In the realm between hard science fiction and space opera there is a zone where some of the rules of science may be broken very carefully, but the author may still make his or her universe look and feel realistic.
The works of Jack McDevitt certainly belong in that zone and none more squarely than the Academy Novels, which I am about to begin reviewing. The purpose of this introduction is to present a basic understanding of the world that McDevitt has created. For those who have not yet read the novels, it will serve to set up the reading. For those who have already read the series, it will be a refresher to make the reviews easier to follow. As for the reviews themselves, I will be assuming that the reader has already finished reading the novels, so there will be spoilers. Not so for this introduction.
The Academy Novels officially begin on the date of February 12, 2197, which is where the Prologue to The Engines of God (1994) kicks the series off. The other novels in this series include Deepsix (2001), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), Odyssey, (2006) and Cauldron (2007). The conclusion takes place in the year 2255.
At this time in future history, governments have consolidated in order to control the gradual, but sure, devastation of Earth. Although there is a governing World Council, it is made up of political entities that were previously two or more countries. The North American Union (NAU), for example is made up of the United States and Canada. However, between overpopulation, drought, economic ennui, degrading weather patterns, religious strife and global warming, death has become so commonplace that no one thinks twice about a few million dying in India due to a grain shortage. Melting of the polar ice caps has raised shorelines around the world, so the people have had to re-engineer their cities to go on. The wealthy and those who cultivate professions that are in demand still do quite well. There are expensive restaurants, dinner parties and diverse live entertainment. The poor are generally never seen.
What McDevitt has done in his future history is to show that no matter how bad things get, most of the population will continue to go on as if nothing was wrong. He has taken this attitude directly from the present situation on Earth and extrapolated on it. We are at this moment presiding over the initial stages of Earth’s deterioration: the world economy fluctuates dramatically with widespread unemployment and collapsing markets, the earth is suffering from multiple natural disasters, we continue to depend on fossil fuels and, yes, we are pretty much ignoring global warming. Yet, if you turn on a television today, you would think that we were at the height of prosperity with no problems in the world.
Media plays a large part in these novels. McDevitt drops in news headlines throughout the Academy Novels and the news is both devastating and understated. No matter what happens, life goes on and we all pretend that everything is okay. In fact, as long is everything is okay for me, then it is okay for everyone.
One criticism that McDevitt receives quite often is that his characters are shallow and two-dimensional. Although I would not argue that point in general, I believe the characters in the Academy Novels are that way on purpose. They fit in with his extrapolation of the present into the future. Although everyone today tries to look on the bright, happy side of existence, the truth is that most people are terribly mundane. We are gradually becoming a society of specialists, of people who concentrate on their own little niche. Very few people are well rounded intellectually and most of them are not intellectual at all. Most people today – and in McDevitt’s future – are shallow and self-involved. We tend to feed off of tawdry news events, social gossip, games, images and social interaction aimed at our own personal well-being.
In the Academy, most of the scientists, academics, engineers and technicians are specialists who burrow into their own little worlds, so caught up in their own careers and specialties that most of them have no life outside of their areas of expertise. And within those areas, most are concerned with their own ego more than they are with actual technological development.
The politicians are pragmatists who flow with the general tide. They don’t think for themselves. Instead, they take polls and roll with whatever will keep them in power. When the Greens finally become a political powerhouse, they are just like the Democrats and Republicans of today. They do not listen to others, they do not think things through and make rational decisions. Instead, they push their agenda unconscionably regardless of any evidence to the contrary.
I think that this approach to future history by McDevitt is very smart indeed and it is something that we all can see and understand just by looking around us. He isn’t really introducing any new conflicts here, but he has extrapolated fiercely on what is and that realism sticks in your brain. Issues that we debate at this moment are still being debated nearly 200 years in the future and people and attitudes haven’t changed. It is both deeply chilling and bizarrely reassuring at once.
Throughout the novels, news organizations play a big role and McDevitt again has extrapolated from our present to our future. Most of the reporters are plainly superficial; they are suave, beautiful manikins, who play up whatever appears to be an emotional event and they mostly ignore more difficult, in-depth stories. Man jumps off building. Congressman caught in love tryst: details at eleven. Like scientists and entertainers, reporters are more concerned with their own future than they are with the news.
The exception to this is the magazine, The National, whose editor, Gregory MacAllister, delights in attacking pompous airheads. He is definitely similar to the curmudgeonly journalist H. L. Mencken of the Twentieth Century. Although, in many ways, he is dislikeable (for example, he is an outspoken chauvinist and he distrusts religious leaders on the grounds that they have become more important than God), he also provides one of the deeper characters in the series. He is capable of listening, analyzing problems and changing his mind. At his best, he truly does reach for the underlying truth of existence. This level of complexity sets him well apart from others.
Technologically, some big changes take place during the next 200 years.
Of course, the big thing – and the first thing that really takes the Academy Novels outside the realm of hard science fiction – is the development of faster than light space travel (FTL). At a time when space exploration was believed to be dead, scientist Ginjer Hazeltine developed a theory of transdimensional transit. Once a drive unit was perfected, it was named the Hazeltine Drive. This is a rather murky theory, but most science fiction that crosses the threshold into space opera depends on some mechanism or other to allow transit across many light years in a short period of time. If you don’t worry about the details, you will be fine.
The Academy, by the way, is the space exploration arm of the NAU, controlling all official flights throughout the galaxy. Eventually, of course, private companies contract to have their own vessels built. Kosmik, Inc., for example, is involved in the business of terraforming. Orion Tours allows the extremely wealthy to go site seeing. And the media have their own vessels so that they can rush to the scene of any intergalactic hanky panky.
Since development of the Hazeltine Drive, the Academy has been looking through the Orion Arm of our galaxy (our immediate neighborhood) for two things: planets with an Earth-like biosphere that would be good for colonization and alien life.
Several planets have been found that meet the first criteria, some with only single-celled life, some with much higher, non-intelligent life, but most simply sterile. One planet has been found that possesses intelligent life: Inokademeri. But the inhabitants, referred to as Noks, have not developed technologically past where humans were at in World War I. Due to their innate intolerance, they are constantly at war; they have used up most of their natural resources and are considered (in MacAllister’s words) “idiots”. It is so bad on Nok that scientists are not permitted interaction with the locals. A few of the planets capable of supporting human life have actually been colonized, one by religious zealots and the other by political malcontents. Both colonies are failing.
And although humans most deeply desire to find another intelligent species, one that is technologically mature, they haven’t had much luck. In fact, mostly what they have found is archeological treasures: races that evolved a complex society and then (for one reason or another) died off. These discoveries – and others that will be discussed later – become a major plot element in several of the novels.
The other breakthroughs that keep the Academy Novels firmly outside the realm of hard science fiction are anti-gravity devices, artificial gravity and Flickinger fields.
Anti-gravity is used for a number of functions. There are vehicles that skim through the sky, depositing their passengers on special landing pads. (Apparently ground transportation has all but disappeared.) There is also the “spike” which is used to lift vehicles beyond a planet’s gravity well. And anti-gravity comes in really handy if you have to move anything that is large, massive or unwieldy.
Artificial gravity is, of course, used to keep people upright and functioning in a zero gravity environment, such as a space ship.
And the Flickinger Field is a kind of personal force field made of energy that molds itself to the human body. When connected with air tanks, these fields act like a space suit, protecting the wearer from harsh environments. They do have two problems: they are not impermeable (leaving them open to breaching) and they have a hard shell that forms over the face so that the wearer can breathe. Rest assured that these problems will be exploited by McDevitt.
Two of the best technological advances are easily within our grasp.
Artificial Intelligence has become a booming business in the Academy Novels. An AI runs every household; it serves as friend, cook, butler, maid, alarm and communications system. It’s like having a Google you can chat with. In addition, all complex operations are now exclusively handled by AIs and they even serve as back-up systems for pilots of space ships.
What’s really neat is that AIs can also appear as holograms. The common AI system on every Academy vessel is named Bill and he interacts with every captain in a unique individual way, projecting different images of “himself” throughout the ship. Contrary to the official line, AIs do have a sense of humor.
The disappearance of television isn’t spectacular because it is replaced (as is actually happening now) by the net and by 3D interactive entertainment known as Sims. The Net is huge, but as we see now in television, there are a few “channels” that rise to the top. In this way, there is a common experience, much the way we have now with the major broadcast networks. Some programs and personalities always rise to the top. And the desire for common entertainment experience will always funnel viewers in specific directions.
The Sims are like watching a movie that takes place around you, but you can also program your image and voice to appear as one of the characters. If you have a number of people doing this, it is apparently quite a bit of fun.
The protagonist of the Academy Novels is a pilot named Priscilla Hutchins (everyone calls her Hutch), a diminutive, black-haired beauty imbued with her own particular hang-ups and fears. She is tied to the Academy pretty much throughout the series, but in the beginning she mostly works with the archeologists. In fact, it is her association with one of the most prestigious of these, Dr. Richard Wald, which leads to the beginning of The Engines of God.
Hutch lives in Arlington, VA, just outside of what remains of Washington, DC. With all of the coastal flooding that continues as a result of polar ice melting, the former capital of the United States is now partly underwater, with the rest bolstered by levees so that the buildings may remain as tourist attractions.
She is one of those people matched perfectly with her job. In the first few novels, one can feel the excitement of space exploration through her eyes: the awe of discovery, the wonderful little social groups that form during a long flight, and the vastness of the universe. Hutch is smart and sexy, she has a grip on reality that others could benefit from touching. She is heroic, but not for the reasons that others behave heroically. She is immensely likeable, a terrific character to carry a series through six novels.
But the time she spends on Earth is pained. Her mother wants grandchildren and a stable relationship for her daughter. Hutch herself would like some stability, but her long absence hampers this ambition. The men who are interested in her simply cannot tolerate the absences, so Hutch remains frustrated on that level. However, her relationship with academics and archeologists is most stimulating – the time that they spend traveling between systems (normally a few months) is really the basis of her social life. She is both intelligent enough to hold her own with them, so whether they are just playing games, running sims or engaged in arcane discussions, she gains a great deal emotionally from the trips.
The most fascinating and puzzling discovery by the archeologists is the existence of gigantic sculptures scattered here and there along the rim. Perhaps the most fascinating is an alien’s self-portrait left on the snow-covered surface of Iapetus, the third largest of Saturn’s moons. That these aliens, referred to as “the Monument Makers” (for lack of a better term), actually visited the solar system some 24,000 years ago is a source of amazement to archeologists. Most of the sculptures are cubes or rectangles – shapes with straight lines and right angles – but the one on Iapetus is clearly a self-portrait.
It is at this point, on February 12, 2197, that The Engines of God begins. Hutch has piloted Dr. Wald to view the Iapetus sculpture and the opening words of the novel paint a chilling picture:
“The thing was carved of ice and rock. It stood serenely on that bleak, snow covered plain, a nightmare figure of gently curving claws, surreal eyes and lean fluidity. The lips were parted, rounded, almost sexual… stamped on its icy features was a look she could only have described as philosophical ferocity.”