Jack McDevitt,
Infinity Beach
(HarperPrism, 2000)

Nearly a decade ago, Jack McDevitt published a novel titled The Engines of God, a wonderfully exciting space opera that convinced me this was an author to watch. As Stephen King has said, "Jack McDevitt is that splendid rarity, a writer who is a storyteller first and a science fiction writer second." Since the publication of The Engines of God, McDevitt has crafted stories that run the gamut of science fiction themes from time travel to post-apocalypse. But in the selection of books I managed to read in the intervening years, Ancient Shores, Eternity Road and his short fiction collection Standard Candles, I never found the intense spark that so captured my imagination in The Engines of God. That is, until I read Infinity Beach.

Infinity Beach is set on the planet Greenway, one of nine worlds humanity has settled. It tells the tale of Dr. Kimberly Brandywine, an astrophysicist whose career has strayed as a result of her talent for PR and fundraising. Brandywine has been busy championing an ambitious project known as Beacon. The plan is to explode a series of three stars in such a way that an alien observer will know this to be an artificial event, the product of a technologically advanced society, a signal of a desire for contact. Humanity has thus far failed to uncover any sign of a celestial race, has in fact failed to find even a trace of life anywhere it has managed to explore. And hope of ever encountering an alien intelligence is waning.

The quest for a first contact is a Brandywine family obsession. Kim's sister Emily disappeared and is presumed to have died immediately following her return from a failed mission to explore nearby star systems likely to harbor life. Or was the Hunter mission a failure? An old teacher and friend of Kim's raises the disturbing possibility that the crew of the Hunter covered up the biggest scientific discovery of the age. And so the quest for the truth is launched.

In Kim Brandywine, McDevitt has created a superb central character. He's given her drive and ambition, qualities that have been stymied as a result of the unsatisfying twists her career has taken. He's also given her a nicely balancing sense of fatalistic pessimism. Brandywine is a fully realized character around whom McDevitt spins a plot that tests her resolve, stamina and integrity. It's a plot with plenty of action and adventure but it doesn't devolve into the sort of gratuitous violence that too many authors depend on to propel their space operas. There's a strong cast of supporting characters and enough worldbuilding and history to lift Greenway off the page as much more than a simple backdrop. And, perhaps most remarkably, McDevitt has done all this in less than 450 pages. No small feat.

Since Infinity Beach McDevitt has produced several more well received novels (DeepSix in 2001, Chindi in 2002) so I think it's time to head off to the book store to catch up on my reading.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 14 June 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.