Jack McDevitt,
The Engines of God
(Ace, 1995)

I hold Jack McDevitt's writing in high regard and enjoy his science-fiction epics a great deal. While his writing can become somewhat formulaic, The Engines of God provides further proof that the man knows how to tell a good story.

This novel is the first to feature renowned pilot Priscilla Hutchinson ("Hutch"), a character who has suffered some tragic misfortunes over the course of her career. The story is built around the mysterious Monument Makers. Saturn's moon Iapetus houses the first such monument discovered by mankind, a mysterious, winged ice sculpture bearing an indecipherable inscription. Its existence fuels the search for more monuments, of which a good dozen are located throughout the galaxy. Following in the footsteps of unknown cosmic entities is as close as mankind has come to interacting with intelligent life elsewhere.

On Earth, the ecology has progressed beyond the point of no return, and man is looking outward for new earths to be populated. One possible site is Quaraqua, where an alien civilization has already collapsed. The Academy struggles to learn as much as possible about this society underneath the waters of the planet at a site dubbed the Temple of the Winds. Hutch is sent to evacuate the scientists before a terraforming project destroys whatever priceless knowledge lies hidden in the watery depths. For me, this first section of the book was the most exciting. Afterwards, having detected an unusual radio signal, Hutch and several others journey to a more distant system, following the path left by the Monument Makers. They finally end up on yet a third planetary body seeking factual data on the mystical "engines of God" alluded to in alien scripts discovered and interpreted along the way.

The plot started to collapse in on itself slightly in the second half of the book. On moons orbiting many important planetary sites are huge, fake cities (dubbed Oz) laid out in obsessively straight lines and right angles that have suffered serious charring at times of planetary catastrophe from an unknown source. Apparently, the inexplicable cosmic force at work here has an innate attraction to linear geometries -- this part of the story, which becomes very important toward the end, seemed a little ludicrous to me. Another thing that bothers me is that, aside from Hutch, the other characters who survived until the end seemed to be the least important and inscrutable of the bunch. McDevitt has no qualms about sacrificing major characters at any time and in any way; it's refreshing to see an author take such liberties, but it is sometimes slightly frustrating to finally get to know a character and then see him/her dispensed with rather arbitrarily.

This leads to another weakness in the novel. I did not think the character development was very good, especially for Hutch. McDevitt always seems to want to add a touch of romance and smoldering desires to his books, and in this case it detracts from my admiration for Hutch. She is a brave, heroic woman, yet she seemingly cannot go on a mission anywhere in the universe without at least one former or hopefully future love interest. McDevitt doesn't handle this type of emotional content well here and it detracts from a great story.

I think this book made McDevitt a better writer. The flaws that seem to stand out in this effort are much less prominent in his later novels. I felt pretty good about this particular plot up until the fourth and final section; at that point, some of the science seemed to fall apart, and the ultimate conclusion comes off as improbable and anticlimactic. Some of the decisions made on all sides along the way are criminal and oftentimes juvenile, and the same mistakes (such as the continued unarmed exploration of potentially hostile alien worlds) have a way of repeating themselves over and over again. I remained incapable of buying into the supposed purpose of the strangely hewn alien Oz sites, and since the final chapters' activity was based around a scientific interpretation of those sites' significance, the final pages left me somewhat nonplussed. Flawed as this novel is, though, it is certainly a science-fiction adventure worth taking. Hutch is a fascinating woman whose richness and depth do not really come through in these pages as they do in the follow-up novels Deepsix and Chindi, but this is a more than worthwhile introduction to her noble character.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 31 May 2003

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