Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

This novel of modern Oklahoma is something of an enigma.

It tells the story of a girl named Novalee Nation, from the time when she is 17 years old until she is in her mid-twenties. Eight months pregnant, naïve, and actually somewhat ignorant, she has left her home in Tellico Plains, Tennessee with her boyfriend Willie Jack Pickens and is headed for Bakersfield, California.where the heart is

Novalee is quite charming in her ignorance. She believes that the number seven always brings her bad luck.  After all, on her seventh birthday, her mother ran away with a baseball player, leaving her to the kindness of friends and orphanages, in the seventh grade, her only friend got sent to the Tennessee State School for Girls, and when she got stabbed in the arm at the bar she worked at, the wound required seventy-seven stitches.

When her shoes fall through the floor of the car and she has relieve her bladder, Willie Jack pulls into a Wal-Mart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma. He gives her ten dollars, then drives off and leaves her there.  She figures it out when her change from the ten dollars comes to $7.77.

On her first day there, she meets three people who will be instrumental in her survival and good fortune: Sister Husband, a blue-haired lady who runs the town Welcome Wagon, Moses Whitecotton, a baby photographer, and Benny Goodluck, a Native American boy who gives her a buckeye tree. At a loss for what to do, she simply lives in the Wal-Mart, keeping tabs of how much she owes them for the products she uses.  When the buckeye tree starts to get sickly, she goes to the town library and meets Forney Hull.  A strange young man addicted to knowledge, Forney runs the library while his sister, the alcoholic librarian, lives upstairs.  He becomes extremely protective of Novalee and he busts a plate glass window in the Wal-Mart to help her when she gives birth to a daughter.  Cautioned by Moses that she must give her baby a very strong name, she names the girl Americus.

A reader might derive from this that the novel is all about a naïve person overcoming their background to make a success of their life—and it’s true that part of the novel is definitely about that. All of the strange and interesting names would also suggest an air of goofy whimsy—and it’s true that part of the novel fits that description.  In fact, there is such a relaxed, fun, and goofy feeling about the book that the hard parts seem to come out of the blue.  However, they do not.  The gritty, sexually perverse parts of the novel only accent how important it is to appreciate the good things in your life, the people who are important to you, and the value of overcoming even the deepest, darkest adversity.

If the book has any theme, though, it is a message to young women: do not base your sexual or long-term relationships on how a boy looks or how much money a man makes.  While Novalee and Lexi make a long string of mistakes, their lives are contrasted sharply with Sister Husband, whose one illicit relationship carries far more love than that of Willie Jack or any of the men who have left Lexi with children—or the one man who left her beaten and sodomized her children. It is a very good feeling when both of these incredible women finally figure out what is important.

This novel is quite an achievement. You can hear Oklahoma on every page with the voice of the author, in the sound of the characters’ voices, in the wind blowing across the prairie.  It is inspiring, uplifting, and yet gritty and realistic.

I highly recommend this book!

An Introduction to the Universe of the Academy Novels by Jack McDevitt

Academy IntroIn 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.”


Deepsix by Jack McDevitt


DeepsixSpoiler Alert!  This review contains detailed information on the plot and resolution of the novel Deepsix.  It is recommended that you read the novel before you read this review.  Although it is not absolutely necessary to read The Engines of God,the first novel in the Academy series, before Deepsix, I think it is much more satisfying to read the entire series in sequence.  

For those who have read neither novel, a detailed introduction to the Academy novels is available HERE.  Additionally, my review of The Engines of God is available HERE.

Deepsix is the second of Jack McDevitt’s Academy novels, chronologically following The Engines of God by about 20 years.  All of the same conventions of McDevitt’s Academy universe apply equally to Deepsix, with the advancements from The Engines of God added on, namely that Omega clouds have now become an accepted (although still not understood) part of the universe – still under investigation – and that the planet Beta Pacifica III has now become a major archeological site following its discovery by Hutch and Frank Carson.

Hutch still works for the Academy as a superluminal pilot, but she is now nearing the age of fifty.  Of course, thanks to advancements in medicine, she still looks and feels like a twenty-something “babe”.  As the novel opens, she has just made a drop at the archeological site on Pinnacle and is picking up an exobiologist, Randall Nightingale, and some others for a return trip to Earth.  Nightingale was the team leader for the first mission to Maleiva III twenty years before and was held responsible for the deaths of several of his colleagues, even though it was not primary his fault.  His return to Earth at this time coincides with an expedition to Maleiva III (now renamed Deepsix) to observe its destruction as it collides with a rogue gas giant.

In fact the Wendy Jay, captained by Marcel Clairveau, an old friend of Hutch, is currently orbiting Deepsix with a large group of scientists.  The onboard scientific community, there to observe the cosmic carnage about to occur, finds previously unnoticed ruins, evidence of an intelligent life form.  Since no other ships or archeologists are available to the Academy on such short notice, they send Hutch to investigate.  She brings Nightingale and several others to the surface with her and the novel takes off.

Each chapter is introduced with a quote from one of the world’s most revered critics (and one of McDevitt’s deepest characters), Gregory MacAllister.  He begins as a pompous, self-centered elitist who takes great pride in attacking those as conceited as himself, especially religious leaders and anyone else (besides himself) who makes pronouncements about the state of the world or the nature of existence.  But I would strongly advise against taking these little quotes for granted, because there are amazing nuggets of wisdom hidden there – they demonstrate that MacAllister is not all hot air and that he has actually thought some things out.  I have taken excerpts from these quotes and sprinkled them around this review to show how McDevitt has worked thematic development into introductory quotations.


Consistent with many of McDevitt’s works, the novel begins with a Prologue, which is a flash to the past: October, 2204 (two years after the incidents described in The Engines of God).  In this case, it describes Nightingale’s first trip to Deepsix, detailing the deaths of the six mission members who were killed by swarms of red birds with large beaks.  It sets up Randall Nightingale as one of the novel’s protagonists and tells the true story of the incident, which would later be distorted to implicate Nightingale as the Academy’s public scapegoat for the mission’s failure.

This is fairly important because around that very time, Gregory MacAllister lambasted Nightingale as a coward: 

…when his people most needed him, Randall Nightingale fainted dead away.  He was rescued by Sabina Coldfield and dragged to safety by that estimable woman at the cost of her own life… Coldfield… was worth a dozen Nightingales.

Obviously, MacAllister had no idea what actually happened on Deepsix, nor did he care.  As long as he could find someone to make his point, “Mac” did not care what happened to his or her life as a result of his writing.

Normally, I do not especially like the use of an opening flashback.  It is, of course, a quite valid and well-used technique of novel writing, but it has become a handy crutch that is way over-used.  And McDevitt does use it over and over in his novels.  That being said, he used it extremely effectively in The Engines of God and does so again here.  I think telling the true story of the original incident on Deepsix really does help to set the stage and particularly to set up the later relationship between Nightingale and MacAllister.

Beyond the Prologue, the book is broken into three parts.

Part 1 – Burbage Point

The first part launches the novel into the “present time” of November, 2223.  The remainder of the novel occurs over three weeks, ending shortly after December 9, 2223, except for an Epilogue, which wraps up the story at the end.

The story covered in Part 1 establishes the scientific team, Hutch’s mission to look for artifacts, the arrival of the luxury liner, Evening Star, the stranding of Hutch’s team on the surface of Deepsix (along with MacAllister) and the evil that Ian Helm does.

Yes, McDevitt trots out his villain from The Engines of God.  Although Helm was portrayed as an unlikable character in the former novel, at least his motivation was believable and somewhat understandable.  Here, he comes across as one-dimensional and flat.  In fact, the entire sequence where he purposely disposes of the only lander that could come to Hutch’s rescue feels forced and entirely unneeded.  I think it might have been better to simply say that no ship possessing a lander was close enough to arrive in time for the rescue.  This act of omission would have saved a few pages in a very long book and would have eliminated one of the only flaws in an otherwise amazing narrative.

The first part of the novel brings us quickly to the important things that McDevitt wants us to think about in Deepsix.  These themes were partially opened up in The Engines of God, but McDevitt develops them to a very high level in this novel.

Extraterrestrial archeology sounds glamorous because its perpetrators dig up transistor radios used by creatures who’ve been gone a quarter million years.  Therefore it carries an aura of mystery and romance.  But if we ever succeed in outrunning the radio waves, so we can mine their broadcasts, we’ll undoubtedly discover that they, like ourselves, were a population of dunces.” ~ Gregory MacAllister

One of the primary assumptions of the Academy universe is that the people are very, very much like us in some fundamental respects, mainly that there is a ceiling to cultural development and we’ve already reached it.  Technology might change some of the situations, such as the sims replacing television, but participation in a three-dimensional sim does not bring any kind of awareness or elevated sense of being.  Indeed, the sims only tend to reinforce our basic cultural iconography.  Instead of watching a romance or a war drama, you are allowed to <I>participate</I> as your icon replaces a character.  It’s still a romance or war drama, essential in every other respect to a television show or movie.

McDevitt’s characters are still concerned with the same things we are: ego, relationships, career, dining, and death.

Coming together on Deepsix are Hutch, Randall Nightingale, Kellie Collier and Chiang Harmon (two volunteers from the Wendy Jay) and, of course, Gregory MacAllister.  He was added to the mix when he brought a young journalist and pilot from the Star to the surface.  An earthquake killed the journalist and pilot, as well as one of Hutch’s volunteers, and destroyed both landers, stranding these five on the surface with the cosmic collision less than three weeks away.

The fragility of Nightingale’s ego, contrasted against the overpowering ego of MacAllister, is established in this first part of the book as they are brought face to face.  Mac was clearly a part of the failure of Nightingale’s career and Randy very much resents that.  Mac, on the other hand, feels fully justified in his action and this matter festers as time passes.

The inability of Hutch to establish a stable relationship that was developed in the first novel is not really pursued here.  Instead, Kellie comes to represent relationship frustration.  An attractive young black woman, she is pursued by a number of the men on board <I>Wendy</I>, in particular by Chiang, yet she seems ambivalent about getting involved with someone.

Marriage in the early 23rd century is a contractual affair, which requires re-certification periodically.  Most people do not renew.  People live a lot longer and look younger throughout most of their lives, but ennui begins to set in early and people tend to live more boring lives over all.  People are also generally good-looking and most work out religiously to keep their bodies in shape.  This also squares with where we are at today.  Although we don’t live as long as McDevitt’s characters, the visible society tends to be more and more attractive, young-looking and physically fit.  And most of our lives are still boring – or perhaps uneventful would be a better description.

There is very little brilliance here and it is generally restricted to a small gene pool.  The ugly or overweight people are – by and large – not seen on TV and we tend to elevate beauty.  And, for the most part, we are a very boring species.

It’s customary to argue that intelligence grants an evolutionary advantage.  But where is the evidence?  We are surrounded by believers in psychic healing, astrology, dreams and drugs.  Are we to accept the premise that these hordes of unfortunates descended from intelligent forebears? ~ Gregory MacAllister

I’ve read the criticism of McDevitt that his characters are rather flat and boring, but in the Academy universe that is just the way people are.  In fact, honestly, I am hard put to find ten extremely well-rounded characters in all of science fiction, so I generally find this complaint spurious, but in this case I believe it is completely unfounded.  Especially considering the introduction of Gregory MacAllister, who begins as an inflated version of the flat people surrounding him, but is forced to develop a conscience by the events that are about to occur.

Self-importance is closely tied to career development.  McDevitt’s people spend an amazing amount of time thinking about their jobs, their prospects and their ambitions.  Nightingale has essentially given up twenty years of his life because of the loss of his professional reputation.  He was working in obscurity on Pinnacle because he couldn’t really get a good job on Earth.  He plans on retiring to an isolated part of Scotland where he will never have to see anyone again. 

And then there is Nicholson, the captain of the Evening Star.  He is devastated at the death of a passenger and a crewmember, but not because he regrets the loss of life.  He is worried because it is his fault and it could mean the end of his career.  John Drummond, a brilliant mathematician, hasn’t produced a major breakthrough since his early twenties and he meditates on how everyone views him and his failure.

In our time, it can be argued that we have entered the age where a person’s career is of paramount importance, where a great deal of ego growth and sense of well-being depends on money and power earned through job performance.  I would think that much is self-evident.

Mac, of course, glows in the public adulation of his writing.  It feeds him and keeps him alive.

Which brings us to food, which is a constant topic in the worlds of McDevitt.  In one sense, it’s not surprising.  People who must spend a great deal of time on starships must think about food quite a bit.  It’s a way to fight boredom.  But it’s more than that; most every event, whether starship bound or Earth bound, is celebrated with food and drink.  When Nicholson prepares himself to face a rebellious bunch of wealthy passengers, the first thing he does is order snacks and beverages to be delivered as he arrives on the scene.

Food is a part of the overall comfort of society – both our society and in the universe of the Academy.

Nothing kills the appetite quite as effectively as a death sentence. ~ Gregory MacAllister

But in Deepsix, for the people who are stranded, food is literally part of the landscape.  They are short on rations and must figure out which of the local population is edible and non-toxic.

The last item that McDevitt sets up in thematic development is the importance of death.

Hutch has a much more intimate knowledge of death than anyone else in Deepsix.  Those of us who have read The Engines of God are familiar with the death of Hutch’s close friend, the archeologist, Richard Wald.  In addition, she was part of the group separated from their lander on Beta Pac III, when George and Maggie were killed.  Finally, she faced death straight-on twice herself, both in the damaged starship as oxygen ran out and as part of the group relentlessly stalked by the Omega Cloud.

Some critics argue that McDevitt kills off too many characters.  Just as soon as you get to like a character, they get killed.  But all of the deaths in the Academy series have a point, usually to force some of the other characters to realize something important – such as how sweet it is to be alive or how impulsive behavior can lead to tragedy or even how cold and unfeeling nature is.  It proves its point – and does so more dramatically in Deepsix really than any other of the Academy novels.

By the end of Part 1, the body count is already at nine, counting the six who were killed in the Prologue to make Nightingale’s career fall apart and three more in this first part, two due to MacAllister’s ego and one to that cold face of nature.  All nine died to advance the story and the theme as concisely as possible, but we’ll only count the three of “present day”.

Equally as important as the fear of death, however, is the speed of recovery from grief.  There’s a lot of grief in the Academy series, but none of it lasts very long.  Part of it, of course, is the same thing that makes us recover from our grief quickly.  We are concerned with life and when death interrupts living, we are anxious to get the grieving over with and get back to celebrating being alive.

Part of the speedy recovery of grief is that the characters are rooted so squarely in their egos – as are we.  Even if a death is our fault, we need to put it behind us quickly so that we can begin to feel good about ourselves as quickly as possible.  For that is much of what life in the 21st or 23rd centuries is made up of:  concern for our own well-being, safety and comfort.

Of course, in Deepsix, the grieving is short because our stranded characters are facing their own survival.  They don’t really have the luxury to wallow in grief.

Part 2 – Overland

Although Mac doesn’t think much of him, it is Nightingale who remembers that the original mission had left a lander behind during their withdrawal.  It is their only hope for survival once Ian Helm has done his evil.  They remove capacitors from one of the damaged landers and secure them at the site.  In order to reach the remaining lander, however, the party will have to cross 175 kilometers of icy, alien land and hostile native creatures.

It is mostly during this trek that the novel centers itself and fleshes out the various themes.

When struggling to survive in a hostile environment, people are literally stripped to their essence.  Fear can be a powerful motivator, for both cowards and heroes.  When they first learn that there is no way off the planet, MacAllister’s fear seems to betray the coward in him, yet throughout the march, when push comes to shove, Mac always steps up and faces danger with aplomb.

By contrast, Nightingale thinks of himself as a coward and so must test that assumption at every step.  Even though he often reacts heroically to situations, he still thinks of himself as a humiliated man.

As the group marches across Deepsix, Captain Nicholson decides that he will blame the entire incident on the pilot who lost his life on the surface and will thus manage to save his career.  Captain Clairveau demands that the scientists on the <I>Wendy</I> use their talents to come up with alternative rescue plans.  This is the ultimate intelligent-monkey challenge: you are presented with an engineering problem – come up with a workable solution.  It is John Drummond, the mathematician whose brilliant career has fizzled, who works out the details of salvaging the remains of a Maleivan skyhook and using it as a scoop to skim the atmosphere and pick up the damaged lander.  Like Mac, he behaves heroically without actually realizing he is doing so.

If there is one characteristic that marks all sentient creatures, it is their conviction of their own individual significance.  One sees this in their insistence on leaving whatever marks they can of their passing… we pay schools and churches to name wings, awards and parking areas after us.  Every nitwit who gets promoted to supervisor thinks the rest of creation will eventually happen by and want breathlessly to know everything about him that can possibly be gathered.  ~ Gregory MacAllister

On the surface of Deepsix, Chiang tries to tell Kellie that he loves her, but it is an awkward moment.  She tries not to hurt his feelings, but her ambivalence is obvious.  The question becomes moot when the group is attacked by what remains of the one intelligent race thought to exist on Deepsix.  Chiang goes down in the first volley of rocks and dies almost immediately.  Kellie’s ambivalence turns into deep regret.  She admits to Mac that she probably didn’t love Chiang, but nonetheless was filled with deep emotions.  “Sometimes,” Mac tells her, “I think life is just one long series of blown opportunities.”

While romantic relationships never develop, friendship does.  Hutch and Kellie bond on a deep personal level.  The two women in this group are the leaders, the pilots.  They are both in great physical shape and they can make this difficult trek easily.  The scene where they are bathing in ice-cold water and hugging each other is terrific writing.

On the other hand, the men are two fairly old guys that are out shape, an academic and a pontificating airbag, who are sworn enemies at the beginning of the ordeal.  But the trek slows them down, shows them their physical weaknesses and brings them much closer together philosophically.

It is not surprising that the four survivors form a lifelong bond.

Mac, in particular, gains a lot of compassion during the ordeal and is forced to relax his pomposity.  He sees the direct effect of his words on others.  He stretches himself and grows as a character.  So does Nightingale.  A man who wanted nothing more than to retreat from life is forced to face it square on.

They learn to kill the local wildlife, but each experience calls upon one of them to taste the food and wait to see if it will kill them.  This part of the novel forces all of them to face their own mortality.  The capacitors they had set aside are lost to the floods that begin to build, along with the fury of the world around them being torn apart.  They are forced to rely on Clairveau’s backup plan.

Part 3 – Skyhook

When misfortune strikes the true believer, he assumes he has done something to deserve punishment, but isn’t quite certain what.  The realist, recognizing that he lives in a Darwinian universe, is simply grateful to have made it to another sunset.  ~ Gregory MacAllister

One problem that I had about the final plan to rescue Hutch and the others was that in spite of the amount of wordage expended on it, I still could not visualize how the three ships manipulated the skyhook.  I just couldn’t see it in my imagination.  Normally, McDevitt is terrific with his description, so I’m inclined to think that it is my own failure.  But I’ve now read the book four times (twice in a row in preparation for writing this review) and I just can’t see it.

This is a very long novel and I’ve heard complaints from other reviewers about the length.  I tend to agree, but with some reservations.  Not only is the Ian Helm part extraneous, but I also feel that too much time is expended on the ultimate rescue plan, the Outsiders, the captains huddling and so on.  From the time the two landers are destroyed, the real story is the five people stranded on the planet and their own struggle for survival.  I do see the value of people pulling together for a common cause, but the narrative could have been tightened up considerably.

One of the most striking statements comes near the end of the novel as Hutch is investigating the building on top of Mt. Blue, which at one time housed the base of the skyhook.  She remembers Kellie asking if anyone believed in an immortal soul.  “Certainly, Hutch didn’t,” McDevitt writes.  The world was a cold, mathematical machine that produced hydrogen, stars, mosquitoes and superluminal pilots without showing the slightest concern for any of them.” (My emphasis.)

While investigating the building, Hutch and Randy find themselves trapped in an elevator that is gliding shakily down the mountain on uncertain rails.  Kellie pilots the lander around to attempt a rescue, but Nightingale freezes up.  Faced with the prospect of dropping hundreds of meters to the ground, he cannot move forward.  Hutch manages to manipulate him into the rescue, but time is wasted and they cannot get Hutch out.  Aside from worrying about Hutch, Nightingale feels a deep humiliation that he was the cause of her becoming stranded.  He realizes that perhaps Mac was right and that he really is a coward.

Stranded on the metal scaffolding in the middle of a lightening storm, Hutch must construct a sling from rope and dangle in the skies to prevent electrocution.  She hangs there all night in order to be rescued in the morning.  Sometimes it’s amazing how much a human being can put up with to hang onto life.

The dénouement is a real tour de force of writing.  From the moment when Hutch, Kellie, Randy and Mac realize that the scoop is too snarled for the lander to safely enter, they are faced with the immediate prospect of death.

Hutch understands that they will have one chance, but that she must sacrifice herself for the others to jump to safety.  As pilot, she must stay at the controls to ensure that the other three make it.  By the time she will be ready to jump, the lander will already be falling back into Deepsix.  While Mac and Kellie jump to safety, Randy seems to be stalling.  Hutch suspects that he has frozen up again, but he is actually digesting the fact that Hutch is giving up her life for them and he is formulating a way to give her a chance.

He removes a cable and ties it around her waist on one end and his own on the other.  He jumps, then Hutch follows, tethered to him with the cable.  But she is well below him and her gravity is pulling her down and dragging at Nightingale hanging from the net.

What it comes down to is the will to live, to fight for life with your last breath – and in this case to hang on regardless of desperate pain.  For Randy, the flesh is being torn off his hands and his arms are being nearly pulled from their sockets, yet he manages to hold on and to save Hutch’s life.  At last, Nightingale becomes a hero and is able to throw off the coward’s mantle.  Its pretty amazing writing and it sums up the book rather nicely.

Earlier in the novel, there was another quote from MacAllister that also sums up the various threads of thematic development and that shows he really understands what life is all about:

Most of us sleepwalk through out lives.  We take all its glories, its wine, food, love and friendship, its sunsets and its stars, its poetry and fireplaces and laughter for granted.  We forget that experience is not or should not be a casual encounter, but rather an embrace.  ~ Gregory MacAllister

After the amazing rescue, the Epilogue is certainly anticlimactic, but it does explain what happens afterward and there is some satisfaction in that.  With the death of a shuttle pilot the “present day” body count is a mere five (eleven including the prologue).  Not too bad really for a book about facing death.

Deepsix is a not really a book about harrowing escapes, the ingenuity of people in a crisis, or the awesomeness of cosmic events, although certainly all of these things happen in the novel.  Ultimately, this is a book about the sweetness of life.  It is about the preciousness of individual existence in a cold, mathematical universe and about the fight to hold on to life at all costs.

Perhaps the best tribute one can give to Jack McDevitt is acknowledgment that he shared this truth with us in a big, captivating, and awesome story.  Deepsix is an entertaining, page-turning, and thoughtful exploration of the sweetness of existence. 

Thanks, Jack!