by Jack McDevitt

Cover image

Series: Academy #4
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: November 2003
Printing: November 2004
ISBN: 0-441-01210-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 493

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the fourth book in the Academy (or Priscilla Hutchins) series, and unlike Deepsix and Chindi, it is directly concerned with the discoveries in The Engines of God (to which it makes numerous references). You could skip the previous books in the series without serious harm to your understanding of Omega, but reading The Engines of God first will fill in the background the characters are referring to. (And you shouldn't skip Chindi anyway.)

Omega starts the way that nearly every book in this series starts: with a deep-space discovery that the Academy (a quasi-government agency coming primarily out of the scientific research community and responsible for deep space travel, sort of a significantly enhanced NASA) has to go investigate. This time, though, Priscilla Hutchins is not the pilot. She's instead been kicked upstairs, becoming the Director of Operations for the Academy. That makes her the internal manager under the public face of the independent director.

Both of the problems in this book are related to the discovery in The Engines of God. I don't think that discovery is much of a spoiler (and I'll avoid talking about the specific details that feed the puzzle in The Engines of God), but if you dislike all spoilers, you may want to stop reading here.

More and more of the omega clouds have been discovered and tracked by the Academy in the years since the first one was found, and there is one heading towards Earth. However, it's not due to arrive for nearly a thousand years, which robs the situation of much of its sense of urgency. (I have to wonder if McDevitt intended a parallel with arguments over climate change, using an even more extended timeline.) A much more immediate problem is that one of the clouds has made a course change and is heading directly towards a previously unexplored system. And, once the Academy gets there, they find the holy grail of space exploration: an alien civilization.

The Academy also makes a lesser but less straightforward discovery at about the same time: sudden bursts of intense light from areas of the galaxy with no stars or other known objects. Bursts of light that compete with a stellar nova in intensity, but only in the visual spectrum.

Around these two problems, McDevitt spins his normal slow-paced story of scientific politics, investigation, debate, and analysis. The primary problem of the book is the alien civilization endangered by the omega cloud. They have a technology level of about the Roman Empire and clearly can do nothing to protect themselves from it, and there's a tight timeline. In about nine months, they will be hit by what may become a mass extinction event that could wipe out their race entirely, and the Academy has only a few ships within range. The attempted rescue mission from Earth will take nearly all of the nine months to reach the system, and then only if it's rushed.

One problem to acknowledge up-front: those familiar with McDevitt's work will probably realize that aliens are not his strong point. It's questionable whether any human writer can really imagine a non-human intelligence, but McDevitt's aliens tend to be more human than most. The Goompahs (named by the humans via an unfortunate accident of similarity to characters in a children's TV show on Earth) are not particularly alien aliens: bipedal, with normal senses, a style of architecture that reminds everyone of ancient Greece, human-like religions and general political culture, and sailing ships. We're firmly in Klingon or Vulcan territory here in terms of divergence from humanity.

However, if one can get past that, McDevitt takes another, more interesting page out of Star Trek. The Academy has a rule similar to the Prime Directive and for similar reasons. There's a strong academic belief that contact with a vastly superior culture is a death knell for a more primitive one. (As is typical of McDevitt, this is not accepted universally and is vigorously debated in the book. McDevitt is particularly good at showing the internal debates and disagreements inside the scientific community.) But unless one of the other experimental techniques of diverting the omega cloud works, the Academy crew has to get the Goompahs out of the cities and to high ground if they're going to survive. And neither the Academy (on humanitarian grounds) or the Earth's population (on cuteness grounds) wants to see them wiped out.

The result is a surprisingly good, if slow-paced, story about how untrained people at the end of a long supply chain but with some fairly nice bits of advanced technology (including invisibility fields) go about learning enough about a culture to be able to contact it. In other words, the heart of this book is a first contact story, but one between advanced humans and a more technologically primitive alien race. Parts of this are not particularly realistic in the same way that the aliens are not; for example, learning the native language and then eventually translating it seems to be about as hard as translating a previously unknown Earth language. But while I suspect the process used would give real anthropologists apoplexy, it made for an engrossing and surprisingly suspenseful story. It of course helps the suspense that humans apparently look remarkably like demons in Goompah mythology.

Unfortunately, unlike Chindi, McDevitt doesn't have a whole string of discoveries to slowly unwind through the story. This is more like Deepsix: problem discovered, team dispatched, team attempts various solutions to the problem and works through various implications, and then the timeline builds into a major climax involving astronomical forces. This means it's slow. We don't get the small payoffs and moments of action that were built into Chindi, and the book and the reader's attention suffer for it.

On the plus side, though, this is not just an engineer-with-a-wrench story. There are real scientific questions (and in disciplines other than the hard sciences). There are also real ethical questions, which McDevitt does a good job of surrounding and presenting from multiple perspectives. And once again McDevitt's unusual way of handling both props and plot points worked for me. He does the exact opposite of ensuring that the guns on the mantle will be used by the end of the book: he loads the mantle with guns of all descriptions, many of which look to be extremely important, and then most of them fizzle out or turn out to be distractions in various ways. It's an unusual and somewhat risky story-telling technique that, for me at least, does a wonderful job of creating the mood of scientific exploration and analysis. One keeps making theories and peering at anomolies, and most of the time one is wrong. But eventually, one ends up being right, and the payoff is even better for all the false starts.

The best scientific parts of this book are actually around the apparently more minor discovery of the nova-like bursts of light, and while I don't know how McDevitt could have added more to that part of the story, I wish he had. That could have provided some of the feeling of constant discovery that kept the narrative drive higher in Chindi, but there isn't enough material to it to manage. But it's still a great subplot, and leads to a startling realization that I suspect will be significant in the remaining books of this series.

This is not as good as Chindi, but it's better than the other previous books in this series. I don't think the omega clouds are inherently as interesting as the puzzle in Chindi, and McDevitt's aliens required a lot of allowances and suspension of disbelief. But Omega kept me interested all the way through, and on the edge of my seat for the climax, and there are some surprisingly touching and emotionally effective moments in the interactions between the humans and the aliens. I also liked how McDevitt left the ethical questions only half-resolved, and the reader with some hard questions to ponder.

I'd read Chindi first if you're new to this series, but if you liked Chindi, you'll probably like this as well, with the caveat that it's not quite as good.

Followed by Odyssey.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-11-14

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