, is established in this first part of the book as they are brought face to face. Mac was clearly a part of the failure of Nightingale's career and Randy very much resents that. Mac, on the other hand, feels fully justified in his action and this matter festers as time passes.
The inability of Hutch to establish a stable relationship that was developed in the first novel is not really pursued here. Instead, Kellie comes to represent relationship frustration. An attractive young black woman, she is pursued by a number of the men on board Wendy, in particular by Chiang, yet she seems ambivalent about getting involved with someone.
Marriage in the early 23rd century is a contractual affair, which requires re-certification periodically. Most people do not renew. People live a lot longer and look younger throughout most of their lives, but ennui begins to set in early and people tend to live more boring lives over all. People are also generally good-looking and most work out religiously to keep their bodies in shape. This also squares with where we are at today. Although we don’t live as long as McDevitt’s characters, the visible society tends to be more and more attractive, young-looking and physically fit. And most of our lives are still boring – or perhaps uneventful would be a better description.
There is very little brilliance here and it is generally restricted to a small gene pool. The ugly or overweight people are – by and large – not seen on TV and we tend to elevate beauty. And, for the most part, we are a very boring species.
I’ve read the criticism of McDevitt that his characters are rather flat and boring, but in the Academy universe that is just the way people are. In fact, honestly, I am hard put to find ten extremely well-rounded characters in all of science fiction, so I generally find this complaint spurious, but in this case I believe it is completely unfounded. Especially considering the introduction of Gregory MacAllister, who begins as an inflated version of the flat people surrounding him, but is forced to develop a conscience by the events that are about to occur.
It’s customary to argue that intelligence grants an evolutionary advantage. But where is the evidence? We are surrounded by believers in psychic healing, astrology, dreams and drugs. Are we to accept the premise that these hordes of unfortunates descended from intelligent forebears? ~ Gregory MacAllister
Self-importance is closely tied to career development. McDevitt’s people spend an amazing amount of time thinking about their jobs, their prospects and their ambitions. Nightingale has essentially given up twenty years of his life because of the loss of his professional reputation. He was working in obscurity on Pinnacle because he couldn’t really get a good job on Earth. He plans on retiring to an isolated part of Scotland where he will never have to see anyone again.
And then there is Nicholson, the captain of the Evening Star. He is devastated at the death of a passenger and a crewmember, but not because he regrets the loss of life. He is worried because it is his fault and it could mean the end of his career. John Drummond, a brilliant mathematician, hasn’t produced a major breakthrough since his early twenties and he meditates on how everyone views him and his failure.
In our time, it can be argued that we have entered the age where a person’s career is of paramount importance, where a great deal of ego growth and sense of well-being depends on money and power earned through job performance. I would think that much is self-evident.
Mac, of course, glows in the public adulation of his writing. It feeds him and keeps him alive.
Which brings us to food, which is a constant topic in the worlds of McDevitt. In one sense, it’s not surprising. People who must spend a great deal of time on starships must think about food quite a bit. It’s a way to fight boredom. But it’s more than that; most every event, whether starship bound or Earth bound, is celebrated with food and drink. When Nicholson prepares himself to face a rebellious bunch of wealthy passengers, the first thing he does is order snacks and beverages to be delivered as he arrives on the scene.
Food is a part of the overall comfort of society – both our society and in the universe of the Academy.

Nothing kills the appetite quite as effectively as a death sentence. ~ Gregory MacAllister
But in Deepsix, for the people who are stranded, food is literally part of the landscape. They are short on rations and must figure out which of the local population is edible and non-toxic.
The last item that McDevitt sets up in thematic development is the importance of death.
Hutch has a much more intimate knowledge of death than anyone else in Deepsix, with the possible exception of Nightingale. Those of us who have read The Engines of God are familiar with the death of Hutch’s close friend, the archeologist, Richard Wald. In addition, she was part of the group separated from their lander on Beta Pac III, when George and Maggie were killed. Finally, she faced death straight-on twice herself, both in the damaged starship as oxygen ran out and as part of the group relentlessly stalked by the Omega Cloud.
Some critics argue that McDevitt kills off too many characters. Just as soon as you get to like a character, they get killed. But all of the deaths in the Academy series have a point, usually to force some of the other characters to realize something important – such as how sweet it is to be alive or how impulsive behavior can lead to tragedy or even how cold and unfeeling nature is. It proves its point – and does so more dramatically in Deepsix really than any other of the Academy novels.
By the end of Part 1, the body count is already at nine, counting the six who were killed in the Prologue to make Nightingale’s career fall apart and three more in this first part, two due to MacAllister’s ego and one to that cold face of nature. All nine died to advance the story and the theme as concisely as possible, but we’ll only count the three of “present day”.
Equally as important as the fear of death, however, is the speed of recovery from grief. There’s a lot of grief in the Academy series, but none of it lasts very long. Part of it, of course, is the same thing that makes us recover from our grief quickly. We are concerned with life and when death interrupts living, we are anxious to get the grieving over with and get back to celebrating being alive.
Part of the speedy recovery of grief is that the characters are rooted so squarely in their egos – as are we. Even if a death is our fault, we need to put it behind us quickly so that we can begin to feel good about ourselves as quickly as possible. For that is much of what life in the 21st or 23rd centuries is made up of: concern for our own well-being, safety and comfort.
Of course, in Deepsix, the grieving is short because our stranded characters are facing their own survival. They don’t really have the luxury to wallow in grief.
Part 2 – Overland
Although Mac doesn’t think much of him, it is Nightingale who remembers that the original mission had left a lander behind during their withdrawal. It is their only hope for survival once Ian Helm has done his evil. They remove capacitors from one of the damaged landers and secure them at the site. In order to reach the remaining lander, however, the party will have to cross 175 kilometers of icy, alien land and hostile native creatures.
It is mostly during this trek that the novel centers itself and fleshes out the various themes.
When struggling to survive in a hostile environment, people are literally stripped to their essence. Fear can be a powerful motivator, for both cowards and heroes. When they first learn that there is no way off the planet, MacAllister’s fear seems to betray the coward in him, yet throughout the march, when push comes to shove, Mac always steps up and faces danger with aplomb.
By contrast, Nightingale thinks of himself as a coward and so must test that assumption at every step. Even though he often reacts heroically to situations, he still thinks of himself as a humiliated man.
As the group marches across Deepsix, Captain Nicholson decides that he will blame the entire incident on the pilot who lost his life on the surface and will thus manage to save his career. Captain Clairveau demands that the scientists on the Wendy use their talents to come up with alternative rescue plans. This is the ultimate intelligent-monkey challenge: you are presented with an engineering problem – come up with a workable solution. It is John Drummond, the mathematician whose brilliant career has fizzled, who works out the details of salvaging the remains of a Maleivan skyhook and using it as a scoop to skim the atmosphere and pick up the damaged lander. Like Mac, he behaves heroically without actually realizing he is doing so.

If there is one characteristic that marks all sentient creatures, it is their conviction of their own individual significance. One sees this in their insistence on leaving whatever marks they can of their passing… we pay schools and churches to name wings, awards and parking areas after us. Every nitwit who gets promoted to supervisor thinks the rest of creation will eventually happen by and want breathlessly to know everything about him that can possibly be gathered. ~ Gregory MacAllister
On the surface of Deepsix, Chiang tries to tell Kellie that he loves her, but it is an awkward moment. She tries not to hurt his feelings, but her ambivalence is obvious. The question becomes moot when the group is attacked by what remains of the one intelligent race thought to exist on Deepsix. Chiang goes down in the first volley of rocks and dies almost immediately. Kellie’s ambivalence turns into deep regret. She admits to Mac that she probably didn’t love Chiang, but nonetheless was filled with deep emotions. “Sometimes,” Mac tells her, “I think life is just one long series of blown opportunities.”
While romantic relationships never develop, friendship does. Hutch and Kellie bond on a deep personal level. The two women in this group are the leaders, the pilots. They are both in great physical shape and they can make this difficult trek easily. The scene where they are bathing in ice-cold water and hugging each other is terrific writing.
On the other hand, the men are two fairly old guys that are out shape, an academic and a pontificating airbag, who are sworn enemies at the beginning of the ordeal. But the trek slows them down, shows them their physical weaknesses and brings them much closer together philosophically.
It is not surprising that the four survivors form a lifelong bond.
Mac, in particular, gains a lot of compassion during the ordeal and is forced to relax his pomposity. He sees the direct effect of his words on others. He stretches himself and grows as a character. So does Nightingale. A man who wanted nothing more than to retreat from life is forced to face it square on.
They learn to kill the local wildlife, but each experience calls upon one of them to taste the food and wait to see if it will kill them. This part of the novel forces all of them to face their own mortality. The capacitors they had set aside are lost to the floods that begin to build, along with the fury of the world around them being torn apart. They are forced to rely on Clairveau’s backup plan.
Part 3 – Skyhook

When misfortune strikes the true believer, he assumes he has done something to deserve punishment, but isn’t quite certain what. The realist, recognizing that he lives in a Darwinian universe, is simply grateful to have made it to another sunset. ~ Gregory MacAllister
One problem that I had about the final plan to rescue Hutch and the others was that in spite of the amount of wordage expended on it, I still could not visualize how the four ships manipulated the skyhook. I just couldn’t see it in my imagination. Normally, McDevitt is terrific with his description, so I’m inclined to think that it is my own failure. But I’ve now read the book four times (twice in a row in preparation for writing this review) and I just can’t see it.
This a very long novel and I’ve heard complaints from other reviewers about the length. I tend to agree, but with some reservations. Not only is the Ian Helm part extraneous, but I also feel that too much time is expended on the ultimate rescue plan, the Outsiders, the captains huddling and so on. From the time the two landers are destroyed, the real story is the five people stranded on the planet and their own struggle for survival. I do see the value of people pulling together for a common cause - their bond is similar to the one formed between the four on the planet - but the narrative could have been tightened up considerably.
One of the most striking statements comes near the end of the novel as Hutch is investigating the building on top of Mt. Blue, which at one time housed the base of the skyhook. She remembers Kellie asking if anyone believed in an immortal soul. “Certainly, Hutch didn’t,” McDevitt writes. “The world was a cold, mathematical machine that produced hydrogen, stars, mosquitoes and superluminal pilots without showing the slightest concern for any of them.” (My emphasis.)
This is part of the nub of the Academy stories. While there are still people who believe in a supreme being – including, ironically, MacAllister – the general feeling is the universe is actually a machine, cold and unfeeling. Mac points out that if there is a God, he wouldn’t be concerned with people hanging out in church, he’d want to see them out there in the gigantic playground of creation, the wonder that is His creation – the universe itself.
While investigating the building, Hutch and Randy find themselves trapped in an elevator that is gliding shakily down the mountain on uncertain rails. Kellie pilots the lander around to attempt a rescue, but Nightingale freezes up. Faced with the prospect of dropping hundreds of meters to the ground, he cannot move forward. Hutch manages to manipulate him into the rescue, but time is wasted and they cannot get Hutch out. Aside from worrying about Hutch, Nightingale feels a deep humiliation that he was the cause of her becoming stranded. He realizes that perhaps Mac was right and that he really is a coward.
Stranded on the metal scaffolding in the middle of a lightening storm, Hutch must construct a sling from rope and dangle in the skies to prevent electrocution. She hangs there all night in order to be rescued in the morning. Sometimes it’s amazing how much a human being can put up with to hang onto life.
The dénouement is a real tour de force of writing. From the moment when Hutch, Kellie, Randy and Mac realize that the scoop is too snarled for the lander to safely enter, they are faced with the immediate prospect of death.
Hutch understands that they will have one chance, but that she must sacrifice herself for the others to jump to safety. As pilot, she must stay at the controls to ensure that the other three make it. By the time she will be ready to jump, the lander will already be falling back into Deepsix. While Mac and Kellie jump to safety, Randy seems to be stalling. Hutch suspects that he has frozen up again, but he is actually digesting the fact that Hutch is giving up her life for them and he is formulating a way to give her a chance.
He removes a cable and ties it around her waist on one end and his own on the other. He jumps, then Hutch follows, tethered to him with the cable. But she is well below him and her gravity is pulling her down and dragging at Nightingale hanging from the net.
What it comes down to is the will to live, to fight for life with your last breath – and in this case to hang on regardless of desperate pain. For Randy, the flesh is being torn off his hands and his arms are being nearly pulled from their sockets, yet he manages to hold on and to save Hutch’s life. At last, Nightingale becomes a hero and is able to throw off the coward’s mantle. Its pretty amazing writing and it sums up the book rather nicely.
Earlier in the novel, there was another quote from MacAllister that also sums up the various threads of thematic development and that shows he really understands what life is all about:

Most of us sleepwalk through our lives. We take all its glories, its wine, food, love and friendship, its sunsets and its stars, its poetry and fireplaces and laughter for granted. We forget that experience is not or should not be a casual encounter, but rather an embrace.
Atheists are often asked how their philosophy can support morals or ethics, but the answer is really self-evident. In a universe where there are no supernatural beings, we have to depend on ourselves. Our conduct is what determines our worth as a species. And if this life is all that we have, we must make it the best possible. We must embrace it and love it and do the very best that we can.
Ultimately, McDevitt affirms that by allowing his characters to overcome this cold, mathematical universe and to survive. And the experience gives them a renewed sense of appreciation for life. This novel, more than any other of McDevitt’s work, brings home how sweet it is to live.
After the amazing rescue, the Epilogue is certainly anticlimactic, but it does explain what happens afterward and there is some satisfaction in that. With the death of a shuttle pilot the “present day” body count is a mere five (eleven including the prologue).

Deepsix is a not really a book about harrowing escapes, the ingenuity of people in a crisis, or the awesomeness of cosmic events, although certainly all of these things happen in the novel. Ultimately, this is a book about the sweetness of life. It is about the preciousness of individual existence in an unfeeling universe and about the fight to hold on to life at all costs.

Perhaps the best tribute one can give to Jack McDevitt is acknowledgment that he shared this truth with us in a big, captivating, and awesome story.
Deepsix is an entertaining, page-turning, and thoughtful exploration of the sweetness of existence.
Thanks, Jack!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review of The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt

Spoiler Alert! This review contains detailed information on the plot and resolution of the novel The Engines of God. It is recommended that you read the book before you read this review. For a detailed introduction to the Academy novels, something that you can read before starting The Engines of God, please see my blog An Introduction to the Universe of the Academy Novels of Jack McDevitt.
Some of that introduction will be reviewed here, so if you’ve read it already, you may skip ahead to the opening quote.
In the realm between hard science fiction and space opera there is a zone where some of the rules of science may be broken very carefully, but the author may still make his or her universe look and feel realistic.
The works of Jack McDevitt certainly belong in that zone and none more squarely than the The Engines of God, the first of six novels in what has come to be called "the Academy series". The novels begin in 2197 and continue deep into the 23rd century.
The Academy of the title is the space exploration arm of the North American Union (NAU), with the primary purpose of charting the star systems of our neighborhood along the Orion spiral arm of the galaxy. Recent discoveries of both a living, alien pre-atomic population on one planet, Inokademeri (Nok) and archeological ruins on two others (Pinnacle and Quraqua) have led to bigger ships, designed to ferry massive equipment and archeologists to study these planets.
The protagonist is a pilot named Priscilla Hutchins (everyone calls her Hutch), a diminutive, black-haired beauty imbued with her own particular hang-ups and fears. Hutch is a well-realized character from the beginning. She's not terribly complicated, but then no one is in this existence nearly 200 years in the future – that is part of what gives the novel an edge of realism. Let's face it, we aren't very complicated, much as we'd prefer to think otherwise. But there is something empathetic in her struggle simply to have a life that we eagerly identify with. We instinctively support her throughout the novel.
She is a close friend of Dr. Richard Wald, archeologist and author, who prefers to have her assigned as pilot on his explorations. In addition to Nok, Pinnacle and Quraqua, archeologists of the future have discovered gigantic sculptures scattered here and there in our near-neighborhood of space, none more fascinating than a 24,000 year old work of art on the snow-covered surface of Iapetus, the third largest of Saturn’s moons. It is an alien’s self-portrait.
It is at this point, on February 12, 2197, that The Engines of God begins. Hutch has piloted Dr. Wald to view the Iapetus sculpture and the opening words of the novel describe it:
“The thing was carved of ice and rock. It stood serenely on that bleak, snow covered plain, a nightmare figure of gently curving claws, surreal eyes and lean fluidity. The lips were parted, rounded, almost sexual… stamped on its icy features was a look she could only have described as philosophical ferocity.”
The Prologue is soulful writing, as Hutch and Dr. Wald view the sculpture on Iapetus, walk around it and meditate on who the Monument Makers might have been. It is eerie and introduces a mood of almost spiritual reverence for time and space.
As an introduction, it sets up the central question of the book: Why did the Monument Makers create their sculptures? Although the novel is divided into five sections, some apparently unrelated to this central question, each nonetheless advances the story and brings us a little closer to the answer.
Part One: Moonrise jumps us ahead in the timeline over five years to April 29, 2202. On a mission to extract the scientists at Quraqua (before it is terraformed), Hutch and Dr. Wald stop to inspect a Monument called Oz, on one of Quraqua's moons. This sculpture is as large as a city - and in fact looks like a city, though pocked and scarred from some sort of catastrophe. Although the city is almost completely made of right angles, there are two round towers; on one of the towers, there is an inscription, unreadable to the scientists, but containing figures from an ancient Quraquan language that has been named Casumel Linear C.
An important character is introduced in Part One in the form of Frank Carson, the administrator of the Quraqua project. An ex-Army man, who works for the Academy, Frank meets Hutch and Dr. Wald at Oz and shows them the inscription.
In Part Two: Temple of the Winds, nearly the entire scientific team is imperiled attempting to remove a print chase that might contain enough Casumel letters to reconstruct the language so that translations can be made. Dr. Wald gives his life attempting to save this artifact that might contain the key to understanding the inscription in Oz. Although an exciting part of the novel, Part Two does not actually advance the plot that much, except to emphasize the importance of cracking the language.
Understanding the language occurs in Part Three: Beta Pac when the exophilologist, Maggie Tufu, manages to translate the inscription on Oz. It is a message from the Monument Makers to the Quraqua to "seek us by the light of the Horgon's eye." The Horgon was a mythical Quraquan beast. At this point, with Richard Wald dead, Hutch has taken on the task of figuring out the Monument Makers and it is her investigation that reveals the Horgon was also represented in a Quraquan star constellation, a star that was pointed at on Oz.
Frank and Hutch manage to calculate star movements over the thousands of years between times and narrow down the possibilities as to which star the Horgon’s eye might actually be. Training massive radio telescopes on these celestial objects, they discover a transmission that might confirm that they have found the home of the Monument Makers, a star known as Beta Pacifica.

A mission is mounted, bringing back together several of the scientists from the Quraqua mission, but the results are not satisfactory.

Perhaps the best part of this section is the period of time when their ship is disabled and they watch their oxygen disappear with little hope of rescue. It is tight and very intense - quite well written. Once they are rescued, they discover that they have found the home world of the Monument Makers in Beta Pacifica III, but that the species has disappeared, their planet left a barren archeological treasure. There is another successful action sequence in Part Three, as the group is attacked en masse by crab-like creatures on the planet, but this does not advance the story.
McDevitt has really become a master of action sequences, but as I read his work, it seems that the action really exists as counterpoint to actual thematic development.  His themes are often so transparent and obvious that it is difficult to see them even when they are right in front of you.  That is actually even more apparent in the follow up to this book, Deepsix
What does move the story forward in Part Three is evidence that this world has also suffered multiple catastrophes - and at almost precise intervals of 8,000 years.  Parallels are beginning to emerge.

At last, we arrive at Part Four: The Engines of God.

Hutch is once again the impetus for hurling the plot forward. She discovers that there is a connection between disasters on Quraqua, Nok, and Beta Pacifica III, each separated by 8,000 years – and there may even be a connection with Earth. It is Hutch who makes a further intuitive leap by associating these catastrophes with the Monuments. She hypothesizes that the Makers created the monuments as a diversion – an attempt to lure these catastrophes (they are now calling them dragons) that love right angles away from planets with civilizations.

By calculating light year distances, elapsed time and the periods between appearances of the dragons, Hutch and Frank are able to accurately predict about where the next catastrophe would be due to happen in their time frame. Their mission is detoured from Beta Pac to a system known as LCO4418, where they hope to encounter a catastrophe.

Since there are no right angles in the LCO4418 system, Frank and Hutch decide to emulate the Monument Makers by creating their own diversion. They set about cutting right angles into some existing mesas on a moon covered in ice, hoping to lure a dragon. As if on cue, two ominous clouds are sighted moving into the system and one of them changes direction to approach the icy moon. The phenomena are eventually called Omega clouds and they, more than anything else, form the basis for the entire series of Academy novels.

The Omega cloud unleashes a violent attack on the moon and even chases down the box-like form of Hutch’s lander and destroys it, as well. This confirms Hutch’s suspicion that someone or something is sending out a force every 8,000 years with the intention of destroying civilizations. The Monument Makers, having figured this out thousands of years before, had attempted to divert the Omegas from destroying intelligent life and then had apparently fled the galaxy to avoid them.

The final assumption of the novel is that in about 1,000 years, an Omega will find its way into the solar system and mankind had better be ready. It begins an architectural revolution as all man’s structures are redesigned into circular or ovoid shapes.

Of course, the greater question is left hanging: why would anyone deliberately plot the destruction of sentience and create gigantic machines to accomplish the purpose? That question will have to hang until much later in the Academy series for an answer.

The title of this novel is taken from a Quraquan poem, which is in itself a fine example of Jack McDevitt’s writing. One can imagine a Quraquan poet contemplating an Omega cloud as he or she set down the words:

          In the streets of Hau-kai, we wait
          Night comes, winter descends
          The lights of the world grow cold
          And, in this three-hundredth year
          From the ascendency of Bilat
          He will come who treads the dawn
          Tramples the sun beneath his feet
          And judges the souls of men
          He will stride across the rooftops,
          And he will fire the engines of God.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An Introduction to the Universe of the Academy Novels of Jack McDevitt

By Paul W. Baker

(Rewritten, with additions and corrections, and posted 7/11/11.)

In the realm between hard science fiction and space opera there is a zone where some of the rules of science may be broken very carefully, but the author may still make his or her universe look and feel realistic.

The works of Jack McDevitt certainly belong in that zone and none more squarely than the Academy Novels, which I am about to begin reviewing. The purpose of this introduction is to present a basic understanding of the world that McDevitt has created. For those who have not yet read the novels, it will serve to set up the reading. For those who have already read the series, it will be a refresher to make the reviews easier to follow. As for the reviews themselves, I will be assuming that the reader has already finished reading the novels, so there will be spoilers. Not so for this introduction.

The Academy Novels officially begin on the date of February 12, 2197, which is where the Prologue to The Engines of God (1994) kicks the series off. The other novels in this series include Deepsix (2001), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), Odyssey, (2006) and Cauldron (2007). The conclusion takes place in the year 2255.

At this time in future history, governments have consolidated in order to control the gradual, but sure, devastation of Earth. Although there is a governing World Council, it is made up of political entities that were previously two or more countries. The North American Union (NAU), for example is made up of the United States and Canada. However, between overpopulation, drought, economic ennui, degrading weather patterns, religious strife and global warming, death has become so commonplace that no one thinks twice about a few million dying in India due to a grain shortage. Melting of the polar ice caps has raised shorelines around the world, so the people have had to re-engineer their cities to go on. The wealthy and those who cultivate professions that are in demand still do quite well. There are expensive restaurants, dinner parties and diverse live entertainment. The poor are generally never seen.

What McDevitt has done in his future history is to show that no matter how bad things get, most of the population will continue to go on as if nothing was wrong. He has taken this attitude directly from the present situation on Earth and extrapolated on it. We are at this moment presiding over the initial stages of Earth’s deterioration: the world economy fluctuates dramatically with widespread unemployment and collapsing markets, the earth is suffering from multiple natural disasters, we continue to depend on fossil fuels and, yes, we are pretty much ignoring global warming. Yet, if you turn on a television today, you would think that we were at the height of prosperity with no problems in the world.

Media plays a large part in these novels. McDevitt drops in news headlines throughout the Academy Novels and the news is both devastating and understated. No matter what happens, life goes on and we all pretend that everything is okay. In fact, as long is everything is okay for me, then it is okay for everyone.

One criticism that McDevitt receives quite often is that his characters are shallow and two-dimensional. Although I would not argue that point in general, I believe the characters in the Academy Novels are that way on purpose. They fit in with his extrapolation of the present into the future. Although everyone today tries to look on the bright, happy side of existence, the truth is that most people are terribly mundane. We are gradually becoming a society of specialists, of people who concentrate on their own little niche. Very few people are well rounded intellectually and most of them are not intellectual at all. Most people today – and in McDevitt’s future – are shallow and self-involved. We tend to feed off of tawdry news events, social gossip, games, images and social interaction aimed at our own personal well-being.

In the Academy, most of the scientists, academics, engineers and technicians are specialists who burrow into their own little worlds, so caught up in their own careers and specialties that most of them have no life outside of their areas of expertise. And within those areas, most are concerned with their own ego more than they are with actual technological development.

The politicians are pragmatists who flow with the general tide. They don’t think for themselves. Instead, they take polls and roll with whatever will keep them in power. When the Greens finally become a political powerhouse, they are just like the Democrats and Republicans of today. They do not listen to others, they do not think things through and make rational decisions. Instead, they push their agenda unconscionably regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

I think that this approach to future history by McDevitt is very smart indeed and it is something that we all can see and understand just by looking around us. He isn’t really introducing any new conflicts here, but he has extrapolated fiercely on what is and that realism sticks in your brain. Issues that we debate at this moment are still being debated nearly 200 years in the future and people and attitudes haven’t changed. It is both deeply chilling and bizarrely reassuring at once.

Throughout the novels, news organizations play a big role and McDevitt again has extrapolated from our present to our future. Most of the reporters are plainly superficial; they are suave, beautiful manikins, who play up whatever appears to be an emotional event and they mostly ignore more difficult, in-depth stories. Man jumps off building. Congressman caught in love tryst: details at eleven. Like scientists and entertainers, reporters are more concerned with their own future than they are with the news.

The exception to this is the magazine, The National, whose editor, Gregory MacAllister, delights in attacking pompous airheads. He is definitely similar to the curmudgeonly journalist H. L. Mencken of the Twentieth Century. Although, in many ways, he is dislikeable (for example, he is an outspoken chauvinist and he distrusts religious leaders on the grounds that they have become more important than God), he also provides one of the deeper characters in the series. He is capable of listening, analyzing problems and changing his mind. At his best, he truly does reach for the underlying truth of existence. This level of complexity sets him well apart from others.

Technologically, some big changes take place during the next 200 years.

Of course, the big thing – and the first thing that really takes the Academy Novels outside the realm of hard science fiction – is the development of faster than light space travel (FTL). At a time when space exploration was believed to be dead, scientist Ginjer Hazeltine developed a theory of transdimensional transit. Once a drive unit was perfected, it was named the Hazeltine Drive. This is a rather murky theory, but most science fiction that crosses the threshold into space opera depends on some mechanism or other to allow transit across many light years in a short period of time. If you don’t worry about the details, you will be fine.

The Academy, by the way, is the space exploration arm of the NAU, controlling all official flights throughout the galaxy. Eventually, of course, private companies contract to have their own vessels built. Kosmik, Inc., for example, is involved in the business of terraforming. Orion Tours allows the extremely wealthy to go site seeing. And the media have their own vessels so that they can rush to the scene of any intergalactic hanky panky.

Since development of the Hazeltine Drive, the Academy has been looking through the Orion Arm of our galaxy (our immediate neighborhood) for two things: planets with an Earth-like biosphere that would be good for colonization and alien life.

Several planets have been found that meet the first criteria, some with only single-celled life, some with much higher, non-intelligent life, but most simply sterile. One planet has been found that possesses intelligent life: Inokademeri. But the inhabitants, referred to as Noks, have not developed technologically past where humans were at in World War I. Due to their innate intolerance, they are constantly at war; they have used up most of their natural resources and are considered (in MacAllister’s words) “idiots”. It is so bad on Nok that scientists are not permitted interaction with the locals. A few of the planets capable of supporting human life have actually been colonized, one by religious zealots and the other by political malcontents. Both colonies are failing.

And although humans most deeply desire to find another intelligent species, one that is technologically mature, they haven’t had much luck. In fact, mostly what they have found is archeological treasures: races that evolved a complex society and then (for one reason or another) died off. These discoveries – and others that will be discussed later – become a major plot element in several of the novels.

The other breakthroughs that keep the Academy Novels firmly outside the realm of hard science fiction are anti-gravity devices, artificial gravity and Flickinger fields.

Anti-gravity is used for a number of functions. There are vehicles that skim through the sky, depositing their passengers on special landing pads. (Apparently ground transportation has all but disappeared.) There is also the “spike” which is used to lift vehicles beyond a planet’s gravity well. And anti-gravity comes in really handy if you have to move anything that is large, massive or unwieldy.

Artificial gravity is, of course, used to keep people upright and functioning in a zero gravity environment, such as a space ship.

And the Flickinger Field is a kind of personal force field made of energy that molds itself to the human body. When connected with air tanks, these fields act like a space suit, protecting the wearer from harsh environments. They do have two problems: they are not impermeable (leaving them open to breaching) and they have a hard shell that forms over the face so that the wearer can breathe. Rest assured that these problems will be exploited by McDevitt.

Two of the best technological advances are easily within our grasp.

Artificial Intelligence has become a booming business in the Academy Novels. An AI runs every household; it serves as friend, cook, butler, maid, alarm and communications system. It’s like having a Google you can chat with. In addition, all complex operations are now exclusively handled by AIs and they even serve as back-up systems for pilots of space ships.

What’s really neat is that AIs can also appear as holograms. The common AI system on every Academy vessel is named Bill and he interacts with every captain in a unique individual way, projecting different images of “himself” throughout the ship. Contrary to the official line, AIs do have a sense of humor.

The disappearance of television isn’t spectacular because it is replaced (as is actually happening now) by the net and by 3D interactive entertainment known as Sims. The Net is huge, but as we see now in television, there are a few “channels” that rise to the top. In this way, there is a common experience, much the way we have now with the major broadcast networks. Some programs and personalities always rise to the top. And the desire for common entertainment experience will always funnel viewers in specific directions.

The Sims are like watching a movie that takes place around you, but you can also program your image and voice to appear as one of the characters. If you have a number of people doing this, it is apparently quite a bit of fun.

The protagonist of the Academy Novels is a pilot named Priscilla Hutchins (everyone calls her Hutch), a diminutive, black-haired beauty imbued with her own particular hang-ups and fears. She is tied to the Academy pretty much throughout the series, but in the beginning she mostly works with the archeologists. In fact, it is her association with one of the most prestigious of these, Dr. Richard Wald, which leads to the beginning of The Engines of God.

Hutch lives in Arlington, VA, just outside of what remains of Washington, DC. With all of the coastal flooding that continues as a result of polar ice melting, the former capital of the United States is now partly underwater, with the rest bolstered by levees so that the buildings may remain as tourist attractions.

She is one of those people matched perfectly with her job. In the first few novels, one can feel the excitement of space exploration through her eyes: the awe of discovery, the wonderful little social groups that form during a long flight, and the vastness of the universe. Hutch is smart and sexy, she has a grip on reality that others could benefit from touching. She is heroic, but not for the reasons that others behave heroically. She is immensely likeable, a terrific character to carry a series through six novels.

But the time she spends on Earth is pained. Her mother wants grandchildren and a stable relationship for her daughter. Hutch herself would like some stability, but her long absence hampers this ambition. The men who are interested in her simply cannot tolerate the absences, so Hutch remains frustrated on that level. However, her relationship with academics and archeologists is most stimulating - the time that they spend traveling between systems (normally a few months) is really the basis of her social life. She is both intelligent enough to hold her own with them, so whether they are just playing games, running sims or engaged in arcane discussions, she gains a great deal emotionally from the trips.

The most fascinating and puzzling discovery by the archeologists is the existence of gigantic sculptures scattered here and there along the rim. Perhaps the most fascinating is an alien’s self-portrait left on the snow-covered surface of Iapetus, the third largest of Saturn’s moons. That these aliens, referred to as “the Monument Makers” (for lack of a better term), actually visited the solar system some 24,000 years ago is a source of amazement to archeologists. Most of the sculptures are cubes or rectangles – shapes with straight lines and right angles – but the one on Iapetus is clearly a self-portrait.

It is at this point, on February 12, 2197, that The Engines of God begins. Hutch has piloted Dr. Wald to view the Iapetus sculpture and the opening words of the novel paint a chilling picture:

“The thing was carved of ice and rock. It stood serenely on that bleak, snow covered plain, a nightmare figure of gently curving claws, surreal eyes and lean fluidity. The lips were parted, rounded, almost sexual… stamped on its icy features was a look she could only have described as philosophical ferocity.”