Omega, by Jack McDevitt
Time for another review. Omega is the fourth book in the sequence started by Engines of God; I’m sad to say that it’s also the last that’s at all rewarding to read. It’s a work that contains some interesting ideas, and also some very frustrating ones.
My review is under the cut; because of the basic premise of Omega, it contains spoilers for Engines. There’s arguably one in the title(!), so proceed with this in mind…
The conclusion to Engines of God saw the discovery of the so-called ‘omega clouds’. These things present as miniature nebulae, but are far too small to be an actual nebula (there wouldn’t be enough internal gravity within the gas to hold it together at any temperature, let alone when they’re in close proximity to stars). However, omega cloud behaviour is, shall we say, challenging to physical law – they can pull right-angle turns without any apparent thrust and they’re capable of enveloping targeted planets and bombarding their surfaces with meteors.
Omega clouds appear to select their targets based on the presence of lots of right angles on a world’s surface, and they are able to make these selections whilst still at astronomical distances from the planets in question.
Basically, the net effect is that the clouds target and destroy civilisations.
The clouds are, of course, the causative agent for the 8,000-year social-collapse cycles seen on many separate worlds in Engines. And Earth’s due its (next) visit around the year 3,000. The clouds move through the galaxy in distinct waves, and each wave is dense enough that there’s no realistic chance of the Solar System being by-passed.
As for the clouds themselves, they do not respond to attempts to communicate. Their behaviour seems artificial, but there is no evidence of a guiding intelligence – or if there is a mind, it’s of some highly alien and incomprehensible variety. The only interaction the clouds have with the ‘lesser’ races of the galaxy is to attack them. Attempts to destroy the clouds themselves have been uniform failures; they cannot be reasoned with, cannot be fought and – so far as anyone can tell – cannot be stopped.
Significantly, when the Cholois (the alien inhabitants of Beta Pacifica III, and also the so-called ‘Monument Makers’ from the first book) came to understand the nature of the cloud threat, the way their society reacted was to attempt to flee the galaxy. (They seem to have believed that the Magellanic Clouds were free of omegas; we never find out whether the Cholois extra-galactic migration was a success, but the 30,000 year silence is … worrying, shall we say?) The Cholois were the most technologically-advanced culture to exist within this part of the galaxy; if they couldn’t fight the clouds, then what hope does humanity have?
Bleakly, in Engines, it is suggested that the clouds are actually a mechanism to suppress the evolution of dominant species.
Near the start of Omega, a human survey vessel is shadowing one of the clouds, in a probably-futile research effort. However, the crew get the surprise of their lives when the cloud abruptly diverts itself, toward a nearby planetary system.
And then the research crew make a bigger, even more horrifying discovery: one of the planets is in the biozone. And guess what? There’s a civilisation there. But their level of technology is roughly that of the Roman Empire.
The aliens are utterly defenceless against what’s coming toward them…
What I liked
There, above, you have the really interesting thing about the novel. It’s Clarke’s Law warped, inverted and turned inside out – Clarke’s Law being the one that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Only, in this case, the technology is human, and it’s not sufficiently advanced. In fact the general inadequacy of human tech is a plot point.
Human tech is far in advance of the aliens’, but human tech is still useless next to the mindless power of the clouds.
But there’s more. You’re familiar, I’m sure, with the trope about a hapless endangered society needing rescue from superior aliens? Well, here we’ve got it backwards – the aliens need rescue, and the sufficiently-advanced aliens are, umm, us.
Yup, the aliens are fucked six ways from Sunday.
This is, of course, the future depicted in Engines, where Earth has food riots, power cuts, splotches of rust everywhere, corrupt politics and lots of climate change.
The aliens do luck out in one single aspect; they’ve had the incredible foresight and good taste to evolve into a form that looks cute on television. One suspects that if they looked like talking slugs, Omega would have been a much shorter book! The televisual cuteness of the so-called ‘Goompahs’ is basically the key factor that galvanises enough public support on Earth for any kind of intervention. Whilst this is certainly a cynical take on things, I suspect it’s a pretty realistic assessment too. Given how miserable and ungenerous we frequently are to each other, it’s hard to see that we’d be much nicer to any other species.
However, there is no symmetry. Human anatomy, to the Goompahs, is the stuff of nightmares. We’ve had the bad luck to evolve in such a way that we resemble a demonic monster from Goompah mythology. This obviously poses some practical problems for any putative meeting of minds.
There’s also another interesting question in this novel, and that’s how exactly do you go about saving a society without also changing it beyond recognition? There is also a moral question posed by the state of human affairs – if this is the mess that we make even of our own civilisation, then do we have any right to go and interfere in anyone else’s? Even if we think we’re doing good – especially when we think we’re doing good, because what if the cure is worse than the disease?
Any human intervention in Goompah society will end up leaving a mark, and our own record for dealing with less-advanced societies on Earth is … not encouraging, shall we say?
What I found problematic
Now we get to the frustrating aspects of this novel. There are quite a few of them.
First of all, the Tewkesbury subplot implicitly contradicts the first book. Since all clouds apparently travel with an accompanying ‘hedgehog’ (a small body that’s a mass of right angles, and thus acts as a sort of “pilot fish” for the cloud), why didn’t the Cholois ever notice any of them? The Cholois had the astronomy and space travel capacity required, and plenty of time. And the hedgehogs are confirmed to have the power to destroy a cloud, since a hedgehog is packed full of antimatter … so why didn’t the Cholois take this option? They could have saved their homeworld, and also Quraqua, Nok and all the others. And since the Cholois went to the trouble of building all the Monuments as lures, to try and draw the clouds away from targeted worlds, they clearly did care enough to try.
Frankly, the hedgehogs do feel a bit like a bad retcon.
That said, the idea of the clouds as an artistic installation was an interesting idea. It’s probably as good an explanation as any – presumably the attacking-random-planets thing is basically an unintended side-effect. Or, possibly, a breathtakingly sociopathic piece of performance art.
(One of the later books proposes a different story. That book, however, goes under Fanon Discontinuity for me, on account of it just not being very good.)
In addition, there are the dropped leads from the rest of the books. What about the terraforming operation on Quraqua? The implication is that it’s been abandoned, but this is never addressed in any way. (IIRC, Quraqua is briefly mentioned in the second book, but never again.) The issue of the hawks and their space elevator at Deepsix is never mentioned again, either. (In fairness the actual physical destruction of Deepsix when it collided with the rogue Jupiter Morgan at the end of Book Two probably didn’t help.) Whilst these problems aren’t specific to this book alone, their presence is a nag on the rest of the series.
The matter of humanity’s ugliness to aliens is never addressed beyond noting its presence. Apparently the fact that we look like the aliens’ demons is just plain old bad luck.
The eventual solution to the Goompah intervention dilemma felt weak. I’ll be honest, I didn’t like it. Admittedly this partly down to my own ideological biases, and readers who are more sympathetic to organised religion may feel happier with it. But, I can’t help but think that staging a divine manifestation will have some pretty nasty social side-effects. What’s the betting that twenty years later, the Goompah Church is running an Inquisition to hunt down the heretics who angered the gods by summoning the T’Klot from the sky?
Also, even with everything that’s been done, the cloud still trashed the Goompahs’ cities and roads. Granted a lot more of them survived than would have happened otherwise, heeding the warning of the 3d-holographic “gods”, but how are they going to cope with their farming fields wrecked, their buildings in ruins and their infrastructure torn down?
Granted, an offstage famine probably roughly fits in with life in the Omega-verse, but one can’t help but think that maybe the interfering aliens could have done a bit better. They could at least have dropped some tents or something.
(Oh wait, the aliens are us, aren’t they? Okay, maybe staging a fancy lightshow actually is the literal limit of what use we could be.)
((Also by implication, the conclusion is going to have the side-effect of ruining Macao’s life and career, which is a bit harsh for her. We’re told explicitly that the divine manifestation has challenged her rationalist worldview, and her final passages do read a bit like the opening stages of a nervous breakdown.))
I haven’t yet said much about the book’s characters because, to be honest, they’re pretty forgettable. This is sad, as one of McDevitt’s strengths has been creating believable characters who you actually care about. The Goompah characters weren’t that engaging, either. They read more like stripped-down humans than actual aliens, to be brutally honest. There was no real sense of otherness, but there was a sort of irritating vagueness to some of them.
Also, I think there was an issue with the pacing in this book. Despite the fascinating premise, it wasn’t quite the page-turner than Engines was.
I’d say this one is worth reading if you’re engaged in the rest of the series, and if you have a tolerance for weak endings. There are some interesting ideas here and stuff to think over. However, sadly, it’s not a ringing follow-up to the rest of the series.