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Echo by Jack McDevitt book review

There’s an entire industry built on turning the music you love into easy listening elevator music. Jack McDevitt‘s books are mostly elevator music versions of older Science Fiction novels. They’re easy to read and they carry a soothing mood along with them that feels like riding in a glass elevator while listening to a completely unrecognizable, but somehow recognizable, easy listening piece of music that once belonged to a great composer.

echo jack mcdevitt

Don’t let the cover fool you. This isn’t really space exploration or hard science.

The Alex Benedict novels are the weakest of Jack McDevitt‘s work. Like the rest of his books they’re set in what feels like a future Canada, where most people have the tastes and attitudes of the 1950’s and 1960’s. But the Benedict novels happen to be set tens of thousands of years in the future, which makes the whole thing less credible than the Academy novels.

Like so many Jack McDevitt novels, Echo is about a quest for something deeply meaningful to the human soul with profound blah blah. In this case, as in so many cases, that’s aliens. The problem is that the last Alex Benedict novel, The Devil’s Eye was about a showdown with a powerful race of aliens who eventually help save an endangered planet. But in Echo, everyone acts like Sunset Tuttle, a researcher who spent his life looking for aliens and then left behind a mysterious artifact, is insane for searching for a third alien race, even though there’s already a major alien race that everyone knows about.

But the artifact catches the attention of Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath who try to hunt down its origin. There are a few attempted assassinations, lots of conversations, a chase scene and eventually a journey to find a mysterious alien world that is more and less and more than it’s supposed to be. If you’ve read these before, then you know what to expect. Jack McDevitt is channeling some classic movies here and the twist is, like the rest of the book, adequate.

Echo is easy listening. It pretends to be about something important, but it’s not. It pretends to make you think, but it doesn’t. All the portentous quotes at the beginning of every chapter, that still sound like Jack McDevitt even though they are meant to be from fictional writers who aren’t him, are just as light as the book.

If you have to take a trip somewhere, Echo is an acceptable companion. It’s junk food dressed up as something classier and more nutritious. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. Just don’t expect anything from the science or the ideas. When you encounter aliens who talk, think and look exactly like us, and are also run by a matriarchy which worships a goddess of reason, along with about pages of ponderings on how first encounters change societies, without ever really showing it happen in the book, except with a place called “Alien Pizza”; don’t be too disappointed.

It’s only easy listening.

The Devil’s Eye by Jack McDevitt

The Devil’s Eye has a potentially interesting plot about a planet of 2 billion people about to be hit by a hypernova from a nearby star, The Devil's Eye Jack McDevittburied by among other things, an irritating narrator, Chase Kolpath, her boss, Alex Benedict, and a focus on horror that’s completely out of place and context once you’re told what the actual threat is.

There are so many things wrong with The Devil’s Eye that it’s hard to know where to start, and most of them begin and end with Jack McDevitt’s limitations as a writer. McDevitt is a talented writer who works within very narrow limits. The Devil’s Eye is supposed to take place thousands of years in the future, but its society is almost exactly like our own. And when he sets out to describe a superior intelligent alien race with telepathic abilities, the Mutes, they also turn out to be just like us.

McDevitt insists on writing stories set thousands of years in the future, yet he can never create a believable future society, alien or human. Thousands of years in the future, everyone still listens to music from the 50’s and watches Broadway musicals. When hardly anyone does that today. And the aliens, they have beaches, backyard barbecues and small town mayors.

Television is the one constant in McDevitt’s novels. Almost everyone, everywhere watches television, even if they call it HV. Even the telepathic mute aliens watch it, and their version of television becomes the pivotal element in the plot as Chase wins over the aliens with an interview with their version of Walter Cronkite on their version of 60 Minutes. I wish I was joking, but horrifyingly I’m not. The analogy is actually right there in the book.

Then there’s the other problem with The Devil’s Eye. Vicki Greene. By rights, this should have been Vicki Greene’s story. She’s the one who discovers what happened and takes a great risk to get the knowledge out to someone. Instead it’s Chase Kolpath’s and Alex Benedict’s story. And Chase is annoying, a one dimensional female character as drawn by a man. It’s not that McDevitt can’t write believable female characters who have depth, he did it in the Roadmakers. Even his Academy series has believable female characters. But with Chase Kolpath, he seems to have taken the advice of Jack Nicholson’s character on writing women in As Good As It Gets. Alex Benedict isn’t much better, a thin shell in search of a personality. If Chase is supposed to play Watson to Benedict’s Holmes, it fails on both levels.

Then there’s the horror element in The Devil’s Eye. It might have seemed like a good idea to McDevitt to tell the story that way from a horror angle, too bad he doesn’t seem to know what horror is. His excerpts from Vicki Greene’s novels either read like the excerpts from his usual archeology books or from really awful romance novels. At the end we’re told that Greene goes down as one of the literary giants of the age. If that’s so, the hypernova didn’t go far enough in destroying the entire galaxy. There’s no actual horror angle here, which makes a 100 or so pages of Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath touring haunted sites at odds with the rest of the book.

There’s a brief period in the middle half of the book that has Chase and Benedict on the run from the authorities who are trying to cover up the imminent death of most of their population that’s exciting and actually gets at the meat of The Devil’s Eye. What do you do when a planet of 2 billion is threatened with death. Except McDevitt mostly ignores the question and shifts the terrain from the rescue effort to the Mute planet. Then he throws in a shield that can stop the radiation and saves Salud Afar from any and all harm.

The Devil’s Eye might have been a better book with a different narrator and with a focus on the actual crisis.

Odyssey by Jack McDevitt book review

Odyssey, like all of Jack McDevitt’s Academy novels takes place in some morbidly depressed futuristic version of the 50’s, in which Jack McDevitt  Odysseymankind has an interstellar drive, forcefields and AI’s, but doesn’t do anything but participate in retro musicals and read loud newspaper headlines from around the world.

Odyssey is really no different, except McDevitt doesn’t bother writing a plot that makes any kind of sense (or including an actual odyssey in it despite the title). In Odyssey, space travel is once again endangered because no one likes or cares about it. The Academy is struggling, and you can see why, because the spaceships are flown by AI’s and the pilots do nothing. And to prove it, the space expedition on Odyssey has everyone playing board games and talking for the entire trip, while the AI flies the ship. The expedition includes a 15 year old girl, Gordon McAllister an obnoxious magazine editor, Eric, the PR director, and Valya, a pilot who doesn’t really pilot, and at the end actually puts Eric in command.

The plot of Odyssey focuses around Moonriders, UFO like ships. But mostly the plot is really about Gordon McAllister, the kind of bad Mencken imitation that could only be played by Dabney Coleman in the movie version. McAllister’s main function is to make sarcastic remarks about everything and serve as the author’s voice. He also exposes the conspiracy behind the moonriders, which turns out to be a plot by space companies to trick the government into spending more money on space (boo! hiss! who wants to spend more money on space). Except then the moonriders actually do show up and blow up an outer space version of CERN.

This plot development makes no sense, because the moonriders launching an attack at the same time as the corporations were creating fake moonrider attacks is a completely improbable coincidence, that even a lazy author should try to explain somehow. But McDevitt doesn’t bother. And then McDevitt has the moonriders warn of the attack in a message to that 15 year old girl, whom of course no one believes. There’s no reason for her to get the message, rather than anyone on SpaceCERN, except to complicate the plot.

And just to make Odyssey an even worse mess, McDevitt seems to base the attack on SpaceCERN around September 11, complete with two towers being bombed, and then a giant fireball and smoke coming out. Except SpaceCERN is in outer space. Yes that’s how good the science in Odyssey is. That it has structures exploding in fireballs in outer space.

Finally since when McDevitt can’t think of what to do with the plot next, he has someone die tragically, that’s exactly what happens next. Dabney Coleman presides over a new Scopes trial. The 15 year old girl is still 15. Hutch once again goes off in a funk. And there you have it, another Academy novel.

Jack McDevitt is not Asimov or Heinlein

Jack McDevitt is not Asimov or Heinlein. He’s a decent writer, but he’s not a science fiction writer. And all the quotes claiming that he’s the rightful successor to Asimov or Heinlein, are clueless. Heinlein and Asimov actually worked during the 1950’s, and they would never have written Science Fiction novels set 200 years later, in which humanity looks exactly like it did in the 1950’s. Sounds like a no brainer, but that’s exactly what Jack McDevitt does in his academy novels. It’s 200 years later, and except for a few insanely advanced gizmos like AI’s, FTL and force field spacesuits (which never show up in any other application), humanity hasn’t changed much, since the 1950’s. Take the Gordon McAllister character, who publishes a magazine, battles against religion and has a personality straight out of Mad Men. The movies, musicals and books that show up in the Academy novels are the sort of thing people read and watched in the 50’s. At a time when newspapers are dying, McDevitt keeps making them the focus of reporting in his books. Culturally nothing has changed, even though the era his books are set in, should be as different from ours as 18th century was from us. But critics keep confusing 50’s retro from writers like McDevitt or Steele, with writers who worked in the 50’s and actually looked toward the future. And there’s no comparison.

The Jack McDevitt Problem

The thing about Jack McDevitt is unlike a lot of the hyped up writers like Scalzi, McLeod, Banks, Stross and Steele, he can actually both write well and tell a story (being able to do both is getting to be a rare thing with a split between writers who write poorly but can tell stories and writers who write well but don’t want to lower themselves to actually telling stories, not to mention the always popular writers who can do neither). Any of the books in his Academy series still make everything in Allen Steele’s Coyote universe look like finger paintings.

The problem is that one McDevitt novel may look great, but two look like the same novel, just written twice. Case in point, Eternity Road and Engines of God. Both are great novels on their own with a powerful and moving journey, strongly defined characters and a larger message. But despite their different settings, one in a post-apocalyptic America and one in deep space, both are really the same novel. Don’t believe me? Both follow a strong female character in the far future who with a small group of other characters begins a journey to understand cultural artifacts and recovery their meaning. Along the way many of the side characters die in clumsy and easily avoidable ways, only for the central character to reach journey’s end and discover the larger meaning of her own life and humanity’s too.

Yes those novels are old, but look at Seeker which took home a Nebula, a few years back (but then these days he almost always makes the short list), and it’s the same story again. Again we have a science fiction version of archeology. This time in a mix of Eternity Road and Engines of God, it’s deep space artifacts from an American or post-American culture. Strong female character on a journey to track cultural artifacts, etc, etc and there you have it. The same novel. Again.

I could go on and point out the ridiculously contemporary nature of McDevitt’s futures. Or his general weakness on the Science Fiction front which makes Stephen King’s claim that he is the heir to Asimov and Clarke ridiculous. (The only thing more ridiculous is Stephen King getting to decide who the logical heir to the grandmasters of Science Fiction is. Can we get Fred Pohl and Larry Niven to decide who the heir to Stephen King is?)

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