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!

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.

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