Jack McDevitt: Ancient Shores & Thunderbird

Covers of Ancient Shores & Thunderbird, Jack McDevitt

April sipped her drink. “You really want to know? I don’t see how anyone could have built the yacht.”
Max listened to the fire and watched April struggle with her thoughts.
“I know how that sounds,” she said.
“What exactly do you mean?” asked Max.
“It’s beyond our technology. But I knew that before I came here.”
Our technology?” said Lasker.
Way beyond.”
“So you’re saying, what?” said Max. “That the boat was built in Japan? Or on Mars?”
“Maybe Mars. Or a pre-Native-American super-high-tech civilization in North Dakota.”

Jack McDevitt has been writing science fiction novels for thirty years. He has a style you might call “simple”, until you tried writing it yourself. He lays out his story in short sentences. He tells you exactly what his characters are seeing, and what they’re thinking. He doesn’t use language to play with your emotions—he lets clearly described events do that instead. Stephen King has written, “Jack McDevitt is that splendid rarity, a storyteller first and a science fiction writer second.” I think that’s absolutely right. He uses science fictional settings, but he’s actually always writing about people and society.

There are a couple of trademark features that crop up over and over again in his novels. The action generally takes place in a wider social setting—the lead characters have adventures with political repercussions, which attract the attention of journalists. Most of his books include imagined extracts from the writings of political pundits, or excerpts from chat-show interviews with protagonists and experts. It’s a handy tool—the journalists ask the questions the reader might be asking; the political pundits raise the objections the reader might by making. And it allows McDevitt to make unobtrusive little data dumps into his stories, so that the reader assimilates the details of the science-fictional setting without really noticing. He also has a tendency to leave plot-lines open—as with real life, not everything in a Jack McDevitt story ties up with a neat bow. His characters (and his readers) often have to deal with just not completely understanding what happened to them.

Since the turn of the century, McDevitt’s novels have largely alternated between two series: the Academy series, a set of adventures featuring space-pilot Priscilla Hutchins; and the Alex Benedict series, mysteries built around the activities of the eponymous far-future antiquities dealer. Both series now stretch to seven novels and an assortment of short fiction.

But before he got under way with the series, McDevitt wrote a number of stand-alone novels, including Ancient Shores in 1996. This had one of McDevitt’s characteristic open endings—a satisfactory conclusion was reached to the main story arc, but many mysteries remained. Then, in 2015, he wrote a sequel, Thunderbird. This prompted me to pull Ancient Shores off the shelf and read the two novels back-to-back. They’re both fine demonstrations of Stephen King’s point, examples of what’s been called “situational” science fiction—the science-fictional scenario is only there in order to poke the characters with a stick and see what they do.

Ancient Shores starts small and gradually expands. It begins with a North Dakotan farmer finding something in his field while digging a trench for a water pipe. There’s a pole sticking out of the ground. He tries to dig it out, and ends up with a thirty-foot deep hole, containing a yacht. The yacht is in pristine condition, and seems to have been built all in one piece—there are no joints anywhere. Its bow is marked with writing in an unknown alphabet. It is made of a synthetic material that is almost indestructible. And a sample taken from one of its ropes shows that it had once been tied to a piece of spruce wood—ten thousand years ago.

Whoever built it seems to have been using it to sail on prehistoric Lake Agassiz—an ice-dammed lake that covered a huge area of southern Canada and the northern USA during the last ice age.

By tracing the nearby prehistoric shoreline, another underground structure is found, in a nearby Sioux reservation. Dubbed “the Roundhouse”, it is excavated and found to give access to a kind of interstellar transport system.

McDevitt describes the ramping journalistic interest; the invasion of the excavation site by tourists and souvenir-hunters; a stock-market crash as rumours of indestructible materials, free energy and effortless transport spread; and growing international pressure on the American President to simply make the problem go away—to shut the exploration down. The president’s position is made more awkward by the fact that the Roundhouse is on Sioux land—he might be able to confiscate land belonging to some random farmer for the good of the nation; but taking land from Native Americans is altogether a different matter, politically. And there are religious and New-Age nutters, deluded bombers, a graffiti artist intent on tagging the Roundhouse, and something that may (or may not) have come to Earth through the newly active transport system. McDevitt tells it all with a straightforward, almost prosaic narrative—there are very few big special effects. The market crashes after a scientist uses a single phrase in a TV interview—predicting that, if we can learn how to reproduce the indestructible material and cheap compact power sources in the alien technology, we won’t need to buy new stuff every few years:

“I think we could give you a pretty durable toaster.” He sat back in his chair, looking quite pleased. “In fact, I think we could give you the first multigenerational toaster.”

I think few other writers would have gone for that option when all sorts of other marvels might have been promised. But as killer concept flagging the end of consumerism, the “multigenerational toaster” takes some beating.

The story ends with mounting political tension and a tense, last-minute resolution. But in typical McDevitt style much is left unexplained. The exploration of the transport system is just beginning. It connects to an odd selection of places, and its purpose is far from obvious. The reader is left with an open-ended potentiality.

And then, twenty years later, comes Thunderbird, which takes up almost exactly where Ancient Shores left off. Indeed, it starts with a recap of an event that played a minor part in the first novel, but which is now promoted to greater significance.

The markets are still shaky, the President still under pressure, the something that may (or may not) have come to Earth is still an unresolved issue. Under the direction of the Sioux chairman, exploration of the interstellar transport system continues. It’s a problematic endeavour. The explorers have no way of knowing where they’re going to end up when they push the button that operates the transporter. The system is too small to move vehicles, so all exploration must be carried out on foot. The locations are sometimes dangerous, sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes merely odd. The Sioux are particularly interested in a pristine and apparently uninhabited world that has been called Eden—could they colonize it, taking it for themselves? It’s only accessible from their land, so is it also their land? For Native Americans to own a huge untamed wilderness, which they could deny to the government of the United States—wouldn’t that be a pleasing irony?

And then an exploratory expedition encounters intelligent life on Eden. (Again, McDevitt choses to be understated in his description of this moment—the party push through some undergrowth, four days’ trek from the transport system, and encounter a simple wooden bridge.) Crisis for the Sioux! Are they seriously going to steal someone else’s land?

The new discovery doesn’t help resolve the mystery of the transport system’s builders. In fact, further exploration simply makes the system more puzzling. Meanwhile, political pressures at home continue to mount.

There are resolutions—in particular with reference to the something that may (or may not) have come to Earth. But mysteries remain, and the story finishes on a distinctly melancholy note. McDevitt is in his eighties now, and this novel feels almost like a reassessment of the optimistic stance on which he finished Ancient Shores. It seems he feels his characters might just have done the wrong thing, first time around.

So. I’d recommend Ancient Shores unreservedly—if you haven’t read McDevitt before, it’s a fine introduction to his writing and his style, and it stands alone just fine. And if you find you like McDevitt, once you finish Ancient Shores it’s going to be difficult for you to avoid reading Thunderbird, to find out what happens next. And Thunderbird is a good read, full of incident and revelations, with McDevitt’s ability to put interesting characters into an interesting story drawing you in and carrying you along, just as always. But it takes you on a different kind of journey.

2 thoughts on “Jack McDevitt: Ancient Shores & Thunderbird”

  1. I don’t usually read Sci Fiction , though I like your predigested accounts here, and have noted down the “Ancient Shores ” by McDevitt for my next troll through Amazon.ca. I love reading your blog.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Going through a bit of an SF kick at the moment, but I’ll soon be posting about different topics again.

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