ANCIENT SHORESA novel by Jack McDevitt
(1996, Harper Collins)
The mystery surrounding ancient alien artifacts buried deep beneath Earth's surface deepens as they are further explored.
-- First reading (harcover)
Very well written, with an interesting mystery, but the main characters practically disappear two-thirds of the way through, and there is no real emotional investment.
This is a real character novel, at least when the characters are present. I liked Max, and I could understand April, even though I was not particularly fond of her. She was aggressive and wanted to keep everything to herself, when they would have been better off giving the job over to professionals. Sure, they would have received much less credit, and I understand credit, but as she admits near the end, they would not have gone through the mess they did.
Max was a character that I liked right from the beginning. I don't know what it was that first drew me to him, but he was entangled very naturally into the mystery, and kept getting entangled, even after he thought he was done with the artifacts. This was not about money, and he would have been the first to turn to professionals, except for April's influence.
The mystery itself was very naturally presented, and as it unfolded, it made me wonder exactly what it was, and if the characters were indeed dealing with what they thought they were dealing with. Which makes it a little disappointing to note that they guessed correctly right from the start.
We start the very first paragraph with Tom Lasker (another likable fellow) discovering a buried yacht on his farmland. He and some neighbors dig it up and note what good condition it is in. They store it away and pull it out of the barn when people want to take a look at it. A yacht in the middle of the prairies makes news in a small town, and curiosity seekers come from all over. Lasker doesn't really want the yacht, nor the tourism that it has sparked around his house, but will do his part for the local economy!
The mystery deepens when they can't find an engine, and then the boat starts glowing at night, spooking everybody. There are strange markings on the side that nobody can decipher. The Laskers contact Max, a friend of the family who restores antique and vintage aircraft. This is where we get a sense that Max is an idealist. He refurbishes the planes and then sells them, but not to just anybody. He and Tom also fly antique warplanes.
We meet April when Max brings a sample of the boat's sail to a chemical lab for analysis. She keeps her discovery secret and considers the possibilities for it: the atomic number is so far beyond what humans have created, and it is stable. The stuff could last for thousands of years without decaying. And, she surmises, it already has!
While flying over the area again, Max identifies the coast of an ancient lake that existed in North Dakota and Manitoba during the last ice age, Lake Agassiz. He and April wonder if aliens used this lake to go sailing ten thousand years ago, and their boat sank. It's too bad that they appear to be correct. If the lake is buried so far, though, what caused the ship to rise close enough to the surface at this time, without being plowed before?
The greater part of the book comes when Max identifies some land on a Sioux Reservation that could possibly have been a harbor for sailing vessels. It takes another third of the book to uncover what is termed The Roundhouse, after its shape. But the fun part is the mystery surrounding the discoveries. Max and April speculate on the origins, what might have been there, and its uses. When they finally get inside the Roundhouse, using a neat plastic-only entry system (no natural fibers in order to keep the natives out but any advanced society in), they discover it to be empty.
But that doesn't last for long, as the next discovery is that a transportation system of some kind exists inside it. In this case, it is nice to see that they make mistakes in identifying it, though. At first, they think it must be a vaporizer, a high-tech vacuum cleaner! Only though more tests do they identify it correctly. And even then, they are not sure. April tests it on herself when nobody is looking. And it turns out that the return mechanism is broken!
But that doesn't last long, either, as Max figures it out immediately and is able to rig a generator to power the system, and fix the broken wires at the other end. He joins April at a lakeside on the other planet, which they call Eden. The planet is so peaceful and idyllic that they could easily lost themselves there. But they don't, because of their sense of duty.
And therein lies the major problem with this book. It reads more like a documentary than anything else. There is no emotional investment once the first discoveries are made. Before that, there was excitement, which I could feel. But it only existed in momentary spurts. And once the Roundhouse was uncovered, everything flowed too nicely. The newspaper and TV coverage fit into the mood of the story very nicely, because we got mostly the facts. Even a potential love story is barely touched on. Max admits that he feels some attraction towards April, and they actually kiss a couple of times and are flirtatious a couple of times. But there is never any follow-up, even simply in dialog.
Fortunately, the book is very easy to read, but I was jolted out of the story often when the author started talking about geography, mainly because it was told in the present tense. From this, I suppose, I can realize that the towns and areas he is talking about really exist, but they were single-sentence scene setting devices, and didn't fit nicely into the frame of the rest of the story. It was almost as if they were inserted afterwards, to clear up some ambiguity in the location, but I found they did the opposite.
The same thing happened with the introduction of people who were never heard from again. Likely these people are meant to make the story more life-like. Ordinary people react to the events happening on Johnson's Ridge in various ways. Some people invite the alien ways, others want to study them. Still others want to destroy them. But there were some that simply appeared for the sake of appearance. For example, the IRS man knocks on Lasker's door and tells him he will have to claim the yacht as income. Okay. An archeologist shows up at the excavation and tells them to hire a professional and use proper methods. Fine. April's boss calls her up and asks if she is doing all of this extra work on company time. I wondered if he was going to claim some profit because his lab discovered the material that was so different. But all of this is dropped, without any follow-up. None of these people affect the story in any way. They don't make the characters think more, or change their ways. Most of the time, they were introduced very skillfully, so I didn't mind. But about two-thirds of the way through, they took up most of the book, and I didn't like that.
Towards the end of the book, the every-day events are shown through the eyes of these every-day people. The economy is in turmoil because of the potential material that won't break down, and then from transportation systems that could take people from one city to another instantaneously. The President gets involved. And for each of these people, we get a nice background on their personality, what their habits are, where they are from, and so on. And that is what it makes this story feel much more like a newspaper article than a novel. We get the facts, with very little emotion at all. And because of the lack of our main characters, the story feels very disjointed.
I found the discussion of the material that would not break down (cannonium, after April Cannon) frustrating, because nobody mentions how capricious people actually are. Sure, it might be nice to have a toaster that works across the generations, but would we actually want that? If we couldn't replace the things that we buy, wouldn't life get boring? Actually, no, because people would still replace things, and the dumps would get this material that doesn't break down. Our garbage already lasts pretty much forever -we definitely don't want it to last longer!
Interspersed between the ordinary people are a few scenes with the main characters. Aside from Max and April, I liked Arky, a native American lawyer who guides them through procedures while they dig on native land. But with the economy the way it is going, and the crowds of tourists who want to have a look at the Roundhouse, a stand-off was inevitable. Arky is killed while visiting another port, where they find an airless environment, which proves that they are not thinking the exploration through properly. The Sioux are offered exorbitant amounts of money to sell the Roundhouse, but refuse when Arky puts the dream of a land without White Man in the eyes of the native council.
Finally, the government tries to take the Roundhouse away, but a demonstration by not only the natives who are determined to keep it, but also a small crowd of people who represent the future, form a line around it. People like the (now) late Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, authors Gregory Benford and Usula LeGuin, and others, including astronauts and poets, philosophers and so on. That was pretty cool. It must be nice to have friends like that who would consent to be put in your book like they did!
So the Roundhouse stays with the natives, who are determined to do Eden justice, and not let it become another North America. I thought that was a pretty powerful message, but it helped that I believed in their cause. The government wanted to destroy the port, which is shortsighted, even from an economic point of view. For people who believed that Max and April, as well as the natives, should have submitted to authority, the ending might be a little sore. But I liked it.
The appeal of this book is in its writing. I could have done completely without the news reports and interviews, and many of the outsider characters. But that is beside the point, because the book is quite well written. The characters of Max and April, while lacking emotions for most of the book, are wonderfully characterized.
And there is something about the way the author makes the weather into a character that I adore. He obviously has experienced all the winter and spring weather in that area. While I have never experienced the weather on the prairies, the description of a late spring and a temporary thaw is so close to what we experience here that I could relate. Now if only we could get those areas to stop using Fahrenheit and miles (not likely to be soon, I think)!
Once again, the book could have been improved by giving our characters more to do once the port was discovered. Maybe create another character who could sympathize with the collapsing economy, instead of many smaller roles. But at the beginning, when it was almost exclusively Max, April and the Laskers, it was really enjoyable. And the book leaves the potential for sequels very high, as Max goes off to search for the possible intruder from the Maze world, an invisible alien that stalked them and created strange distortions in their perceptions while they were exploring, and is now on Earth. And April and her team, now properly organized with pressure suits and emergency equipment, go off to test other ports. Hopefully any sequel will bring the creators of this system into it. I would like to enter this world again at some time.
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