Visions of Paradise

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Engines of God

I have read a lot of Jack McDevitt novels recently, enjoying both his Alex Benedict series (A Talent For War, Polaris and Seeker) and his standalone Infinity Beach, all of which were based around solving historical mysteries. So I decided to read his Academy series of novels next, beginning with The Engines of God. Immediately one difference was obvious: instead of being purely based on history, the Academy series is based around far-future archaeology. I consider that a subtle difference, since archaeology is one of the gateways into history, also involving research but of a different type. Other than that difference, all these books use research to solve sfnal mysteries infused with exciting plots set in a wondrous universe. I’ve seen comments that McDevitt is the "natural heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke," but his plots are better developed than either of those two writers, so I think it is fair to throw in Poul Anderson for comparison as well.

A group of archaeologists are studying an alien world which they believe was the home for an extinct race known as the Monument-Makers. That was because they created giant structures on several worlds and moons which seemed to serve no purpose other than as giant nonfunctional monuments. In the first half of the novel, we learn a lot about the race’s history along with arcaheologists in a race against time. Since the world under study is the most Earthlike world ever discovered–except for one other world which is inhabited by an intelligent race already–and since Earth is creeping ever closer to destruction, permission has been given to another group to begin terraforming the world. The first step in that terraforming consists of melting the icecaps, causing vast tidal waves and raising of sea levels that would destroy all the remaining artifacts of the Monument-Makers.

The search for valuable information about the Monument-Makers, especially why their entire civilization vanished seemingly overnight, was fascinating, as was the search for a "Rosetta Stone." The political struggle with the corporation scheduled to begin the terraforming was well-done except for the fact that some of the employees were a bit too heartless to be totally realistic. The final scene on Quraqua was very exciting and, overall, logically done.

The second half of Engines moves into deep space where another set of monuments has been found, similar to those on Quraqua. At this point the novel develops its main focus when the archaeologists discover that three different worlds related to the Monument-Makers all experienced civilization-destroying cataclysms in a pattern of eight thousand year intervals. The main concern of the archaeologists now becomes the search to uncover the cause for those cataclysms. McDevitt punctuates this search with two exciting sequences. The first occurs when the scientists’ spacecraft literally stumbles upon a giant structure in space which resembles a wafer-thin football but seems to be some type of galactic telescope. Contact with the structure causes irreparable damage to the ship, threatening the lives of all the scientists aboard while they await rescue. The second adventure takes place on one of the worlds being searched when the scientists are totally unprepared for alien crabs which, while not intelligent, are still highly-organized and almost military-structured and attack the scientists in force. So the race against time in the novel’s first half gives way to a struggle to survive and a planetary adventure in the second half, all of which are adjuncts to the cosmic mystery which remains the novel’s paramount importance.

McDevitt’s imagination is certainly fertile, and he keeps conjuring archaeological wonders through The Engines of God, all of which come together as the scientists’ research steadily bears fruit throughout the novel. The novel’s ultimate wonder, giant Omega clouds moving steadily through the galaxy destroying all signs of highly-intelligent life in their path, leads to the novel’s climactic moment, but does leave openings for more novels to follow as The Engines of God concludes with the knowledge that those civilization-destroying clouds are heading directly for Earth.

In many ways Jack McDevitt is an old-fashioned writer whose stories combine the best of 1950ish pulp writing with sense of wonder, intriguing mysteries, and lots of future history. Because the literary aspects of his novels tend to be weak, nor is his fiction particularly groundbreaking, he will never be considered a "great" writer, but nobody writes more absorbing sf mysteries than he does. Even though I am a rabid New Waver, Jack McDevitt is still one of my favorite current writers.