(2006) Jack McDevitt, Ace, £5.99 / Can$10.99 / US$7.99, pbk, 423 pp, ISBN 978-0-441-01540-5
(2013 reprint) Jack McDevitt, Headline, £8.99, pbk, 496 pp, ISBN 978-1-472-20327-4
It is a few centuries into the future and humanity has gone to the nearby stars. Space travel is now routine but only for the rich and heavy governmental support is necessary for further exploration has to compete with other priorities at home. (Ain't it always the truth.) Meanwhile mysterious craft have been sporadically and fleetingly sighted in deep space and occasionally some observers have been buzzed by close fly-bys. The design and their origins of these craft are unknown. Following a minor space mishap (a ship's drive conked out) and a sighting of these objects, the authorities decide to send a highly publicised mission to investigate the sightings. And then it seems that the mystery craft may be neither a hoax nor harmless as many believed... While all of this is going on news comes in from a research team on the very edge of known space.
Odyssey is part of McDevitt's 'Priscilla Hutchins' series that accompanies Deepsix and Omega among others. It was released in North America in 2006 but the paperback only came out at the end of 2007 and so it has only just (2008) found there way over here in Europe and elsewhere. As usual this is competently written space opera adventure for which McDevitt has in recent years come to be known. Aside from Priscilla Hutchins, magazine editor and social commentator Gregory MacAllister makes a reappearance having gotton over his 'DeepSix' experience but this time the action is either set on Earth or in deep space on the quest for the unidentified craft. Indeed, if my memory serves me, there is a brief mention of another character who turn's up in one of McDevitt's Alex Benedict novels set many years after the 'Priscilla Hutchins' series so there is plenty for McDevitt fans to relate.
The backdrop to the plot is the current disaffection with public expenditure on space. This is something that undoubtedly chimes with the post-Apollo US space programme experience and something SF readers are likely to find worthy for inclusion in a space opera. The Earth setting also has appeal as in this future the Earth has clearly warmed due to human-induced greenhouse effects that in real-life today are the subject of some public concern and political debate. Having said that the portrayal of climate change here is at best superficial if not facile to the point that one wonders whether or not the novel would have been better off without it? (Goodness sake why didn't he spend a couple of days on the net researching this or even ask a reputable biosphere scientist at a US con for a two-page briefing?) Such speculations are further prompted in that the page count of over 400 hundred is a tad much for what at the end of the day is light adventure. McDevitt's Herculese Text was at least a quarter to a third lighter and a far more powerful novel. Indeed, while his Slow Lightening was even longer, it had at its heart a rollicking mystery. There is mystery in Odyssey and it is sufficient to sustain the reader for much of the book, however the mystery is not as deep and I suspect that many readers will solve it way before the book's end. This combined, with the preachy, home-spun quotes from Gregory MacAllister's writings, was a decided turn-off. Conversely the occasional short listings of news headlines were fun.
Entertaining as a light read yes, but this is not McDevitt at his very best, and at his best the man is rather good. This is the sort of novel one might have expected earlier in a writing career. Still, McDevitt regulars will enjoy this even though personally I do hope in the future he ups his game, after all why jump when you can soar.
The 2013 Headline edition is a very welcome return after what must be well over a decade of this author not being published this side of the Pond. The 2013 re-print accompanies a new Hutchins story. McDevitt may not usually shake you, but you can always count on a solid SF read and I have to say I have a soft spot for the man's books.
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