Jack McDevitt,
Deepsix
(Eos, 2002)

Writing in 1953, Isaac Asimov used the picturesque terms "chess game" and "chess puzzle" as categories into which science fiction stories could be placed. The rationale was that every chess game begins with a fixed number of pieces in a fixed position, and the pieces change position according to a fixed set of rules. The analogy to SF narrative, while not perfect, is straightforward: the rules by which the pieces move are equated with the current fundamental socio-economic environment of humanity (i.e. city culture, family system, emotions of love, hate, lust and so on). On the other hand, "chess puzzle" stories, like chess puzzles themselves, offer contrived or bizarre positions to be played out. Thus, puzzle stories contain "supermen," mutants and the like.

All the above is by way of saying that Deepsix is a "chess game" novel, one set in the early 23rd century when faster-than-light technology allows humankind to explore planets orbiting distant stars. So far only one comparatively primitive civilization has been found, as well as archeological remains from others.

In the recent past, planetary exploration of the eponymous Deepsix resulted in the deaths of some expedition members after an attack by native wildlife. The planet, believed never to have supported intelligent life, was thereafter declared off limits and exploration ceased.

But Deepsix is nevertheless fated to yield mankind an opportunity (a "once in the species-lifetime opportunity") to study up-close the collision of a planet with a rogue star. Scientists, every sensor strained, assemble in orbit around the planet to watch, and with them come tourist and media camp followers. The scientists worry about their personal standing and reputation among their peers, the captain of the luxury ship worries about his standing with the tourism company, the journalists worry about getting their big story. In other words, there is a fairly typical cross section of humanity, and of course things do not go according to plan.

As the hour of the planet's destruction approaches, a race develops to rescue members of an expedition that circumstances have contrived to trap on the surface. A human drama unfolds in which there is death, courage, tenacious friendship, love, ambition and treachery. Without a doubt, Deepsix is a top-notch adventure yarn that builds to a nail-biting and satisfying conclusion. But it is much more than this. Consider this exchange between two of the characters, prompted by what they find as they hurriedly explore the planet.

"But their civilization's gone. Everything of consequence that they ever did is lost. Every piece of knowledge. Every act of generosity or courage. Every philosophical debate. It's as if none of it ever happened."

"Does it matter?" she asked.

This passage made me pause because it reminded me strongly of something I had read previously as to why any SF novel deserving of the name can never be simply an adventure story. Seeing as this review of Deepsix began by citing one of the "greats" of the genre, let it finish by quoting another. Writing in 1967, C.S. Lewis wrote the following on the subject of science fiction:

"If we were on board ship and there was trouble among the stewards, I can just conceive their chief spokesman looking with disfavour on anyone who stole away from the fierce debates in the saloon or pantry to take a breather on deck. For up there, he would taste the salt, he would see the vastness of the water, he would remember that the ship has a whither and whence. He would remember things like fog, storms, and ice. What has seemed, in the hot, lighted rooms down below to be merely the scene for a political crisis, would appear once more as a tiny eggshell moving rapidly through the immense darkness over an element in which man cannot live. It would not necessarily change his conviction about the rights and wrongs of the dispute down below, but it would probably show them in a new light. It could hardly fail to remind him that the stewards were taking for granted hopes more momentous than that of a rise in pay, and the passengers forgetting dangers more serious than that of having to cook and serve their own meals."

Read Deepsix and follow the adventure of a group of people as they face exceptional danger while dealing with those ordinary doubts and ambiguities that beset all humans. But read this book also and let Jack McDevitt persuade you to take a breather on that outside deck. Certainly you could not be in better company.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 9 March 2002



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