(2013) Jack McDevitt, Headline, £14.99, trdbk, 407pp, ISBN 978-1-472-20755-5
It is 2015 and humanity has only recently indented a faster-than-light star drive that takes you through some kind of hyperspace so fast that you can travel around three light years in a day. The only problem is that navigating out of hyperspace is not a precise exercise and there are also destination velocity and trajectory considerations which typically means that it may take days on arriving within a system to actually reach ones destination. Nonetheless, star systems are days and weeks away and space is opening up. A few planets have already been settled, a (boring) pre-industrial civilisation found, the remains of a number of post-industrial societies uncovered, and some worlds starting to be terra-formed. Indeed, the terraforming of one planet is causing a public stir as the process will disrupt the reasonably developed ecosystems (there are metazoans – multi-celled animals) and undoubtedly drive some of the native species to extinction. Some people are not prepared to simply complain and lobby: they want to take direct action. And so there is a minority who are set to take terrorist action for their cause.
Meanwhile trainee pilot Priscilla Hutchins is on a hopefully final qualifying flight light years from Earth when she and her supervisor receive an emergency call on old-fashioned radio. They arrive nine years too late to the shuttle of a ship that simply vanished ages ago. However they discover that the crew of the ship they were hoping to rescue had had a first contact with a technologically advanced alien species. Barely had they made this discovery when they receive am message from mission control that another ship is in trouble – the victim of terrorist sabotage – and that they being the nearest should go to their aid…
Though this is a stand-alone novel it is actually a prequel to McDevitt's series of stand-alones featuring the space pilot Priscilla (Hutch) Hutchins and for this alone McDevitt fans will certainly lap the novel up.
If you have not come across McDevitt before, he writes futuristic, space-going sci-fi, comfy adventures. Light reads they may be, but you know what you get with McDevitt and they are invariably page-turners and reasonably satisfying too. In fact I would go further and say that they are firmly satisfying provided that one does not have one's expectations set too high: his science background lacks detail, and in this case his Earth system science leaves a lot to be desired. But don't let this put you off. Remember back in the middle of the last (20th) century SF novels would occasionally have the protagonist wield plutonium chains, or have X-rays confer some sort of superpower and other nonsense, and yet we still took this in our stride. These days we like to think we are more sophisticated readers, but still (broadly speaking) many SF writers are decades behind current research: only when a particular generation of authors and readers have already routinely done the science at school will that science dimension become reasonably integrated into new genre books.
Previous books in the Priscilla (Hutch) Hutchins series include Deepsix (2001) which space opera fans should certainly check out, and then we have Omega (2003) and Odyssey (2006). But do check out his other books too, especially his stuff before the turn of the millennium starting with the engaging light, off-world detective novel Slow Lightening (2000).
Now, the reason I recommend his earlier work is that Jack is getting on. At the moment (2014) he must be around 78; it is a sad fact of biological entropy that probably the man's best work is now behind him. Indeed this shows in Starhawk which picks up and discards major SF tropes without giving us the chance to properly appreciate them. And so chapter one looks at first contact before we move on in chapter two to a terrorist incident… etc. Now please don't let this put you off. Jack's works are invariably light reads, but as light reads they are rather cracking; occasionally we all need a break and a change of pace. Also Jack has written some decidedly above-average work and I would certainly recommend his first novel – which he must have written roughly turning 50 years old -- The Hercules Text (1986) that won a Locus Award for Best First Novel as well as a Philip K. Dick special award. Headline have recently re-released much of McDevitt's back list and you are encouraged to seek them out on the Headline publishing website.
Returning to Starhawk, a page-turning light tale will be what most will get. However, those familiar with the other books in the Hutch series will encounter some very familiar names: this is not just an introduction to Priscilla (Hutch) Hutchins but also her universe.
The back cover sees endorsements from Harlan Ellison as well as Greg Benford. That such accomplished, stalwart SF writers should lend their backing to McDevitt may at first seem strange. But please don't mistake McDevitt's light, superficial style of his later works for his failing to bring something to the SF table. Remember writers such as, say the great Asimov, were not exactly big on complexity of plot, plot development, narrative structure or characterization. The simplicity of some of SF giants' writing is actually a strength in that it lets a pure stream of science fiction's sense-of-wonder (sensawonda) flow through to the reader, and it is echoes of this stream's tinkling that McDevitt imparts to the reader.
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