Fiction Reviews

Slow Lightning

(2000 / 2009) Jack McDevitt, (Harper) Voyager, £7.99, pbk, vi + 540pp, ISBN 978-0-007-33539-8

Published in N. America as Infinity Beach (2000 / 2009) Harper Collins.


Mankind has faster-than-light jump drive, reached the stars and colonised eight worlds.  Yet fundamental science has largely stagnated with no paradigm breaking discoveries for the past few centuries.  Humanity seems to be the sole living technological species in the Galaxy.  With no other extant, star-faring intelligences some feel alone and go hunting for alien civilizations: it is one of the few challenges humanity has left.  One such exploratory space mission, of the ship Hunter from the colony world of Greenway, suffers a small technical fault and so returns, as usual, empty handed.

27 years later and science PR cum fund-raiser for Greenway's Seabright Institute, Kim Brandywine, was promoting the Beacon Project as it was about to detonate the first of six, regularly-timed supernovas over 500 light years away. This – it was be hoped – would signal to any putative technological aliens far away in the Galaxy, that humanity was here in this bit of the spiral arm.

Then Kim received a message from her old university history lecturer, Sheyel Tolliver. Sheyel revealed that he and Kim had another connection than him being her old history teacher: he had a granddaughter Yoshi Amara on the Hunter while Kim had a clone sister, Emily, onboard too,  The thing was that there were a few mysterious aspects to the Hunter's return.  First, Emily simply disappeared: she disembarked and got a cab to a hotel but never arrived.  Second, some days later Yoshi too disappears.  Third, Kile Tripley, who as sponsor had been on the Hunter mission also vanishes. Finally, around the time of Yoshi and Kile's disappearance there was a massive explosion in the mountains above the village in which the Hunter's then captain resided.

These were mysteries never solved and the village later became submerged as a dam failed.  Some, though, liked to spice up the story with rumours of some sort of haunting and mysterious lights in the lake under which the village now lay as well as in the surrounding woods.

Shyel now revealed to Kim that his granddaughter Yoshi had called with a brief message while the Hunter was returning saying that they had 'struck gold'! Shyel is convinced that the Hunter mission had made contact and may even have brought something home.  27 years on, Shyel has a new clue and so asks Kim to help investigate…

McDevitt is an established writer of sci fi adventures mainly in two connected series: the antiques dealer 'Alex Benedict' turned detective series and the 'Academy' series featuring astronaut Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins.  Both the 'Academy' and 'Alex Benedict' series are nominally set in the same universe. 'Nominally' as there appear to be some inconsistencies though the former series have been noted to refer to the latter: the former is set in the year 2230 AD and the latter the year 11,270.  Conversely, Slow Lightening (Infinity Beach in N. America) is set spanning the years 2984 and 3010, and could almost be set in the same universe as the authors two book series but for the fact that humanity appears to be alone in the Galaxy other than for a few alien ruins.

There are also some other inexact resemblances of Slow Lightening universe to both the 'Academy' and 'Alex Benedict' series include humanity having a jump drive and established colony worlds. On these worlds citizens have flying cars, and there is artificial intelligence managing businesses and people homes with the rich and medium-sized business having access to interstellar craft of various sizes.  McDevitt's readers of these series will be very much at home with Slow Lightening, while his new readers – should they enjoy Slow Lightening will find plenty of a similar vein in the author's backlist.

What is a little different is that the detective story adventure with a firm space opera riff occasionally becomes something of an SF horror story with an attacking mysterious entity. (I'll say no more lest that constitute a spoiler.)

I have to say that I don't buy into McDevitt's limits of science narrative (well, as a scientist, I would say that) but this adventure is so engaging I re-read it two decades on with gusto and nary a worry.

This is an accessible story and a great SF romp.  Seek it out second-hand.  Publishers might note that now, a decade on from its last, this one deserves a new reprint. (Indeed publishers might like to check out when McDevitt's backlist last had an airing as his light adventures need introducing to a new generation of SF readers.)

Jonathan Cowie

See also Tony's review of Slow Lightning's first edition.


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