Friday, May 06, 2022

Book Review: "The Engines of God" by Jack McDevitt

The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt (Ace, 1994)

I forget when and where I picked up this paperback, perhaps from a nearby Little Library in the neighborhood because it has a used book store price sticker on the back cover. The front cover was detaching slightly, so I repaired it using some packing tape. (DIY bookbinding for the win!) I imagine I picked it up because of the cover lines comparing it to Rendezvous with Rama and mentioning “artifacts of alien intelligence,” and the cover art depicting a relatively large sculpture of alien craftsmanship. (I would have preferred not having that image of one of the alien races so McDevitt’s writing was the only guide I had to imagine.) Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and its sequels written with Gentry Lee rank among my favorite books of all time, and I was intrigued by the potential of this novel. I was not disappointed.

The book, the first in McDevitt’s eight-book The Academy series, features a heroic pilot named Priscilla Hutchins, “Hutch,” as she helps a number of scientists explore and examine several alien archaeological digs on planets toward the Sagittarius Arm and galactic center, including Beta Pacifica III, Nok, Pinnacle, and Quraqua. Set at the turn of the 23rd century, life on Earth is increasingly challenging, and corporations are identifying and exploring other planets to terraform and populate with earthlings. Discovering not just alien sculptures and monuments, archaeologists also discover a temple, which contains artwork connecting the remains of two alien societies perhaps 20,000 years old—and what might be a key to their language and iconography.

Over the course of the book, Hutch and the scientists from the Academy learn more about the alien races and cultures—finding an enormous orbital satellite dish and strangely antique abandoned space station—and identify what might have caused the decline of the societies. The book ends with the suggestion that that catastrophe might eventually reach Earth, setting up the other books in the series intriguingly.

It’s a wonderful read. Hutch is a compelling heroine, and there are plenty of smart, heartful people trying to solve big problems using science and technology. The romantic interludes and suggested pairings are compelling. The light comedy and pranks are humorous. The corporate, political, and economic underpinnings of the setting are detailed. And the alien archaeology and artifact aspects—while not directly parallel to Rama (this book’s scope and aperture is slightly larger given that the aliens are somewhat humanoid)—are excellent and portrayed at scale.

Highly recommended. If the subsequent volumes are as good as this novel, an unexpected and enjoyable find, The Academy is a series and an organization worth following.

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