McDevitt, Jack. Ancient Shores.

NY: Harper, 1996.

This novel isn’t especially typical of McDevitt’s work. In some ways, in fact, it reminds me of the methodical, slow-paced pastoral SF novels of Clifford Simak. It’s the story of the discovery of a mysterious artifact on a farm in North Dakota, in the form of a fully-rigged ketch. Well, the farm is on the edge of a vanished body of water from 10,000 years ago, what we now call Lake Agassiz. And the boat seems pristine, but it was buried under thirty feet of undisturbed soil. And the material of which it’s made is far off the end of the periodic table.

A yacht has to have water to sail in, so our protagonists — a farmer, a restorer of vintage warplanes, and a lab chemist — explore along the ancient coastline with ground-searching radar and discover another artifact, this time what appears to be a structure to house the boat, which they call the Roundhouse. And so, with the aid of local volunteers, and underwritten by an interested businesswoman, they begin excavations — and then things begin to happen in a really big way. The Roundhouse turns out to be part of a transportation network to the stars.

But this isn’t really a story about technology. It’s about a very wide variety of people and how they react to these society-shaking events. The manufacturing companies whose stock is falling, the fundamentalist TV preacher, the teenage tagger with a spray-paint can, the President in the White House and his advisors who are facing global economic collapse as a result of the discovery, the xenophobic lunatic with a bomb, the military leaders who are demanding an “accident” be arranged to destroy the facility, the city fathers of the nearby town of Fort Moxie who have dollar signs in their eyes, and especially the members of the local Sioux tribe on whose land the Roundhouse is located and who see the possibility of a genuinely new start in a truly new world — they all have a stake in what will happen when this unexpected wild card is introduced to the world, and none of them really knows how to handle it. Will ordinary greed and the fear of lawsuits win out? Will the government make war yet again on the original inhabitants of the land in order to seize control of the artifact?

It’s a pretty good story, mostly, and McDevitt handles it pretty well, though he tends to overwrite the details of minor events and characters who appear once and are never seen again. The reader will be tempted to skim these sections, once he realizes they’re really not necessary to the plot. But there are also a lot of unanswered questions — not just the sort McDevitt might have saved for a (nonexistent) sequel, but those which the reader is entitled to have some answers to. I suspect, having looked at some maps, that his glacial geology is also a little shaky. And I can’t say I approve of the main characters’ casual, blow-off attitude toward professional archaeological protocol.

But, most important, there’s a great big problem with the last climactic chapter, which involves the resolution of a government-Indian standoff by the sudden appearance of a strange collection of individuals, some of whom the reader may be expected to be familiar with but several of whom nonspecialist readers will never have heard of. This final section of the story is, frankly, simply not believable. The reader knows something like this is coming, but when you eventually see the names of those involved, the response is likely to be “You’re kidding.” I can only imagine that these are people McDevitt has met, and has perhaps obtained permission to use as walk-on characters in his story. It’s the sort of rah-rah plot device Robert J. Sawyer would pull. Anyway, it doesn’t really work and it makes for a serious letdown at the end of an otherwise good (well, not horrible) book.


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