Deepsix by Jack McDevitt
(HarperCollins Eos, $25.00, 432 pages, hardback; 13 March 2001. Published in the UK by HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 432 pages, paperback, 4 June 2001.)
In the year 2204 a survey party led by Randall Nightingale landed on ice-age-locked Deepsix, one of the few life-bearing planets the human species has so far discovered during its expansion outwards into the Galaxy. The party was attacked by carnivorous birds and retreated in disarray, with the loss of several lives. Nightingale was made scapegoat by his Academy bosses for the "failure" of the expedition, and since then no further study of the planet has been authorized.
Now, however, nearly 20 years later in 2223, Deepsix is about to be destroyed in a collision with a wandering Jovian planet, and several vessels are here so that the human species can observe the cataclysm, for purposes of either science or thrill. From orbit are noticed various abandoned artefacts: clearly Deepsix nurtured not just life but at some stage intelligent life, and a civilization of sorts, a fact overlooked during the hastily aborted earlier mission. Although time is short before the collision, a small investigatory party, which happens to include the disgraced Nightingale, is sent down in one of the two available landers to discover what they can; an overweening journalist commandeers the other to make a landing for purposes of self-glorification.
One of the quakes induced by the growing proximity of the rogue Jovian destroys both landers -- and the race is on to recover the surviving members of the team from the increasingly hostile surface of the planet. Meanwhile, those team members are discovering technology of incredible sophistication, showing that Deepsix holds unsuspected mysteries...
Embarrassing though it might be to admit, this is a page-turning, nail-biting, pulse-pounding sf adventure novel of the highest order: it is, quite simply, a riveting read. "Quite simply" in more than one sense, because it is unladen with any particular philosophical subtext -- it is not a book that requires head-scratching analysis to reveal layers of meaning -- save the customary hard-sf one that the search for knowledge is paramount over all other concerns save humane ones, the word "humane" being extended to cover other species. What you find here, instead of what can often be illusory or even puerile metaphysical profundity, is an example of quite superb tale-telling.
Blurb and cover quotes compare McDevitt to Clarke and Asimov, but he is a wholly different writer from either of them, with different preoccupations and territory. Instead, the book's feel is strongly reminiscent of the heyday of Larry Niven, back before all the increasingly mechanical collaborations, although it is better written and has more of a conscience. There is an acute and infectious sense of awe as the humans uncover the alien artefacts, whether these be the quasi-medieval ones of the planet's original species or the hi-tech ones of their visitors; perhaps these passages are even more powerful than the straightforward adventure sequences, although, God knows, those are powerful enough. And, although the characterization and character development are often pretty rudimentary and the accounts of behind-the-scenes political shenanniganery are likewise on the simplistic side, they are nevertheless all perfectly convincing and persuasive in the context of this engrossingly helterskelter tale.
Deepsix is an excellent antidote to any belief that the day of the redblooded sf adventure is long gone. It is an unashamedly exciting novel that draws you into its universe almost immediately and then tears along at an accelerating pace. Your reviewer has desperately been trying to avoid clichés like "I couldn't put it down" and "it left me gasping", but unfortunately this is an unequal struggle and he must finally succumb.
Review by John Grant.
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© John Grant 31 March 2001