Visions of Paradise

Sunday, August 02, 2009


Regular readers of this blog know I am a big fan of Jack McDevitt, especially his Alex Benedict future historical mysteries. I am slightly less a fan of his Academy novels which are more problem-solving adventures about a superluminal pilot Priscilla Hutchins whose adventures involve either exploring worlds whose civilizations have been destroyed by large interstellar “omega” clouds which travel slowly through the galaxy destroying any civilizations they encounter in their path, or trying to rescue civilizations from the approach of other omega clouds.

Besides the adventures, the books in the Academy series are also concerned with the underlying mystery of the origin of the omega clouds: are they natural phenomena or artificial? Why do they target civilized worlds? Most importantly, is there any way they can be stopped since one of them is on a direct path towards Earth although, fortunately, it will not reach it for nearly one thousand years.

When the series concentrates on the clouds (as in the initial story The Engines of God and the one being discussed here Omega), the books are better than when they devolve into routine adventure fiction (Chindi and Deepsix). The premise of Omega is that humans discover a fourth alien race besides themselves, a race of cartoonish-looking beings affectionately called goompahs after children’s tv characters. Their world is in the path of an omega cloud, but unlike Earth which has nearly a millennium to worry about it, they have less than a year.

Immediately the Academy dispatches available superluminal ships to the goompahs’ world to help them. This involves two major problems. First is that, according to “protocol,” humans are forbidden from revealing themselves to less-advanced cultures (as the goompahs are, having a sophisticated but pre-Industrial Revolution society) for fear of drastically-inhibiting their development. Second is that scientists have absolutely no idea how to either stop or alter the path of the omega clouds.

Omega mostly concerns two groups. One is a small group trying to find some way of convincing the goompahs to abandon their cities and flee to the mountains (since the clouds only destroy outward signs of civilization, specifically any structures built with right angles) where they would be safe from the assault. At first these efforts involve secrecy from the goompahs for the sake of the protocol, but as the cloud gets nearer, the protocol is abandoned, which involves another problem: the goompahs are immediately terrified at any sight of humans, so that convincing them of their danger from the omega clouds is akin to devils appearing in New York City and trying to convince the average person they encounter that they appeared there to save their lives. Nor is there any worldwide mass media on the goompahs' world, which makes it even more difficult to influence all goompahs.

The second group is bringing technology which they hope will distract the cloud, such as giant structures in space built entirely of right angles which they hope will attract the omega cloud away from the planet.

There is a lot to like in Omega. The race to save goompah civilization is a gripping one, and the difficulties encountered by the participants are believable. The last hundred pages of the book are particularly exciting as the humans race to save the goompahs during the assault by the omega cloud. But I most enjoyed how the humans explored goompah society trying to find ways to convince them of their danger without violating the protocol. Along with them, we learn about goompah history and religion and the structure of their civilization. It is a fascinating bit of culture-building, even if goompah society is a bit too human-like to be totally convincing. While certainly not on the level of a C.J. Cherryh or an Ursula K Le Guin, combined with the efforts to save the goompahs, as well as the overriding mystery of the omega clouds, it is all fun reading which I recommend highly.


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