The Engines of God
Jack McDevitt has published eighteen or so novels, but until last week, I had only read the Alex Benedict ones. To branch out, I jumped into his other major series, the Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins books, which got underway with 1994’s The Engines of God. McDevitt mixes and matches several SF tropes in this one, tosses in his usual mix of history, ethics, and action, and seems to have created a durable universe. Engines combines the Big Mysterious Object, or in this case, several Mysterious Objects of Varying Size, the Fermi Paradox, Elder Galactic Races, and a dash of environmental warning. (The Fermi Paradox, for those not compulsively up to date on their SF terminology, is the question of why, if there is life out there, we haven’t seen any sign of it yet.)
The book is episodic, as the mystery unfolds in three or four vaguely connected parts. McDevitt’s structure is both a strength and weakness of the book. By spreading things out in the story, he makes it closer to real life. Not many of us have the luxury of pursuing something single-mindedly until it reaches a satisfying conclusion; there are soccer games and piano lessons, phone calls to relatives, emergencies at work, colds and sniffles, and whatever thousand other things suck away time during the day. Any book that allows the protagonist to bulldoze through the narrative with nary a delay is clearly unrealistic, so taking Hutch on a roundabout course over several months is much closer to how one of us would solve a similar mystery. It also gives the reader a tour of Hutch’s universe and lets us see places that may or may not be directly related to the mystery at hand.
On the other hand, there are reasons why most books keep a more direct, condensed line of narration. Long time readers will know that my tastes tend towards a certain economy of prose and storytelling. I am not generally a fan of florid writing or in-depth, multi-volume world building (except for those times when I am). Engines is a pretty diffuse book. Bits and pieces of the bigger story are spread around several planets, each of which has its own side story. The mystery is always present, but not always the main event. Things finally center in on the MOVS (Mysterious Objects of Varying Size) for the last part of the book, with a corresponding jump in excitement and interest. In some ways this reminds me of a less stylized Revelation Space, another book that dabbles in almost identical themes at a similarly slow pace.
McDevitt’s commitment to realism via context is a hallmark of his novels. While the mystery always drives the plot, the characters are constantly aware of a recent political scandal, the rising price of bread, or the results of last night’s playoff match. Further, there are rarely any Bad Guys in his novels. There are antagonists, to be sure, misguided or dishonest people, or just people with a different agenda from the point of view character. The events in Engines play themselves out against a backdrop of other concerns, as everyone staggers blindly toward whatever resolution is to be found. From reading interviews and essays, I gather that this is a conscious choice McDevitt makes, both for artistic reasons and because he wants his characters to be recognizable to the hoi polloi.
This is admirable, though it sometimes comes at the expense of momentum. The book is not short on action or suspense, but it is generally incidental to the main story. Excitement and answers finally converge at the end, though the answers are only partial and leave much room for future exploration. The answer is satisfactory, as these sorts of things go, but I will have to keep reading the series to find out what McDevitt chooses to do with it. (I suppose this was also a conscious decision.) I cited Revelation Space earlier for similarities in execution; Engines also has a hint of Greg Benford’s Galactic Center sequence. I like the first Hutch book more than the first Galactic book by a comfortable margin, though it echoes Benford’s use of two full novels to introduce the arc he hangs the remaining books on.
So in the end, I was left with an appetizer. Engines is a good book, but it’s not McDevitt’s best. I’m assuming based on word of mouth that the series picks up steam. I plan on reading the next couple to find out and will report accordingly; this alone rates it higher than several other first volumes I’ve read. Taken by itself, I was left wanting more, in context it may yet prove to be brilliant. Stay tuned.
Rating: Some pre-season Cup tournament. Just enough to whet the appetite, but not yet going full bore to victory.