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, buried 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.