Sunday, March 09, 2014

Space Opera redivivus

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera, space aliens

Stephen King calls Jack McDevitt "The logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke." Kind words indeed, but just a bit inflated. Nobody has yet come close to the more than 400 books written by Asimov, nor the breadth of vision and versatility of Clarke. However, McDevitt's 21 novels are nothing to sneeze at, and I greatly appreciate his fresh insights into alien species.

Starhawk is the 7th of the Academy series, also called the Priscilla Hutchins series after the protagonist. I read (and reviewed) the 6th volume, Cauldron, in 2008, but don't recall Ms Hutchins being particularly prominent.

In the Galaxy of the Academy series, alien life of any kind is rare, and aliens—so far located—bright enough to have language can be counted on one's thumbs and big toes. The brightest alien species is stunningly boring, but a series of a dozen or so "great monuments" shows that the Universe can produce beings of amazing power, but, apparently, less-than-amazing longevity.

In Starhawk the author explores two ideas of alien contact, one with an automated device that tells them they "just missed us", and another with an apparently planet-wide being that is helpful but indifferent: not hostile, but not interested in being visited long-term either.

The core of the action surrounds Ms Hutchins, who eventually earns the nickname Hutch. A newly-licensed starship pilot, she trying to start a career in a shrinking economy (2007-2012 writ large), in an era of increasing pressure to cut back the space program. Hard choices and a few untimely deaths provide coming-of-age experiences for her. Early on, I had a certain fellow pilot pegged as her eventual mate, but McDevitt outwitted me; the pilot dies attempting to divert a terrorist-controlled starship being used as an impact weapon.

The mix of hard science with just enough blue-sky stuff (like FTL) seems just right to me, and makes for compelling reading. It provides a canvas on which the alien contact stories, the exoarchaeology in which McDevitt likes to indulge, can play across the imagination. I wonder if I can find all five of the Academy books I've missed…

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