Book review: Thunderbird, by Jack McDevitt

26 07 2017

Jack McDevitt is an American SF writer who excels at big-picture SF with an updated ‘Golden Age’ vibe to it. He’s been shortlisted for numerous SF awards, and won the Nebula with his novel Seeker.

Thunderbird

Thunderbird (2015) is a followup to a much earlier McDevitt novel, Ancient Shores (1996). While this second instalment can be read as a standalone, it makes considerably more sense to read Ancient Shores first. Both books deal with the discovery, on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota, of a functioning stargate, believed to be over ten thousand years old, permitting instantaneous travel to a few destinations at interstellar distances from Earth.

Thunderbird follows Sioux chairman James Walker, scientist Dr April Cannon, and radio show host Brad Hollister as they grapple with the best way to manage the Roundhouse’s disruptive new technology. There’s a network of stargates to explore, all with potential hazards (and the knowledge that, in all possibility, the device’s designers are still out there somewhere), met by a lot of political pressure to shut the site down. For every person who sees the Roundhouse as something akin to Aladdin’s lamp, there’s another who considers it to be Pandora’s box … in both cases, a device whose opening is legendarily difficult to undo.

There’s a less focussed feel to Thunderbird than there was to Ancient Shores. The second book has a more episodic feel to it, and though an overall story arc does eventually emerge, it takes its own sweet time to do so. The story’s telling is interesting enough—McDevitt doesn’t do dull—but I couldn’t help but think it’s a somewhat anticlimactic and scattered tale compared to the first book, an impression not helped by the prosaic pastorality of Eden, the planet whose exploration forms much of the book’s offworld narrative drive. Parallels can be drawn here with Fred Pohl’s excellent Gateway (another novel detailing the discovery of a magical-science transportation system permitting fast interstellar travel) and its disappointing sequels, or with Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (again, a novel of transportation by magical science, with attendant disappointing sequels). Perhaps, closer to home, one might recall McDevitt’s own copybook-blotting in his explanation for the enduring mystery of the malevolent ‘omega clouds’ first introduced in The Engines of God, wherein they are symbolic of the Universe’s deadly and incomprehensible nature, and then subsequently relegated to a still-dangerous but largely unsatisfying gimmick three books later. Thunderbird does cohere to a reasonable degree, and it gets to where it needs to, but it leaves me more strongly convinced than ever that, where a SF author has somehow hit upon the ideal way in which to build a novel around human discovery of ostensibly abandoned, magically-advanced alien tech (as Pohl did with Gateway and as McDevitt did with Ancient Shores), then he or she should make sure to never attempt a sequel of that work, since the revisitation will inevitably diminish the first book’s unfathomable mystery and sense-of-wonder. [There may well be exceptions to this rule—Alastair Reynolds’ Revolution Space series springs to mind—but I don’t think there’d be many.]

Thunderbird is not a bad book, by any stretch—it conveys McDevitt’s trademark sense of intriguing possibilities necessarily left unexplored, it even manages to be distinctly thought-provoking in several places, and McDevitt always knows how to craft a resonant ending—but it cannot help but seem slightly pale set against its predecessor.

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