Deepsix

by Jack McDevitt

Cover image

Series: Engines of God #2
Publisher: Eos
Copyright: September 2000
Printing: January 2002
ISBN: 0-06-102006-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 508

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This is the second book of the Academy series, following The Engines of God and also featuring the pilot Hutch as a main character. It can be read by itself, though; the events of the previous book have very little impact on the story. But be aware that Deepsix will spoil the conclusion of The Engines of God.

Deepsix follows the now-familiar pattern of McDevitt novels: an interplanetary exploration mission finds archeological remnants, this time of an unexpected alien civilization. The exploration goes wrong, resulting in a tense mix of survival in an alien environment and attempts to figure out what the explorers are looking at and what it means.

This time, the backdrop is the collision of a gas giant with an Earth-like world. The Earth-like world has been locked in an ice age for a few thousand years because its star system has entered a nebula, which reduces the light from its sun enough to drop the planetary temperature. The initial exploration mission ended in disaster when some of the team were killed by native wildlife. Since then the world had gone unexplored. But when the scientific teams show up to watch the imminent collision, they find remnants of an alien civilization that had been missed by earlier scans. Hutch is diverted three weeks before the collision to land and attempt to gather as much information as possible. From there, you can probably write the general direction of the plot by picking the predictable events that would lead to the most drama.

As is often the case with a McDevitt book, I was left wishing for a bit more detail and twists to the exploration. I like his plots the best when they're mysteries and puzzles, when the characters are piecing together evidence to reconstruct stories and lost time. There's some of that here, but the focus is on interpersonal drama, slow-developing characterization, and planetary survival. Most of the last, at first at least, is hostile non-sentient aliens, which I find a bit boring. There are only so many variations in which SF authors present dangerous creatures, mostly by combining various Earth-style monsters with eerie sorts of intelligence, and I feel like I've read most of it before. The planetary survival part gets much more interesting when the characters are facing dramatic natural disasters rather than the local wildlife.

Characterization is clearly intended to be the heart of the story, though, and here I appreciated what McDevitt was doing even if I didn't always enjoy it. He assembles a cast of flawed, very human characters, often with traits that make the reader initially dislike them, and then throws events at them that slowly reveal more sides to their personalities. One of those characters is a egotistical, self-righteous editor, social commentator, and famous debunker of religion who's clearly partially modeled after H.L. Mencken. He's both despicable and horribly self-serving at the start of the story, but by the end of Deepsix he's managed to find some personal depth and win some respect from the other characters. This is one of those books in which one never gets to shake the characters with no sense of personal responsibility the way that they deserve, but instead is dragged into slowly finding admirable traits in them. It's realistic, but it also feels a bit like being made to eat your vegetables.

I respect what I think McDevitt is trying to do, which is take the sort of scenario that might be used in an SF disaster novel and populate it with normal, flawed characters, mostly avoid heroes, show people reacting to the best of their abilities (often limited), and still show the emergent energy and capabilities of basically decent people in an emergency. McDevitt knows how to portray esprit de corps and bonds formed between small groups of people in an emergency situation, and despite having guessed nearly every plot twist throughout the book, I found the ending and epilogue surprisingly affecting. Deepsix is too long, and one has to put up with annoying people for a long time to get there, but it reaches a satisfying conclusion.

I prefer McDevitt's social and technological puzzles, and this is instead an engineer-with-a-wrench story with an unusual amount of characterization. There's a lot of hard science solving problems that were obviously telegraphed; parts of the story feel like throwbacks to an earlier age of SF with improvisational scientists and engineers solving urgent physics problems. The result is okay, certainly readable, and not without its merits, but not really a book to seek out.

Despite being part of the Academy series, about the only point of continuity is the general universe background and the appearance of Hutch. Readers who want further development of the revelations of The Engines of God will have to wait for the next installment.

Followed by Chindi.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-12-27

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21