(2003) Jack McDevitt, Ace SF, £6.50 / US$7.99 / Ca$10.99, pbk, 493 pp, ISBN 0-411-01210-8
We rarely review specialist imports as, for us in Europe, this means going to a specialist bookshop. However such is the shortage of supply of good hard SF (globally) that, despite the UK currently going through a several year boom in hard SF works, sometimes one resorts to imports. Hence just prior to Christmas I picked up the 2004 paperback of McDevitt's 2003 hardback.
It has to be said - if you did not know it already - that Jack McDevitt is a sound hard SF author whose works are invariably well above average since he started writing novels in the mid-1980s. I was therefore confident that with Omega I was on to a sure bet. This is an important point because, for some unfathomable reason, getting European editions of McDevitt books is difficult as there are so few of them. A novel with a HarperCollins' Voyager imprint is the last time I picked up a UK edition. I see that Tony has reviewed three of his: Moonfall; Deepsix and Slow Lightning and favourably too. So I hope that you will accept that there may be more to my confidence in this author other than any personal vagary. So on to Omega...
Omega is set in the same universe as Chindi, Polaris and Deepsix and even has some of the same characters. In Omega it is the year 2230 and humanity has FTL and has colonised several worlds. But life is rare. Very rare. Intelligent life all the more so with just a couple of races found. However artefacts from previous civilizations including the remains of a space elevator on Deepsix, and a space ship (Polaris) have occasionally stumbled across. Something appears to have been wiping out civilizations and the previous books refer (more or less in passing) to mysterious and huge Omega clouds that come out from the galactic core in waves thousands of years apart. These Omega clouds seem to target objects with straight lines and sharp corners such as you find in cities. Who sends them and why has not been revealed in McDevitt's previous works but he now addresses this in Omega. This is quite important (for Mc Devitt's characters and universe) as an Omega cloud has been detected en route for Earth and is due to arrive in a thousand years or so. Consequently while there is no burning urgency, the Omega clouds have become a focus of study.
Over 3,000 light years away pushing the edge of space explored by humans, a ship detects a new Omega cloud. Then, while studying it, it changes course and heads for a star system. Racing ahead the ship discovers a rare life-bearing planet that even has a rare sentient species at a Medieval equivalent level of development. Somehow they have to save this civilization preferably without breaking the equivalent of a Star Trek type prime directive. And so the race is on...
I was not disappointed with Omega. The aliens are charming and reasonably alien (though not as alien as, say, Iain Banks' but then McDevitt alludes to this at the book's end). The universe McDevitt continues to detail is competently constructed and his story moves along at a brisk pace with a race against the clock: something that has become a bit of a motif for the author. The bottom line, without giving the game away, is that McDevitt comes up with a reasonable explanation for the Omegas. However, though a great SF adventure, I felt the solution not entirely satisfactory but there is enough slack in it for something subsequential of greater substance. Here's hoping. Meanwhile he has left us with another sound story.
If the afore has whetted your appetite then do check McDevitt out but start with earlier books in this series. I would also thoroughly recommend his Hercules Text, the European edition of which I reviewed in Concatenation's pre-internet 1989 paper edition. This was his first novel (1986) and is a first contact, or rather alien detection story set in the present when a signal from space if discovered and then decoded. It came top of the annual Locus readers poll, 'first novel' category. It also won a Philip K Dick Special Award. Meanwhile I see that Omega has just (at the time of posting) been nominated for a Nebula Award by the SF Writers of America (SFWA).
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