Engines of God, by Jack McDevitt
This is a book that has a special place in my heart. I read “Engines of God”, whilst still at secondary school, and was completely blown away by it. Surprisingly, it stood up to subsequent re-reads, as recently as 2013 in fact. (Yes, it’s that rarest of things – a teenage fave that’s still a fave as an adult!)
I can definitely recommend the first four books in the series. (The later ones, unfortunately, I like less, so I won’t be talking about them here. Also, books 1 and 2 are the best, #3 is weak in its second half and #4 feels like two different novels that have been bolted together in an odd way.)
So, here’s a review of the first book, “Engines of God”.
I highly recommend this one 🙂
(Also, I suspect that EoG may have been an influence on the Mass Effect series, for reasons that will become apparent in the review.)
It’s the early 23rd Century and faster than light travel is a reality. However, so is climate change, disease, economic disruption and social instability. The Earth is a mess. The hurricane season runs from January to the following December and the low-lying land is all underwater. At some point the old US government collapsed, and was replaced by the North American Union (apparently Canada and Mexico had to jointly step in to salvage the wreckage, before it spilled over their own borders). Europe is in an even worse state (Paris saw food riots in the year before the novel) and the bone disease CORE is cutting a swathe through Africa. Oh, and there’ve been some recent cases in the NAU, too. With the demise of the permafrost, Siberia and Nunavut are bulk exporters of grain and the species extinction rate has just gone up *again*. (Meanwhile the World Council’s ecological foundation is caught up in a scandal over funds that have somehow gone missing. Evidently, human venality remains as prevalent as it ever was.)
Basically, to paraphrase Clarke, the future is insufficiently advanced. There are some shiny new machines, but the future also has chipped paint, flickering lights and little spots of rust. A lot of people think society is on its way down, and for the final time.
Quaraqua is one of the very few known inhabitable planets. It’s also the only plausible candidate for terraforming, which the company Kosmik Inc. have proposed to do. However, Quaraqua was also once inhabited – its native intelligent species went extinct at roughly the same time as our Industrial Revolution. But, the Quaraquans’ ruins are still there, and a team of archaeologists are working against time to study what remains, before the first of Kosmik’s incoming snowballs erase the past forever.
Priscilla Hutchins – Hutch, to her friends – is a pilot for the scientific organisation known as the Academy. She’s sent to Quaraqua as part of the operation to extract Richard Wald and his fellow researchers. However, a chance find has led to a stunning discovery. It appears that the various sequential collapses of civilisation on Quaraqua were happening to a regular and predictable schedule. Time’s running out, but the archaeologists don’t want to go!
Hutch and colleagues quickly discover that the situation is darker than it looks. Because it’s not just Quaraqua that’s having metronomic societal collapses. They’ve been happening on Pinnacle and Nok as well. One planet is coincidence, two is weird and three is looking like a pattern. But there’s even worse to come, when it’s realised that the collapse-cycles matches up with the new dates for Sodom and Gomorrah.
Whatever it is that’s happening, Earth is not immune.
Just what is going on? An alien invasion? Lovecraftian forces? Divine intervention? Desperate for answers, Hutch and her allies have to venture into the unknown, and what they find there is beyond any of their expectations.
WHAT I LIKED
Pretty much everything 🙂 This book is both a “Big Ideas” piece and a page-turner. It also puts scientific discovery on centre-stage and avoids descending into any of the usual traps of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism.
In addition, despite being written in the early 90s, it has a female heroine who avoids falling into any of the usual cliche traps. Hutch is well-rounded and has all the sorts of insecurities and anxieties that real people have. She’s also her own person – whilst she has human attachments, they don’t derail the plot and they don’t degenerate her into any kind of “male crutch”. Also, the book is refreshingly free of all the various sub-species of Bad Sex. Given that SF does have a bit of a problem with that, this was welcome.
I liked the universe in EoG. Whilst it can be depressing sometimes, EoG’s future does feel like a plausible extrapolation. The later books walk back the apocalypticness a bit – apparently things weren’t quite as bad as they looked in EoG [Fn. 1]. But, EoG does create a powerfully-evocative sense of a society teetering on the brink. It also sets up the conflict that drives the novel – when things are this bad, do we really have time to worry about abstractions like historical knowledge? Kosmik’s behaviour is dickish – Ian Helm in particular stands out there – but there is a defensible thesis underneath their actions.
Also, despite the title, the book manages to avoid the trap of knee-jerk teleology that some authors fall into. This is a bit of a hot-button issue for me. (That Ending Episode in NuBSG was so bad for me that it retrospectively broke the series – I actually can’t watch it now, because I know all my buttons are being mashed into the keypad. At least we avoided that with ME3, so there was *one* bullet dodged there…)
In addition, the book also takes anthropogenic climate change seriously. There is an unfortunate streak in SF, which we might call the fair-weather friends of science, in which climate change is denied/ignored/declared a lie. Ironically, many of these same people then try to blame it on the Sun, without apparently realising that’s far, far WORSE [Fn. 2]. So it’s nice to see it get a sensible and plausible treatment here. It doesn’t lead to a very happy world, granted, but climate change won’t lead to a happy world.
WHAT COULD BE PROBLEMATIC
EoG does get through its characters at quite a rate. Whilst it’s not true that *anyone* can die, it does feel like that sometimes. This is definitely an entropic universe; whilst we’re not quite on Stephen Baxter rules here, nonetheless things break and people die.
The ending is – how to put this without spoilers? – rather open. We get an answer of sorts, but it doesn’t really nail anything down.
Also – and you have to be me to be nagged by this – while the science in the novel is fairly strong, the fictional space drive is pure Plot Devicium. It’s very good at working smoothly when it needs to and failing randomly when it needs to. Significantly, we’re never given any hint as to how Hazeltine engines work, except that they supposedly need a finite interval to ‘charge’ between hyperspace jumps.
Also, whilst this book is actually pretty OK on gender, I don’t recall it dealing much with sexuality. In fairness, romance isn’t a major plot point here, but I can’t recall there being many non-hetero characters, and there are enough that you would have expected at least *someone*. (EDIT: see the errata at the end! I was wrong!)
Read this if you like the thought of a page-turner based around a scientific and historical mystery. Read this if you like a dystopian edge to your fiction. However, if high levels of character death make you uncomfortable, then that may be an issue.
Amendment & Erratum
It’s interesting what you find when you re-read books. Based on a re-read, I need to declare an erratum on my review.
Things being what they are in life right now, I felt I needed some comfort reading. So I decided to re-read “Engines of God” – hence also my recent review of it.
Now, at the time, I commented on what I recalled as a lack of representation of non-vanilla-hetero sexualities. I wasn’t particularly critical over this – after all, EoG was written in the early 90s, and for gender and sexual issues, the 90s may as well have been a different planet. And the book does do pretty well on having meaningful female characters, passing the Bechdel Test and avoiding the sort of “deep fail” that science fiction sometimes has with respect to the topic of sex. Given that it’s better than a lot of stuff that’s being written right now, I didn’t see the need to go to town over one single issue.
Well, on re-reading it, I noticed something I’d never picked up on before: Hutch is bisexual.
No, really, she is. And this is from a book written before 1995 – bisexual invisibility is still quite a problem even today, in 2015. I don’t how I’d missed it – while the book doesn’t quite flash up a neon sign saying HUTCH IS BI!!!, it’s not particularly subtle either.
But what’s really interesting is the way it’s presented. It’s all matter-of-fact and, well, ordinary. There’s no suggestion that there’s anything odd or unusual about this – rather, it’s just another feature of Hutch’s personality. I think this normalisation might be why I sailed right past it before. There’s no monstering, there’s no other-ing, there’s no “OMG guyz this is weirdzz”, rather it just is.
Did I mention this book was published in 1994? Umm, wow.
Fn. 1 In particular, the anti-gravity research project is revealed to have *succeeded*. In EoG, one of the researchers tells Hutch that the project is actually a crock – the scientists know it won’t work, but they need the research grant to carry on eating. I headcanon this one under the file called “blatherings of a disgruntled postdoc”.
Fn. 2 In principle, we can do something about an industrially-borked atmosphere. If the Sun is broken in some way, though, then words cannot describe how utterly and truly fucked we are.