Engines of God

October 22, 2014
Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt's Engines of God is — much like Eternity Road, the first book of his I read — a science fiction story about archaeological discovery. Where Eternity Road was concerned with people in a post-apocalyptic future society trying to make sense of the pre-apocalyptic world, Engines of God is about xenoarchaeology — the archaeological study of alien species. Set roughly 200 years from now, its universe has faster than light ("transdimensional") travel and communication.

Earth is in a bad state, ravaged by environmental destruction and political upheaval. Minor colonies have been established elsewhere in the solar system and in the larger galaxy, but planets with human-friendly environments are extremely rare, and the beleaguered population of Earth desperately needs more space. In fact, at the time of our story, only three are known. Earth itself, the planet of Nok (currently inhabited by a pre-industrial sapient alien species) and the planet of Quraqua — formerly the site of an advanced civilization, now millennia extinct. The greatest archaeological mystery of all, however, are the "Monuments" — giant alien statues of uncertain purpose, scattered across the galaxy. The first was discovered on Saturn's moon Iapetus, right in our solar system.

The book is roughly divided into three acts. In all, the primary POV character is Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins, a pilot working for the Academy, an international scientific institution. In each act, she's backed up by various ensembles of other characters (some of whom temporarily assume POV duty), most of whom are archaeologists, researchers or (like herself) assistants to archaeologists and researchers.

In the first act, Hutch is tasked with assisting archaeological excavations on Quraqua, and with evacuating the archaeologists working there. You see, shortly before the beginning of the story, Quraqua has been handed over to a private corporation looking to terraform it — an effort that will make it hospitable to humans, but will also destroy the archaeological remnants of its former inhabitants, the Quraquat. For obvious reasons, Academy archaeologists are engaged in a mad scramble to save as much evidence as they can before the ice asteroids and icecap-melting atomic bombs ruin everything. The second act is primarily concerned with the search for the Monument-Maker homeworld, and the terrible misfortunes that befall the search crew, and the third is about what happens when they find said homeworld.

I'm not going to spoil anything, it's good enough that you should go read it.

Unfortunately, it features a rather anticlimactic (and apparently hurried) finale, and … well, too many bad action scenes. Some of them felt like an attempt to put a Hollywood action flick to paper. A redeeming factor is that McDevitt (like he also did in Eternity Road) very effectively avoids casting anybody as a redshirt. When people get killed, they're people with names, personalities and backgrounds; people we've gotten to care about. In the one scene where a freshly-introduced support character gets killed, another character actually explicitly gets called out for treating it like a non-event.

I'd recommend it. I didn't like it quite as much as I liked Eternity Road, but I'm definitely reading the rest of the series.

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