McDevitt, Jack. Infinity Beach.

NY: HarperPrism, 2000.

“First contact” is a well-used science fiction theme of long standing: What happens when the human race has its first meeting with an intelligent alien species? That’s assuming there are aliens out there to be discovered. Most SF fans, being technological optimists, take that to be almost an article of faith, but a great many people in our largely xenophobic world sincerely hope we really are alone. The idea of non-human civilizations, somewhere, frightens them silly.

Most first-contact stories therefore fall into two categories: “Danger!” (the Starship Troopers view) and “We’re all friends!” (Close Encounters does a good job with that one). McDevitt’s take on the idea is refreshing because he doesn’t make any assumptions one way or another, and because the first-contact theme, while it’s the spine of the plot, is not the whole of the book, by any means. He has a lot of other things to say and points to make about the human condition and he does it very well.

The setting is the colony planet (now an independent republic) of Equatoria, 900 years in our future and a long way from Earth. In fact, it’s one of nine worlds inhabited by humans, and they doesn’t always get along with each other. Equatoria, for instance, in the six centuries since the first landing, has been an appendage of Earth, the domain of dictators, and a battlefield among its own competing cultures — just like the home world, in fact. But things have settled down in the past few generations and most people have the option of either working (for their own satisfaction) or living hedonistically on their share of the planet’s revenues. And since nearly all of them can expect close to two centuries of life while remaining superficially young and in good health, it’s not a bad life at all. Still, the human species seems still to be alone in the universe.

At thirty-five, Dr. Kim Brandywine is still practically a kid, but she’s a full-fledged astrophysicist — although it turned out she has more talent for public relations and fundraising than for creative research. Her employer, the Seabright Institute, is the sponsor of, among other things, the Beacon Project, which, by deliberately triggering several novas in carefully timed succession, hopes to attract the attention (eventually) of any alien civilization out there. And this is widely regarded as the last effort in that regard that society will be willing to foot the bill for. People seem to be withdrawing into a cultural and psychological cocoon. Kim had a clone-sister, Emily, twenty-odd years older than herself, who was equally enthusiastic about SETI projects, but she disappeared mysteriously when Kim was young, together with several other people returning from a voyage to the region of Orion’s Belt. And there was an explosion of unknown origin only a few days after the party’s return that destroyed most of a mountain and the town at its base. Kim would give anything to find out what happened to her sister.

The result is that the author has constructed quite an engrossing mystery-suspense thriller as well as a well-thought-out science fiction plot, with Kim turning up the first couple of clues almost by accident and then being willing to take sizable risks to follow them up. Along the way, we get a fascinating overview of the world in which she lives, which the author manages by offhandedly dropping in details without bothering to explain many of them. (Harlan Ellison once noted that his first real grasp of what good science fiction writing was came when a door in a story he was reading didn’t open — it “irised.” That’s verisimilitude, and McDevitt does it extremely well.) So the first half of the book draws you in and captures your interest and keeps you guessing. And, lest you pine for a story explicitly set in space, the second half will take you there. The book runs to more than 500 pages and part of the reason is that the author also takes his time portraying his characters — not just Kim, but her best friend, Solly, the pilot, and Matt, her boss at the Institute, and her lost sister, Emily, and a half-dozen other major players. The culture of Equatoria is also a character, with a detailed history and a disparate personality. And I haven’t even mentioned the ghost in the woods.

This is, in my opinion, the best novel McDevitt has produced. It was nominated for a Nebula and I think it should have won. Highly recommended.

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