Over the weekend I finished The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt (1935). The novel was first published in 1994 and is the first in the Academy series. There is a long gap between this novel and the next in the series, so I am not fully convinced this book was supposed to be a series. The second novel, Deepsix, was published in 2001 and the last few pages of The Engines of God really seem like they are finalizing and there is no further except in the imagination of readers. I read the ACE edition with cover art by Bob Eggleton.
The first few chapters were, for me, very slow-going. I had been concerned that this would be like one of those Alastair Reynolds, Greg Bear, Peter Hamilton novels. I was unsure that I currently had the stamina to read a slog. A few further chapters in, though, the book does settle into a nice mellow pacing. In fact, this novel is actually exactly what I think of when I hear the words “space opera.” There is nothing I have read that more fits that category than this novel. I think the book has suffered criticism through the years because readers have approached it wanting it to be something akin to one of those authors I mentioned above, but it just is not. That is not to say that it is pulpy or goofy.
The basic plot of the novel involves alien structures that a team of space-archeologists/anthropologists is working on placing in a historical timeline and/or researching to perhaps locate such aliens (extinct or not). At times, some of the threads of this plot were difficult for me to follow – not because, I think, that it is hard science or that it is too big a concept – honestly, I think the writing just does not sharpen the resolution enough on what is going on. Perhaps, there is not really all that much there, too. So, the concept is made to seem bigger than it is and is kept somewhat just out of focus. At least, this is how it felt to me.
In my opinion, this is not a hard-science fiction novel. This is a space opera that tries to be realistic. I remember 1994 and it is 2023 now and The Engines of God mainly takes place in the years around 2202: and I do not think McDevitt got far enough into the future with his story. That is to say, I think the dying earth concept is pretty legit (will we make it to 2202?) but I feel his cultural and sociological concepts are right back in the 1990s. Sure, some of the technology seems sufficiently advanced, I suppose. I feel those things, too, would be further along. When I am feeling rueful and cynical, I might think I am being too optimistic. I think the author just tried to write his story with a realism so that his reader would feel the characters could be taken seriously as the main focus is on the “big idea” of the alien monuments etc. and not really on the technology of the times. The failpoint is that the author made the novel realistic to 1994… not 2200. And of course, only in science fiction can readers make such epistemological complaints, I suppose.
I think the main complaint of readers who did not like this novel is they felt they could not “engage” with the characters, and that the plot and characters were not immersive. It seems to me like that is a sentiment about the readers. I, personally, had no problem whatsoever liking the characters – they are all likeable and have their plusses and minutes, just like real people. I enjoyed the characters quite a bit. I felt they were interesting folk, if a bit scattered. Also, their conversation/dialogue was on par with the expectations I have for a 1990s space opera. Some of the “immersion” factor that readers talk about escapes me. However, I think I can make some guesses about it. The Engines of God is a super chill read. It is a space opera like daytime soap operas on television with a couple of shuttles, anti-gravity discussions, and some galactic star references. Even the two or three “action scenes” in the novel are just easy reading. I feel bad, in some way; the characters are having life or death moments and I am utterly mellow. Hey, characters do die! Characters do experience stress and drama and all of the key ups and downs of novels, but its all written so relaxed that its not a big deal, somehow. Hence some readers feeling it is not immersive. However, for me, this is part of space opera: no matter what happens, the show goes on.
The nitpicking: what is the author’s fixation with Chablis? I was appalled and it was probably my biggest emotional reaction to the book, when the main character has a steak with a glass of Chablis. I just chalked it up to a weird moment. But then! Later on several characters are on the surface of a planet doing their archeological work (or whatever they think they are doing) and after hours they break out a few bottles of Chablis. The future is bleak, my friends………
Another thing, well, because this is a space opera and the plot moves on, there is an oddness to how the characters experience trauma, both physical and psychological, and then can suddenly refocus back into their work. Its jarring and strange. But at the same time, well, as a reader I certainly do not want to be dragged through some lengthy convalescing and rehabilitation scenes!
The main problem with the novel is that everything has soft edges. The overarching problematic (the aliens and their monuments) has blurry edges. The science has soft edges. The roles of the characters and their areas of expertise are all over the place and sketchy and random. In fact, its difficult to know if these members of “The Academy” are anthropologists or archeologists or engineers (and that too has so many very important subdivisions!). Its just like everyone – including all the pilots – is a generic scientist. Blurry and soft and all the inexactitude and vagueness that is kept in soap operas so that those forms of media can perpetually self-replicate as needed in any direction. However, this should not be a criticism – because if a reader is looking for a general science fiction space opera: here it is. A lot of readers who tend to write critical reviews think every reader is looking for what they are. There is always something to be remeasured with regard to expectations of novels.
In the second half of the novel, some characters are researching/exploring a planet and of course things go sideways because people do not stick to their orders, make ridiculously stupid errors, and fail to use any kind of common sense. Do not attack the characters please, because I see these errors every day from real humans. Anyway, the scenes in this segment are very action-thriller (but chill…) and actually rather amusing. Native life forms with maybe hive-mind attack the “away team” and I think any good horror/SF flick director could make a movie just out of the team on this planet and their evasion and escape. It is sad when characters do not make it, but its worth it (maybe?) when the threat bringers are so savage in their comic book styling.
Overall, a good 3.47 stars. I do not know what that means. I am giving it three stars. I will likely read more in the Academy series because if I need some chill space opera, I like knowing where to find it. Plus, I think readers are too harsh on the 1990s. Recommended for readers who want beach-read science fiction and for readers who can separate textbook from fiction.