Bewildering Stories

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Jack McDevitt, Infinity Beach

by Don Webb

Jack McDevitt, Infinity Beach. New York: Harper-Collins, 2000; 510 + 5 pp.

From Eternity Road to Infinity Beach, Jack McDevitt has come a long, long way.

Jack McDevitt has been mentioned only once so far in Bewildering Stories: Jerry’s review of Eternity Road in issue 27. That novel is rather curious: it recounts a long march across an alternate-universe North America. The locations and events seem to be keyed to our own time, but the connections are far from obvious.

McDevitt’s Infinity Beach has a similar title, but the author looks outward into space and the future rather than sideways or inward. The novel is set not on Earth, which is mentioned in passing only a few times, but on a colony planet, Greenway, some 1,500 lightyears distant.

Greenway has three moons, a single continent and a single, world-spanning ocean. Although the world is depicted as a kind of garden planet, its climate seems unaccountably on the cool side. The planet — originally barren — has been seeded with life from Earth. It is also one of the “Nine Worlds,” colonies linked by regular hyperspatial flights. Interstellar war has had disastrous consequences, but it has occurred only once. As the novel opens, society is peaceful and prosperous.

Such circumstances might seem almost idyllic, but there are problems in paradise. There can be no assurance that the prosperity will be permanent: people may choose between a profession or relatively well-supported idleness.

Worse, humanity has regretfully concluded that it is alone in the universe and that no other spacefaring races share the galaxy. Exploration has ground to a halt: what’s the point in it? The result is a kind of cultural funk, a loss of nerve. And it’s something to worry about, because Greenway has already experienced a dark age in its more than 500 years of history.

The political powers that be are quite content with the situation: the only ones rocking the boat are scientists who are setting in motion a project to detonate three novas at exact intervals. The object is to send a last, desperate signal to the universe that “we are here.” And hope that aliens will take the initiative and come visiting in a few thousand years or so.

Not content to wait, a small group of starry-eyed amateurs take a spaceship, the Hunter, out to explore deep space in the Belt of Orion. They return apparently empty-handed. But the expedition is shrouded in mystery: two of its members — Yoshi and Emily — vanish without a trace immediately after its return; the others lapse into a state of depression, and one of them, the pilot Kane Markis — a former war hero and talented artist — eventually abandons Greenway for Earth.

The heroine of the novel, Kim Brandywine, is an astrophysicist turned fund-raiser. She is motivated by the mysterious disappearance of Emily, who was her clone sister. The entire plot of the novel, then, centers on Kim’s efforts to find her missing sister and to unravel the cover-up surrounding the Hunter expedition.

McDevitt deserves a lot of credit for his skill and even cleverness in managing the pace at which the plot unfolds. He also successfully combines elements from mysteries, spy stories and even gothic novels. Is the novel “hard” science fiction? I think that would be an overstatement; rather it’s written in the traditional, “classic” mode. McDevitt’s technological advances are science-fiction standard for the most part: longevity, anti-aging treatments, artificial intelligence of a sort, and the common use of maglev trains and flying taxicabs. But he takes for granted a startling new concept in spaceships: transit times — even through hyperspace — require that they be designed for comfort; they are practically automated flying hotels. On reflection, the innovation seems obvious, even inevitable.

You’ll get no spoilers here; let a teaser suffice. One of the following is an irony: Kim is told at one point that she is no actress. And the other species that explorers hope to meet are never called “aliens”; they are always referred to as “celestials.” You’ll have to read the novel to find out which is ironic and which isn’t!

If science fiction is going to award a Hugo to a preposterous, self-absorbed patchwork of newspaper clippings such as Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids, what distinction ought it to bestow upon an excellent, workmanlike novel like Infinity Beach or other novels deserving recognition? Is Jack McDevitt now one of the most underrated authors in science fiction?

Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2004 by Don Webb

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