CHINDIA novel by Jack McDevitt
(2002, ACE Science Fiction)
The Academy, book 3
A group of Contact Society members travels to an alien satellite network, only to find that they have discovered only a small part of it, with a gigantic artifact waiting at the end of one line.
-- First reading (hardcover)
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 different.
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 obviously.
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.
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