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 (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.

Book review: The Hercules Text, by Jack McDevitt

14 03 2017

Jack McDevitt is a long-established American SF author, with sixteen Nebula nominations (of which he’s won one); he’s also won the Campbell Award, the UPC Science Fiction Award, and the Robert A Heinlein Award. I’ve reviewed a couple of his books previously: Echo and The Devil’s Eye, both from his ‘Alex Benedict’ sequence.


The Hercules Text is McDevitt’s first novel, and is a standalone. It was first published in 1986 but, so as to preserve the integrity of its near-future setting, was apparently updated in 2015.

Harry Carmichael is a mid-level administrator at Goddard Space Flight Center who learns—on the same night that Julie, his wife of ten years, announces she’s leaving him—that an object one of the teams at Goddard has been observing as telescope time permits, an X-ray pulsar in the constellation Hercules, has gone unnaturally quiet. It starts up again after a while, though when it does it’s no longer simply emitting the hot noise of X-ray pulses that project leader Ed Gambini and his colleagues have been expecting: it is, undeniably, a signal.

The pulsar hangs in intergalactic space at a distance from Earth of around one and a half million light years. Whoever has sent the signal is unlikely to be waiting for a reply. But what can be the rationale for broadcasting towards the Milky Way a string of code that, ultimately, is found to be an encyclopedia of arcane and almost untranslatable knowledge?

Harry assists in the assembly of a team of experts—cosmologists, physicists, microbiologists, psychiatrists—who seek to interpret the signal’s reams of data, and to conceptually reverse-engineer the creatures that have sent this information. It’s unlikely that creatures at such a vast distance from Earth can pose any kind of threat to terrestrial civilisation, but can the same be said of the knowledge they’ve sent Earth’s way?

The Hercules Text doesn’t have the full grandeur and casual sense-of-wonder that typifies McDevitt’s later, far-future novels like, say, The Engines of God or Seeker, but it does show his facility with the bold idea, and his ability to map out, in quite impressive detail, a set of plausible scientific, bureaucratic and political responses to what must surely qualify as the Grand Bull Moose Achievement Winner of all possible SETI results, as well as the many unforeseeable but almost unavoidable knock-on effects that such a signal would inflict on society. It’s an impressive first novel, which plays out somewhat like a teleconferenced Childhood’s End. My main criticism of it would be that it makes a rather Heinleinish claim to uncomplicated American integrity, but it’s sufficiently thoughtful overall that this can, I think, be overlooked. And it’s always a pleasure to read a hard SF novel that features characters who seem more-or-less like real three-dimensional people, rather than simplistic ciphers of the author’s creation.

Book review: The Devil’s Eye, by Jack McDevitt

12 11 2016

Jack McDevitt’s SF/archaeological mystery stories featuring Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath form one of my favourite SF series, but I’ve been reading them in a fairly haphazard fashion. (They’re sufficiently self-contained that it doesn’t really hurt to read them out-of-sequence, which I always think is a bonus for a series.) I reviewed Echo a few months ago; The Devil’s Eye is Echo‘s immediate precursor, but there’s no significant overlap.


As The Devil’s Eye opens, Alex and Chase are concluding a holiday on Earth. When they return to Belle-Marie for the journey back to Rimway, Alex learns that he’s been contacted by Vicki Greene, a celebrated horror writer who—in some undisclosed fashion—requires Alex’s help, urgently, on a mysterious matter of life and death. But the message is four days old, and when Alex and Chase return to Rimway, they learn that Greene (a) is unreachable, probably permanently, (b) has recently returned from the isolated, edge-of-the-galaxy world of Salud Afar, and (c) has deposited, without any instructions, a large quantity of money in Alex’s business account. So, with no idea of what they’re getting into (and little enough idea of what they’re looking for), Alex and Chase head to Salud Afar for themselves.

It’s often difficult to predict the general direction of a McDevitt novel, even from halfway in (Firebird is an excellent example of this), and The Devil’s Eye is no exception, though by the book’s end the story can be seen, in hindsight, to have been well-enough signposted by clues hidden in plain sight. That said, there’s also quite a lot of artful, propulsive misdirection. I often feel, after reading one of his books, that I should feel cheated by some of his storyline léger de main, but this doesn’t happen, somehow: there’s ample compensation provided by what I might call ‘generosity of plot’. The stories are ultimately very well told, and it would seem churlish to not get swept along by McDevitt’s storytelling genius. The best way I think that I can express this is to say that his books manage more effectively to speak to the heart than to the head, which is unusual in a solid-SF context: while there are other writers whose universes are more interesting (and here I’d nominate Banks, Bujold, Egan, Le Guin, Niven, and Reynolds as examples), there are very few (perhaps, of those I’ve listed, only Bujold) whose worlds are somehow so appealing. I’m tempted to say that McDevitt’s books (of which The Devil’s Eye is a pretty satisfying example) are comfort-food SF, but that seems a disrespectful and a potentially misleading description. They’re retro, a bit too socially-simplified, and they sometimes (not always) lean towards the ‘cosy catastrophe’, but they are also extremely well-written and well-constructed (and, no, those two don’t always go together).

The pacing can seem odd: in The Devil’s Eye, there are portions of the Salud Afar sequence that meander, and the Vicki Greene mystery, set up as the point of the entire novel, is sorted so far from the book’s end that you’re wondering what McDevitt can possibly fill the last hundred pages with … and then, gradually, gently, he lets you know that you’ve been watching the wrong magician pull the wrong rabbit out of the wrong hat. His novels have a tendency to do that.

The Devil’s Eye is a good example of what has netted McDevitt sixteen Nebula nominations to date. It’s not my favourite of his novels, not even my favourite of the Alex / Chase series, but it showcases his abilities nicely, and it provides an excellent introduction to his storytelling, for those who haven’t encountered him before.

Book review: Echo, by Jack McDevitt

24 09 2016

There are a great many SF writers whose work I enjoy, across subgenres encompassing hard SF, space opera, and so on. Among living writers of ‘sense-of-wonder’ SF, I don’t think there’s anyone whose writing I admire quite so much as that of Jack McDevitt. I first encountered his The Engines of God about twenty years ago, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

McDevitt’s books may lack the dizzying, detailed inventiveness of worldbuilding of, say, Iain M Banks’s Culture novels, or the busy sparkle of character interplay that helps propel Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. But I’m not aware of any other SF writer who quite has McDevitt’s mastery of story. Particular favourites of mine are Slow Lightning (which, in the US, is titled Infinity Beach), Ancient Shores, and, latterly, the Alex Benedict series.

Alex Benedict is a dealer in antiquities, in a time far enough in the future for ‘antiquity’ to encompass not only our own present day but also several thousands of years of interstellar spaceflight. The novels are narrated by his resourceful assistant Chase Kolpath. I haven’t been reading the books in sequence: I have a recollection of having read the first book, A Talent for War, many years ago, and I’ve since read the most recent titles, Seeker, Firebird, and Coming Home. But I’ve skipped the intervening titles, and have only now turned my attention to Echo. (The lack of adherence to sequence doesn’t, I think, matter: each book is largely self-contained, although it would be a pity, I think, to read Coming Home before Firebird.)


In Echo, Alex learns of the availability of a stone tablet covered in indecipherable hieroglyphs. The tablet is particularly intriguing because the woman offering it is the owner of a house formerly belonging to the late researcher / explorer Somerset (‘Sunset’) Tuttle, whose life’s quest was to find any signs of alien intelligence scattered among the Milky Way’s vastness. Conventional wisdom holds that, had Tuttle’s search proven successful, he would certainly have shouted it from the rooftops; instead, his legagy is seen as one of futility and failure. And yet the tablet’s markings don’t match those of any known human language, nor do they seem to be of (the sole, long-known species of sentient alien) Ashiyyur origin: so did Tuttle, counterintuitively, discover a new race of extraterrestrials, and keep the fact a secret? It seems likely that the tablet holds the answer, but when Chase goes to collect it from the homeowner, she’s informed that it has been given away to another party. Alex tells the gazumpers that he’s prepared to pay handsomely for an artefact which he was, initially, expecting to receive gratis—the homeowner just wanted the thing off her lawn—but he’s met with misdirection, with threats of violence, and, finally, with the news that the tablet has been irretrievably dumped at sea. Just what does the tablet signify, and why has it become, for several people, a matter of life and death?

McDevitt’s ‘Alex Benedict’ novels have a tendency to define, from the outset, the parameters of the unfolding story, and then to subvert those parameters in ways that can, in some instances, leave the author breathless. (Firebird is probably the archetypal example of this, but Echo also does it very well.) My main criticism of the series is that it seems to involve the reasonably straightforward extrapolation of a kind of liberal midwestern US society to the interstellar civilisation of several millenia hence, something which, to me, appears too simplistic to be plausible; but that said, McDevitt’s characters are well-drawn and intriguing, his worlds are impressively busy, his pacing is excellent, and he’s a mastery of SF immersion through such offhand techniques as Heinlein’s ‘the door dilated’: in Echo, for example, when Chase has finished reading a magazine, she turns it off, and when it’s cold outside she turns up the heating on her jacket. (My other criticism would be that, damn him, it’s almost impossible to read McDevitt’s best stuff slowly: he has an enviable knack for producing pageturners.)

I’ve purposely refrained from sketching out too much of the book’s plot, because the Benedict books are constructed, primarily, as big-picture-SF mysteries, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to give away crucial details. This leaves me rather constrained with how best to sum Echo up, but I can say that I was wholeheartedly impressed by how McDevitt put it all together, I was thoroughly swept up in the story’s slipstream, and I’m glad, on reflection, that it didn’t end up the way I thought it was going to. If you haven’t read McDevitt’s stuff, you’re missing something good.