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Science Fiction Index


A novel by Jack McDevitt
(2001, Harper Collins)

The Academy, book 2

After losing their lander while investigating ruins on a doomed world, a team of explorers work to get to safety.


-- First reading (hardcover)
July 10th to 18th, 2004


Standard journey plotting, with characters that barely reach beyond two-dimensional. However, the dramatic rescue at the end of the book left me with a very good impression.

Throughout most of the book, I was not exactly bored, but I wasn't all that interested, either, in what was happening. Most of this, I think, comes from the author's style. In order to generate some excitement (so I believe), he gives us "press releases", and excited comments that "the world was watching". I wondered often which world, since humanity had apparently colonized at least one other.

The character introductions became better a long way into the book, but much of the time, the women were introduced by their looks, and the men by their occupations. I find this annoying, especially since there were so many female characters. At least their ideas on sex were barely touched on. There were so many characters in this book, with a lot of those taking on only bit parts. I couldn't remember who was the chief welder or mechanic or so on -mostly because I didn't care. The same goes for the four ships -I could never remember who came from which ship, except for the luxury liner Evening Star.

All of the characters were quite shallow, even those we got to know quite well throughout the story. The others got background that attempted to give them more depth, but they all looked like exactly that: attempts. Out of the six or seven main characters, there were only a couple who gained any depth along the trek. Most of them were simply there.

The book is divided into three nearly distinct parts. The background is that the planet they are visiting is special for two reasons: first, because it has a thriving biosphere (rare), and second, because it is on a collision course with a much large gas giant, and will be destroyed in a matter of weeks. A ship with a bunch of scientists is out to watch the event, and record a bunch of data. The author treats this with only a few sentences scattered through the book, and by the end, they are all thinking about the papers they will be writing. It makes them sound so very dull. The second ship is a tourist vessel with a lot of people on board, including the person every human alive knows by name: Gregory MacAllister -scathing commentator on everybody who tries to accomplish anything. The third vessel is diverted to the planet Deepsix after the scientists discover ruins. Hutch commands this vessel, and takes a lander down to investigate. She also has on board the person who commanded the last mission to that planet, over twenty years ago, a devastating mission that signalled the end of exploration of Deepsix altogether -until now. Finally, there is a media ship with a reporting team on board.

The bulk of the story goes to Hutch, who, in the first part of the book explores the ruins. They find a treasure trove of artefacts, and complain that somebody should have been out here twenty years ago to explore more thoroughly. The search is mildly interesting, but we don't learn anything about the hawk-like aliens or the human investigators. From the luxury liner, MacAllister takes a trip down to the surface in order to conduct a dramatic interview live. Instabilities from the approaching gas giant cause a major earthquake, which destroys one of the landers. MacAllister and the interviewer attempt to take the other craft to safety, but crash it, instead.

If all this description sounds very clinical and dry, it is because the book itself is written this way. To the author's credit, he avoids using a lot of clichés, and the disasters are not the result of stupidity of the characters. A bad decision by Hutch -something anybody would have decided, I think- keep the team on the ground after a small quake. MacAllister's pilot-interviewer actually did try to get the shuttle to safety, and saved it from falling into the fissure, after all. MacAllister had been conducting the interview on the archaeologist ship because it provided a better backdrop, and so his life was spared when his own ship disappeared.

The first part takes up a large chunk of the book, which makes it curious that the back cover describes the book starting with the second part, ignoring completely what goes on before it. I suppose the promotion department couldn't find a way to make it sound exciting.

The second part of the book was really a showcase for the planet itself. Twenty years before, Nightingale's frightened party had abandoned a lander, but it was about 300 kilometers from the tower they were currently investigating. On the march, they lost some people, and they were attacked by various lifeforms, including the devolved native population of cricket-like people. Three thousand years earlier, the planet had entered a giant galactic dust cloud, which caused a major ice age. Between the hawk-like and cricket-like people they saw evidence of, they wondered how two technological peoples could evolve on the same planet. They managed to get to the other shuttle, of course, and every obstacle they encountered had a clear, or not-too-difficult solution, even when they were desperate. All of the wildlife could be defeated or scared away, and a little extra effort was all that was required to get through most of it. The impression that I was left with the most was of the size of the animal life on that planet- huge species that resembled the smaller forms we have on Earth.

By the time they get to the lander, the planet is in the process of becoming unstable, and this is where things start getting more interesting. The ocean is pulled to spectacular tides because of the gas giant in the night sky. It even overwhelms some of the mountain ranges, spilling water into the plains where the tower they had been investigating earlier was located. This is where they stored two heavy capacitors for the lander, salvaged from the destroyed landers, and necessary to get into orbit. Once the waves came, and it was too dangerous to land the shuttle, I don't know how they could have a hope of finding the capacitors. If the water was pushing the lander away, then the much lighter capacitors would have been long gone! I suppose they could have been wedged amongst some rocks.

Of course, once Marcel discussed a backup plan, it became obvious that the original plan would fail. It had to, otherwise the readers would have been disappointed about all the wasted space devoted to it. The third part of the book involves most of the preparations and implementation of this plan, the sky-scoop.

Throughout the adventure on the surface, the orbiting teams had been investigating an orbiting technological wonder that appeared to be the remains of a skyhook, the anchor to an elevator from the ground into orbit. Eventually they found the base in the mountains, and the remains of some of the elevator in the ocean. They wondered how it was possible to have such high technology when the native cities on the planet seemed medieval. Clues were given throughout, but were scarce enough that it took a long time to form a working theory. I figured it out when the ground team came across the crashed hover-bus. The hawk-like aliens had been effecting a rescue of the cricket-people before they entered the ten thousand year long or more ice age.

The transformation from the skyhook into the netted scoop that would literally scoop the lander was too technical to bother trying to understand completely. I caught enough of it that it didn't drag the story down, and there was enough to believe that it was tricky and complicated, and required a lot of people.

The book didn't become really exciting until the last seventy five pages, when Hutch and Nightingale became trapped in the cliff elevator leading to the space elevator. I liked Hutch's solution when she was trapped among the iron framework during a lightning storm -use her tough vine rope to suspend herself far enough from the frame not to be a conductor.

When it finally came time to ride up to the net, they found that it had been nearly destroyed by a meteor shower courtesy the gas giant. There was nowhere for the shuttle to be hooked onto. Instead, Hutch had them jump from the lander to the net and tether themselves to it. Hutch, piloting the lander, almost didn't make it, but Nightingale proved himself at the end. As much as the author used traditional suspense through most of the book, the climax was anything but traditional. I really thought they would professionally get inside the net and be dragged to safety. The actual climax was much more interesting and exciting.

The end of the book saw a return to the sensational narrative style of the beginning. The author seems to have a good grasp of the real world, though, with the media intruding everywhere, and the bureaucracy of large institutions.

The book was neatly divided into character and plot, although for most of it, there was a lack of both. MacAllister was very annoying at first, and somewhat afterwards, as well. But he is the one who grew the most, I think. He came to appreciate what people could do under stress, and he proved himself very capable, a quick thinker, and even a hero. He was completely honest about how he saw the world, no matter what it cost people. I loved his brutal honesty in the paragraphs that preceded every chapter.

Nightingale had one character trait, and that was as a coward -nothing to be ashamed of, as far as I'm concerned. Blacking out when those birds attacked him in the Prologue is quite natural, as is not wanting to jump out of the broken elevator. He did manage to hold on to Hutch when she didn't catch the net, and get her secured when they pulled the zero-G maneuver.

We even got a little dissent, as the scientists, who had based their life's work on the collision, became upset at the missed opportunity caused by the rescue. They felt that a few lives was worth the scientific information they would glean from the impact. In fact, since the rescue was planned and timed to the second, I thought they they could have created another schedule for immediately after the rescue. Their ship was not involved after the scoop started coming out of the atmosphere, and it could have easily been commanded to move to the ideal spots for scientific observation.

This author seems to enjoy giving us worlds where he doesn't have to work much in creating cultures. All three books that I've read do this, especially this one and Ancient Shores. I was actually surprised to get a solution to the cultural dichotomy we see here.

I was also impressed by the science involved all throughout the book, especially from the orbital team. I might not have understood all of it, but most of what was discussed had a great use at one point or another.

The cover to the book is really cool, though the artist is taking a very liberal approach. Morgan's world (the rogue gas giant) was never seen except at half-phase from the planet, and only visible at night, which is not when the lander crash happened. The planet didn't become desolate until much later. And what's with the fire surrounding Morgan's world? It was barely affected at all.

This definitely wasn't a bad book, but wasn't very interesting, except for the very end. Hutch appears in another couple of books, which I might read in the future. I have not been tremendously impressed with this author, but he has some really neat ideas, which are worth the time spent, I think.


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