Every so often, I get on a kick about “hard” science fiction, which is science fiction writing which eschews the easy plot device of using advanced technology to explain away plot holes, and instead tries to ground itself on plausible technology and math. This can vary in its implementation; Charles Stross’ stories are always wildly advanced (e.g. Singularity Sky), but “hard” in the sense that it focuses heavily on technological detail, and uses them to color the story, instead of smoothing away poor writing (e.g. Star Trek).
Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God is often categorized as “hard” science fiction, though I think perhaps the term isn’t quite correct in this case. McDevitt has no qualms about using FTL travel, energy bubbles called “Flickinger fields”, and other handy imagined technology to avoid narrative complications. I think the reason McDevitt is so often called a “hard” science fiction writer is because he is interested less in interstellar wars, laser guns, and ship battles than in xenoarchaeology and politics.
Yes, The Engines of God is a book about archaeology; unlike, say, Indiana Jones, however, the book’s protagonist, Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins, doesn’t do much fighting, there are no Nazis or booby traps, and the pacing is generally more like a PBS documentary than an adventure movie. Most science fiction novels which posit the existence of one or more alien races tend to frame their narratives with humankind’s interaction with said races, for better or worse, and they necessarily do so while these races are not only present, but present in a spatially-proximate way, if you catch my drift. McDevitt, in contrast, writes about a universe which was historically full of intelligent alien civilizations, but which is now largely empty insofar as the human race has determined, with the exception of a pretechnological race.
At the heart of the novel is a monument found on Iapetus, a moon of Saturn. An ice statue of a winged, bipedal creature unmistakeably reptilian in appearance (see the book’s cover) is surrounded by a single set of footprints. No one is quite sure what to make of it, including pilot and amateur xenoarchaeologist Hutch. This is a clear nod to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which sets the discovery of the alien monolith on Iapetus1. It is the item which awakens humanity to the existence of other forms of life in the universe; alas, in the many years since its discovery, it goes from being a find of monumental and popular importance to being a niche subject of academics. So blasé are dead alien worlds that the discovery of others doesn’t particular phase the pencil-pushers on Earth, which is running into its own devastating problems with overpopulation and pollution. When the greatest discovery yet on a moon of a world called Quraqua, which links that world to the “Monument Makers” of Iapetus, is found, it doesn’t stop the Powers That Be from continuing with a plan to terraform said world by nuking the polar ice caps. Enter a boogie-man of the soulless Earth corporation, requisite jeers, whose participation peaks at this point midway through the book and then which disappears entirely.
By dint of discovery of skullwork, the story’s archeologist protagonists have figured out that no fewer than three different worlds with some undefined relationship with the Iapetus monument-makers experienced sudden cataclysms which apparently destroyed their civilizations; what’s more, these cataclysms occurred at 8’000-year intervals, too neat to be coincidence either to McDevitt’s heroes or his readers. The second half of the novel begins with yet another expedition to a far-flung corner of the galaxy, hits a wall with an prolonged, artificial emergency (that is meaningless in the narrative), and continues with the discovery of yet another world, another cataclysm, and another adventure involving Hutch and her crew that is simultaneously important, devastating, and completely irrelevant: an army of native crab-like creatures on said planet which also happen to be quite deadly, but are otherwise unrelated to the larger search for the monument makers.
Remember the opening gambit in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones runs away from—among other things—a large boulder? It lasted all of 15 seconds or so, and despite its iconic nature, it was little more than a blip in the overall film. What if the boulder-chase sequence had lasted for 30 minutes? Oh, the passage would twist; perhaps there would be a brief interlude showing Indy’s partner waiting in his seaplane; but would the sequence be interesting or iconic if it lasted much longer than it should have? Clearly, the answer is an empathic No!, but this is the same phenomenon at work in the second half—especially—of The Engines of God. The problem with basing the central narrative on archaeology and an alien culture than is not alive and not coming back is that it gets awfully boring without action and tension. McDevitt’s solution to this very obvious problem is to throw violent impediments in the way of the archaeologists, but these last too long and ask too much of the reader, and become distractions rather than highlights in the narrative. Even the book’s grand climax isn’t much of one: the “answer” to these lost civilizations is not a gun-bristling showdown; it’s not a sudden revelation as the camera zooms in on Hutch’s surprised face; it doesn’t even “answer” much of anything. I know McDevitt prefers to leave a lot to his readers’ imaginations (the best writers do), but there’s such a thing as leaving too much to the imagination, and the result is a book wherein nothing particularly revelatory happens.
The Engines of God is the first entry in an informal series of books surrounding Hutch; I happen to know that McDevitt revisits the topic of its “climax” in a later book of this series (Omega, 2003). Perhaps that book is more satisfactory, but that doesn’t stop The Engines of God from being a good attempt at cerebral-meets-pulpy science fiction that merely limps along to its desultory conclusion.
- Clarke spells it Japetus, but this is a transliteration issue. The original Greek is Ιαπετός (Iapetos), and was a minor Greek god. When the pantheon was absorbed into Roman culture and likewise into the Latin language, the word may have undergone similar orthographic forces as the Latin iustus (justice), which gained the letter “J” in French despite retaining soft palatal “Y” sound.[↩]