(2015) Jack McDevitt, Headline, £14.99, trdpbk, 369pp, ISBN 978-1-472-23432-2
What is effectively a functioning 'stargate' type portal has been discovered in an American Indian reserve in Sioux territory in North Dakota and we are immediately thrust into the disruption that this had caused. Being on a native American land means that the local community has control of access but the government looks on and helps with the exploration of three destinations to which it leads: a subterranean maze, a forest on a world orbiting a Saturn-like ringed world, and an airless space station.
Small teams are sent to explore each of these destinations. The forest world is idyllic and soon dubbed Eden. The space station is deserted and exposed to vacuum, but the view it offers is of an entire galaxy. Meanwhile in the subterranean maze a team stumbles across some functioning machinery.
With the President of the US being lobbied by industrialists – those worried about the security implications and other interested parties fearing that teleportation technology will ruin transport-related industries and the head of the native American community being pressurised to get as much out of the discovery as he can for his people – news comes in of a wooden bridge discovered on Eden. There is intelligent life there!
More than that, and worryingly, strange apparitions become manifest in the area around the stargate portal and it is not long before some begin to suspect that something may have come through it to Earth.
One thing is certain, humanity's place in the greater scheme of things is changing…
Jack McDevitt typically writes adventure stories based on long-established SF tropes and here we have effectively space exploration together with first contact as well as present-day views and expectations confronting the fantastic. Most of his work relates to two series of futuristic space opera: one set when humanity is at the start of stellar exploration and the other – a private investigator series – set with humanity already out in the stars and space travel commonplace. However he does do standalones including, notably, his debut novel The Hercules Text (1986) that concerns the detection of an information-rich signal from the stars and which is well worth seeking out. Thunderbird certainly can be read as a standalone, and indeed I did and it worked quite well read this way. Having said that, barely a third of the way in I realised that there was more of a detailed backstory lurking in the wings and this I put down to the novel being well written. However, on completing the novel, and in checking out McDevitt's oeuvre to provide context for this review, I discovered that there was a previous novel, Ancient Shores (1996), that concerned the actual discovery and initial exploration of three of the portal's destinations. While you can read Ancient Shores first, Thunderbird works very well as a standalone and indeed it lets the reader cut straight to the chase.
With regards to others ways Thunderbird relates to McDevitt's previous work, 'first contact' is a recurring theme we have seen a number of times before in his novels, be it actual encounters with alien species or their cultural remains. Indeed, the notion of a rarely seen, or difficult to see, alien unknown among us is one of the core strands to Slow Lightening [Infinity Beach in N. America] (2000). In short Thunderbird is a novel that will appeal to McDevitt's regulars and newcomers who enjoy this novel will likely find his other work as enjoyable.
Downsides, well only one. I like middleweight SF adventures packed with sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) and I was firmly into Thunderbird from the off. However, what did turn out to be an irritant was the sheer number of characters: the President, the leader of the Sioux community, those doing the exploring, journalists, locals, etc., etc. Now, a large cast in itself is not a problem, but when the author insists on giving the reader half a page to a page of that character's backstory, the signal that is clearly sent is 'pay attention as this person and their background is important to the story arc'. So, as a reviewer, when I read a novel for review I jot notes as I read in case I need inspiration and/or reference when it comes to my setting down my views of the book. And so when I opened Thunderbird I started listing what I thought were the principal characters, protagonists, but barely a third of the way through and I topped a score of these and gave up! Such tagging new characters immediately with their backgrounds is almost novel writing by numbers: here is a new character and here are my author notes on this person and I, the author, am going to tell you this so you know I have done my creative preparatory work (and because it also bumps up the page count) and not because it substantively adds to the story (as more often than not it doesn't). Arrrgghh! I really do prefer it when the individual character's backstory emerges naturally, as is necessary to the plot, from the story and not in mini-infodumps since the reader cannot tell what is actually germane to the tale and what is not. I mention this to you not so much as a gripe but so you need not worry about the plethora of almost forgettable character histories you will encounter, just plough on and surf this otherwise sound story.
As for the tale's central conceit. Well, stargate-type portals, are a reasonably common trope in SF with well-known examples including Harlan Ellison's 'City on the Edge of Forever' (1967) Star Trek episode and Roland Emmerich's Stargate film (1994) and the subsequent TV series, Stargate SG1, that became the longest continuously running SF television franchise. So McDevitt is treading on very familiar ground for SF aficionados. This is perfectly fine as he brings his own brand of inventiveness that gives us an entertaining read.
Thunderbird is a fun adventure set firmly in the heart of SF territory. I certainly would not mind re-visiting this group of stargate adventurers should Jack McDevitt decide to treat us.
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