||A very steady adventure, with lots of
discoveries along the way. Jack McDevitt writes books where we get to
see alien artifacts and immature civilizations, but never get to meet
actual aliens, at least ones we can talk with. This story is no
The plot follows
Pricilla Hutchins, last seen in Deepsix, as she ferries a group of
people interested in making First Contact to a neutron star, where an
artificial signal has been detected. The story follows a very plausible
path, without any outrageous stunts or unnecessary leaps of faith.
George is the founder of the Contact Society, and Tor is an ex-lover of
Hutch. There are other characters, but they are either killed or offer a
different perspective on the events, without contributing much more.
I am not fond of stories that stop
partway in order to explain the backstory of each of the characters, as
this one does. I am much more fond of finding out about the characters
as we get to know them, or from the points of view of other characters.
Still, once that was out of the way, the story didn't stop much. The
characters drive the story, in a most definite way. It is the characters
who decide to get into dangerous situations, and Hutch who invariably
needs to bail them out.
I wasn't sure which way this story was
going to go when it started. We were introduced to Hutch and her love
interest, Preach. They got close, but took their relationship really
slow, especially given that they are always called away to space. He
bails her out of a very tight rescue mission at the beginning of the
book. I quite enjoyed their courtship. So it came as no real surprise
when Preach's ship was destroyed. While Hutch was sent out to the
neutron star and discovers more hidden satellites, Preach is sent to the
signal destination, where he finds more stealth satellites, and a world
that had been destroyed in a full-scale nuclear war. He decides to take
one of the satellites on board, after which chaos ensues. Hutch and her
crew race to the scene, but find only an empty hulk, and floating bodies. They explore the
moon-base made by the long-gone society. The only strange thing to come
of it is an entire room which had been emptied of its contents.
They follow the signal to another
world, where they encounter a savage species of flying people, who
resemble angels. Against Hutch's recommendation, they go down to the
surface, expecting the species to be as peaceful as their human-branded
namesakes. I was mentally shaking my head at this point, wondering why
Hutch didn't insist on an observation period. Obviously, George and
company expected "professionals" to arrive soon and kick them out, but
they had a little time, at least, to check things out from orbit. Instead, they go to the surface and
two people are killed when the "angels" attack them.
Depressed, they continue to follow the
signal, for it goes off again into space. They find satellites around an
ice world, where they meet up with another Earth-ship that is supposed to
bring a stealth satellite back to Earth. Hutch successfully disables the
satellite, and they bring it on board that ship. The moment Tor replaced
Hutch in the shuttle to bring additional food from the new ship back to
the Memphis, I knew something would go wrong. It was telegraphed too
The exciting parts of this book were
the rescues. Here, Hutch and the others cut their way into the other
ship, which had sealed itself against a hull breach, because a
construction satellite suddenly appeared and used the ship as raw
materials to make a new stealth satellite. Strange, but makes sense, in
a way. They had Tor squish himself into a bathroom stall and cover up
the openings with his clothes, so his air wouldn't escape. It was pretty
funny, but I didn't believe his clothing and the toilet paper could
cover all the necessary space.
The signal, finally, travels to a twin
giant planet system, two Saturn-type planets orbiting each other, and an
observation post on a moon orbiting the pair perpendicularly. The
inhabitants have been dead for some time (of course), and we don't even
get to peer into one of their many books (why books?), because they are
frozen in place. Strangely enough, one burial site for the former
inhabitants is very recent.
My primary complaint in this book is
the alien remains. They are all depicted as humanoid, where they don't
have to be. They all have chairs, which might be too large or too small
for us. They have dishes and clothing, read books, and use desks. There
is nothing alien about them, except that they are not human. It seems
pretty boring to me, and not really worth the effort.
The big discovery, the jackpot (though
they thought the observation Retreat was the jackpot), is an actual
alien spacecraft, immensely huge, which is refueling from the gases in
one of the Saturn-like planets. The team, again against Hutch's
recommendation, want to go aboard. It is clear that they will stay until
the spacecraft leaves, which it does. The stuff they find on board is
barely worth mentioning, except to say that there are no aliens. Just a
few robots who ignore them completely. But George, Tor and the others
decide to come back with an inflatable tent. And they do stay until the
ship starts to leave. One makes it out, George loses his footing and
floats above the surface of the accelerating ship, and so slams into a
mountain and is killed, and Tor doesn't get to the shuttle in time, so
hunkers back down the entrance to wait for another rescue attempt.
I like it when things don't go as
expected in books like this, and here is where it becomes really
interesting. The ship, or chindi, as they started calling it (free
spirit) doesn't jump into hyperspace, as they expect it to. Hutch jumps
the Memphis, and discovers a lost human ship, the second one that could
travel in hyperspace, and which never made it to its destination. But
the chindi doesn't arrive when they expect it to. Instead, it has
continued to accelerate, until it reaches a quarter the speed of light!
It's going too fast for any Earth-ship to reach it, and won't reach its
destination for another two hundred years.
Hutch then hatches a desperate plan
that will take Tor to the edge of his oxygen supply. Earlier in the
book, Tor tossed a coin into hyperspace while he and Hutch walked
on the hull. She said they would be going that much faster when they
exited hyperspace, because of the conservation of momentum. Now,
recalling that coin toss, she uses the three spaceships on hand to tug a
small asteroid to one tenth of a quarter the speed of light. Then, the
smallest ship, one tenth the mass of the asteroid, jumps into hyperspace
with it, and they release it while in hyperspace. When they leave
hyperspace, the smallest ship is now traveling a quarter light speed.
Ingenious, and believable fictional physics! It was pretty exciting. Of
course, nothing is exact, and they end up going too fast. Hutch tries to
brake using the shuttle, then a bunch of personal thrusters, but when
she finally catches Tor, she is still traveling at 30 km/h, and they
both break a lot of bones when they impact.
Nick, Alyx and Tor are the only
surviving passengers. I expect Hutch and Tor will be married one day,
but the epilog doesn't really say that. I liked Nick's reaction when
told he would be stranded at high velocity with Alyx for weeks. Alyx,
being a glorified porn star, was a great person to be stranded with for
weeks! But I think my favorite character was the artificial
intelligence, Bill. He was probably the most interesting person, even
though we only saw him through external points of view. He had opinions,
but always bowed to Hutch's commands.
The book had its high points, and
didn't really have any low points. I didn't like the unimaginative (but
possibly more realistic?) depiction of aliens, so close to human
standard, and sometimes the descriptions of people's backgrounds got in
the way. But the characters were solid, and the adventure was steady. It
didn't plod around, but made its way gradually, and scientifically, to
its goal. It was enjoyable, but not great. Still, I think I'll continue
to read the books by this author.