Eternity Road

July 19, 2014
Jack McDevitt

Eternity Road is set about a millennium into the future, after a virulent plague has decimated the Earth's population and utterly destroyed high technological civilization. New cultures (and the roving barbarian bands that are all but cliché in post-apocalyptic fiction) have arisen, many of which take a both historical and mythological interest in "The Roadmakers" — the long-dead civilization nicknamed after their most ubiquitous and visible leftover constructions. With access to only few pre-Plague books, future scholars speculate about the spiritual significance of the strange artifacts they find — artifacts such as a variety of figures made of a strange, flexible material that is neither metal nor wood, or metal cylinders inscribed with the mystical incantation Pepsi, all no doubt created by the Roadmakers for their religious rituals. One such culture is the city-state of Illyria, a small republic in the Mississippi valley, with a level of technology roughly comparable to that of the 1700s. There are some anachronistic oddities — they can make firearms, but not steam engines or the printing press.

The story opens with the return of Karik Endine, a scholar who has spent his career attempting to locate the fabled community of Haven (reputed to be a surviving Roadmaker establishment or a storehouse of Roadmaker knowledge), from an expedition that went disastrously wrong; all other members were killed. With his death of natural causes nine years later (a period in which he has been almost entirely reclusive, reduced to a shadow of his former vibrant self), a number of sketches from the expedition are found — as is a handwritten copy of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Speculation abounds that he did indeed find Haven, and a second expedition is organized and launched — both attempting to find Haven, and attempting to find out what happened to the first expedition.

The expedition members are all interesting characters. Chaka, the sister of one of the dead first expedition members, Silas, an elderly historian and Roadmaker expert, Quait, a younger scholar and military conscript, Shannon, a woodsman, Avila, a fallen priestess (with medical skills) and Flojian — Karik's rather useless merchant son. They're all believable and well-written characters, and those of them who die actually feel like losses. They're people with unfinished business and personal development, so when they die, it's a story thread that gets snipped off that could have led to interesting developments. In this case, the survivors also have to deal with the loss of skills that the expedition needs.

In a related note, in this kind of story it seems to me that it's always the characters I find most interesting who get killed off. Although this is obviously a bit annoying, it's also an indicator of good storytelling. Death starts seeming downright trivial when the characters reduce to Main Man, Leading Lady with Ensigns Four Shades of Redshirt, and we all know right from the beginning who's going to die along the way.

Good storytelling is, in fact, what saves Eternity Road from being Just Another Post-Apocalyptic Adventure. We've seen all of it before: The ruined cities, the roving bands of barbarians, the mythologization of past culture, science and technology, the low-tech survivors. But here, it's done well. The expedition has a feel more akin to an old-timey archaeological expedition than to the tired "six brave adventurers, who…" trope: All members are learned in Roadmaker lore, except the wilderness survival expert and the medical expert. And yet, the tone of the journey and the encounters along the way is oddly reminiscent of Tolkien.

Definitely recommended. I'm going to have to read more McDevitt (who, I understand, likes playing with future archaeology and xenoarchaeology as themes in his works).

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