Book review: Polaris, by Jack McDevitt

12 03 2018

Clearly, I’m on a bit of a McDevitt reading jag at the moment, with this the third of his titles I’ve reviewed in the past week …


Polaris is the second in McDevitt’s long-running ‘Alex Benedict’ series (which I always think of as the ‘Chase Kolpath’ series since she’s really the central—and more interesting—character), but because of reading haphazardousness it’s the last one I’ve got to. None of which matters greatly, because the Benedict & Kolpath books are each largely self-contained. As with the others in the series, Polaris is a locked-room mystery / SF piece, doggedly investigated by Alex and Chase. The mystery here concerns the inexplicable disappearance, sixty years earlier, of six VIPs and a seasoned pilot—i.e., the entire complement of passengers and crew—from the vessel Polaris, shortly after completion of a sightseeing jaunt at the scene of a stellar catastrophe. The vessel is recovered, intact, complete with functional lander and all its suits, but no personnel. Alex decides there has to be a rational explanation for this latter-day Mary Celeste, and he and Chase set out to unearth it. But it seems as though others do not wish the puzzle to be solved … and are willing to kill to preserve the Polaris‘s secret.

This is a dependably intriguing series, with high-stakes problem-solving and impressively big-picture SF worldbuilding. McDevitt’s sense of plotting and pacing is exceptional, the characterisation is solid and the SF content is robust. The one element of his fiction that may rub readers wrong is its distinctly ‘whitebread’ feel: McDevitt’s seems a somewhat parochial future with not a lot of population diversity. In this respect, and in others, the books often feel like a callback to Golden Age SF, and Polaris is no exception. If you’re looking for something cutting-edge, confronting, or challenging, Polaris probably won’t satisfy; but nobody else I’ve read does space-based SF/mystery quite as well as this.


Book review: Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt

8 03 2018

Jack McDevitt is a Nebula Award winning American science fiction writer whose books I’ve reviewed frequently (most recently Odyssey, just a few days ago). I seldom read two books by the same author in quick succession, but McDevitt’s writing at its best can be so compulsive that it’s sometimes difficult to abstain …


Cauldron is book 6 in McDevitt’s ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series and is, for the moment, the latest word on the interstellar pilot’s adventures. (Book 7, Starhawk, is a Hutch prequel, while book 8, The Long Sunset, launches in a few months’ time.) The series is rather more uneven in quality than McDevitt’s other main novel sequence (the Alex Benedict / Chase Kolpath books): while The Engines of God, Deepsix, and Chindi in particular are excellent works of widescreen sense-of-wonder SF adventure, Omega and Odyssey are more patchy and, in places at least, are significantly disappointing. (McDevitt has a tendency to reach for the exotic and the mysterious, but not always to deliver.) Consequently, I approached Cauldron with some trepidation … and came away, for the most part, impressed. The book, which overall deals with the preparation for a thirty thousand light-year mission by Hutch and colleagues, is bookended by two excruciatingly-tense deep-space encounters, the first of which is one of McDevitt’s finest ever running-out-of-time-here sequences, as researchers scramble to plunder a staggeringly old space colony in the last minutes before its obliteration by an approaching Omega Cloud, and the second of which introduces an intriguingly alien (and ominous) intelligence. Much of the space between these set-pieces is taken up with the efforts, by physics wunderkind Jon Silvestri and his backers in the Prometheus Foundation, to develop a starship drive so much faster than the existing hyperdrive technology that the vaunted mission to the Galactic core region (to seek out the Omega Clouds’ birthplace) becomes feasible, at a time when humanity has virtually stopped reaching for the stars: too expensive, no startling discoveries. The R&D tribulations are handled well, the mission itinerary less so. The new drive technology has the limitation that ships cannot stay transdimensional indefinitely, they must emerge into ‘normal space’ every seven thousand light years or so, which means the Galactic core mission requires three respites while the drives are recharged. (To this reader, the 7000 LY barrier imposed on the drives felt like a ‘limit of convenience’, allowing McDevitt to intercalate a few picaresque episodes which really do not add significantly to the story.) Target stellar regions are identified, the crew spend an increasingly cabin-feverish month in the blankness of transdimensional space while a mindbogglingly large distance is traversed, stellar systems are explored. My quibble is that McDevitt shows a disappointing tendency to make his technologically-advanced alien races far too humanoid, far too easily comprehensible, and this again shows itself Cauldron‘s ‘stopover’ sequences. The second of them works well enough, the third is largely glossed over in the race to the climactic confrontation, but the first ‘stopover’ episode is distinctly disappointing, with an unimaginative alien race that, appearances aside, could easily pass as suburban American. McDevitt’s vistas can be breathtaking, and that’s shown to as good effect in Cauldron as in any of his other work, but his alien-race-characterisation palette is at times disappointly drab, and this tendency mars a chunk of Cauldron. Not the whole book—there’s too much invention and tension elsewhere for a couple of weak chapters to deliver a truly crippling blow—but the story does lose its mojo for awhile. Happily, though, it gets it back.

For the most part, Cauldron is hot stuff.

Book review: Odyssey, by Jack McDevitt

4 03 2018

Jack McDevitt is an American SF writer best known for his ‘Alex Benedict’ and ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series of novels which, with their typically sweeping cosmic vistas and intriguingly plotted storylines, fit somewhere in the space once occupied by golden age SF, in the gulf between space opera and hard SF. McDevitt has won one Nebula Award out of (at last count) sixteen nominations; he’s also won a couple of other major awards. I’ve reviewed several of his books.


Odyssey is the fifth in the ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series, and though the now-deskbound Hutch might reasonably be expected to be the principal character here, she doesn’t get as much airtime in Odyssey as McDevitt’s aphorism-spouting literary curmudgen Gregory (‘Mac’) MacAllister (who first appeared, I think, in Deepsix, book two in the series) and space pilot Valentina (‘Valya’) Kouros. The book opens with the search for the starship Patrick Heffernan, lost somewhere around the middle of a two-hundred-light-year jump through hyperspace and thought therefore to be either adrift in normal space somewhere beyond radio contact or, worse, stuck haplessly in hyperspace. Once the Heffernan search has been stood down, the book’s focus is the mission—led by Valya and crewed by Mac, milquetoast PR flack Eric Samuels and Amy Taylor, the spaceflight-obsessed teenage daughter of a senator hostile to spaceflight—to place monitoring beacons around planets and satellites known to have been sites of visitation by ‘moonriders’, technologically-advanced spacecraft of non-terrestrial origin whose provenance and intentions are unknown. It turns out these moonriders might well have hostile intent …

McDevitt’s novels are extraordinarily compulsive. Even when, as here, he’s not in absolutely top form (there are a few elements of Odyssey I’d describe as slightly hinky, and Mac and Valya just are not in Hutch’s league as protagonists), the story still manages to be both gripping and spellbinding, largely as a function of the careful plotting and expert pacing. The characterisation is effective enough, though somewhat parochial (McDevitt’s is a very American future), the technology is reasonably standard from a SF standpoint (though I was impressed with the description of the gravitic drive units used around a ‘clean’ interstellar research site), and the book even manages to make budgetary pressures and political posturing of some interest, which is not easily achieved in SF. But it’s the use to which these elements are put which snares the reader’s attention. In certain respects, the novel never truly takes off (in the way that, say, Engines of God, Slow Lightning, Firebird and Seeker all do), and yet it still manages to be sufficiently fascinating as to insist that the reader turn just one more page, and another, and …


Book review: Starhawk, by Jack McDevitt

18 01 2018

Jack McDevitt is an American science fiction writer with a prodigious number of Nebula award nominations (sixteen at last count) as well as nominations for the Hugo and John W Campbell Memorial awards, among others. He’s won the Robert A Heinlein Award and has one Nebula win. Though he has also written several standalone novels, he’s best known for the ‘Alex Benedict’ and ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ sequences, both of which can be described (with imperfect precision) as big-picture medium future action-based space opera set in a human-dominated universe that seems predominantly influenced by contemporary or recent US society. They often have a distinctly retro, Golden Age feel about them, and they’re generally great fun. I’ve previously reviewed several McDevitt books (probably a few too many to graciously link to individually).


Starhawk is the most recent book in the ‘Priscilla Hutchins’ series. (It’s a prequel, set several years before the initial book, Engines of God, that was my introduction to McDevitt’s writing.) It follows ‘Hutch’ through the events immediately following the rather eventful certification flight, aboard the Copperhead, for her interstellar pilot’s licence. A rescue mission during that flight—when the Copperhead is diverted to Lalande 21185 to ferry the crew and passengers off a stricken vessel, the Gremlin, which is about to suffer an uncontrolled re-entry (and imminent destruction) within the atmosphere of the star system’s sole terrestrial planet—does not go entirely to plan, and Hutch and her instructor Jake Loomis are both badly marked by the outcome. It transpires that the Gremlin was sabotaged by activists concerned that the terraforming effort at Selika is destroying that planet’s native ecosystem, an effort to which the space fleet is directly contributing. This struggle between the profit-obsessed corporate forces, headed up by Kosmik Inc., pushing Selika’s terraforming, and the environmentalists outraged at what they see as the needless destruction of a planet’s biosphere, forms a repeated theme throughout the novel, carried all the way through to a heartrendingly inevitable climax (which appears to be one of McDevitt’s signature moves). The characterisation is efficient, the worldbuilding is impressively busy (with, as noted above, a heavily American flavour), and McDevitt has few equals when it comes to the construction of a propulsive and gripping SF storyline. While it would be inaccurate to describe this style of SF as groundbreaking, it is entirely reasonable to say that Starhawk is a thrill ride. If you haven’t yet read any McDevitt, this is as good a place as any to start.


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.