The Library of Babel: June 2004

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for June of 2004.

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June 6, 2004

Sticking with the space theme of the last entry, I've read a whole bunch of Jack McDevitt recently, catching up on all the previous volumes of the series that Omega caps off: The Engines of God, Deepsix and Chindi. I don't know if there's a name for the series as a whole, but I've been thinking of it as "Archeologists In Spaaaace!!"

These books are well-suited to logging as a group, as there's a certain sameness to them. The plot follows a similar pattern in each case: researchers working for the Academy in some distant region on the fringes of explored space stumble across some sort of mysterious alien artifact which hints at great new revelations about how the world works. In attempting to gather enough information to work out what the artifacts mean, the scientists end up putting themselves at great risk. People die, ships are lost, and more lives are put at risk, requiring a daring rescue at the end to save the day.

These aren't exactly Space Opera, as there really aren't villains. The dangers tend to be fairly impersonal-- the destruction of an entire planet by a rogue gas giant, for example, and while there are plenty of examples of human stupidity putting lives at risk, there are few if any cases of lives lost to malicious action.

On the other hand, they hit a lot of the key notes that make Space Opera fun to read. The heroes are a small band of disparate but ultimately like-minded people, who succeed in the end through a combination of technical know-how, personal sacrifice, and general derring-do. There's also scenery galore-- colliding planets, bizarre aliens, planet-sized spaceships, engineering on a titanic scale. And given that the aliens are almost all archeological, there are always fun mysteries to consider: What were they like? What did they know? Why did they die out?

Like most Space Opera, of course, the science is mostly crap. McDevitt does great things with black-box physics, but the archaeology that plays such an important role in the plots is just this side of Indiana Jones. It's not a field that I know well, but I know that some of the things they do are just impossible.

But it's easy to accept the dopey science, given how spectacular the plots are. Chindi in particular serves up an impressive parade of wonders, but the others don't lack for page-turner moments. The characters are also reasonably well done: the scientist heroes of the book are recognizably human, despite occasional flashes of hyper-competence, and they have their own foibles and conflicting motivations. It's refreshing to read books with technical types in the leading roles who don't come off like Steven Den Beste's wish-fullfilment fantasies.

These aren't within shouting distance of Great Literature, but they're a whole lot of fun to read. It's a fun setting, and I'll definitely read more books in the series if he chooses to write them.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001