Jack McDevitt’s Ancient Shores (1996) Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that I get into a rut with certain writers. If I see their name on the spine – and I can remember I’ve not read it before, I pick it up. Actually, racing through O’Hare, I’ve been known to pick up a McDevitt or two I know I’ve read before.
I hadn’t read this one. I was intrigued by the Octavia Butler cover (black woman, lots of flora) because the organic science fiction of Ms. Butler is nothing like the hard Man Meets Alien science fiction of Mr. McDevitt. I happen to like them both.
A farmer in North Dakota digs up a twenty-four foot yacht in his field. As if that’s not unusual enough, it’s in perfect shape. Why would a perfectly intact ship be found hundreds of miles from a lake? Who put it there? The farmland had been in the farmer’s family for generations.
Like any good citizen, the farmer parks it in the front yard for neighbors to come see and tells his friends, one an airplane restorer, how strange it is. Even the sails seem to be indestructible. The friend sends a sample to a little lab he knows and – holy crap – it’s made of element 161. The table of elements only goes to 114. The attractive black scientist, April, and the airplane restorer, Max, plan to keep it secret, but the farmer has discovered that the entire yacht glows at night when it’s in his horse barn.
April proposes they’ve discovered a yacht left behind by aliens ten thousand years before. Perhaps vacationers from beyond the stars came to frolic on Earth and left their pretty boat behind. In fact, what if something catastrophic happened to the aliens while they were here, and they left their entire ship behind!
Thinking she’s crazy, but intrigued, Max discovers something hidden beneath Indian land nearby, something perfectly round. When they uncover the Roundhouse – not a ship but a waystation, all hell breaks loose. People descend on the small town, causing chaos and profit mongering. Preachers and schizophrenics call it an abomination, and manufacturing stock takes a nosedive when April releases the news that an indestructible material has been discovered.
It turns out the Roundhouse, a glowing glasslike cylinder also made of element 161, is a dimensional doorway. The aliens didn’t need a ship. They had a Roundhouse. April and Jack explore some of the doorways, finding new worlds (one which sends something back with them). The stock market crashes. Suicides and riots occur. The green glow is mistaken for a sign of radioactivity and a nearby town destroys itself in a panic.
Factions around the globe insist on the Roundhouse being shared (or destroyed), and April does take scientists and reporters to one benign Eden they’ve discovered. Private industry tries to buy out the Indians. The government tries to force the Indians off their land, but the chairman of the Sioux has too much history and an excellent Indian lawyer and refuses to let that happen (again).
Chaos reigns until it looks like the Roundhouse is going to be destroyed by the government to stop the riots. Max manages to bring the chairman’s secret weapon (because the Sioux are armed and refusing to leave the Roundhouse), a plane full of scientific celebrities and science fiction writers. When one of them is gunned down on national television by the SWAT team, the president calls off the attack.
Whew! I know that was a lot of information, and I won’t tell you if our beloved celebrities succeed or not. McDevitt is known for not filling in all the blanks (we never meet the creators of the yacht or the Roundhouse or actually learn anything about them), and this one is no exception.
My only reservations about this book are two excesses: we learn way too much about every supporting character, some only half a page long. We know Jack’s secretary’s past, April’s boss’s generous nature, the mad bomber who hears voices, various and sundry citizens and the effect the Roundhouse has on them. Most of them don’t take it well.
The other excess is the detail about the airplanes. The farmer has one. The restorer has several. And we know way too much about their model numbers, the types of engines they have, and their histories, too. I know you’re supposed to write about what you know, and Mr. McDevitt is obviously into planes, but not everyone is into that much detail. I’m not. If they just said, “Jack flew a plane” that would have been enough detail for me.
Still, it was a very fast read. I questioned why the government took so long to get involved (perhaps I’m too familiar with the X-Files swooping in when something weird happens) and did so with too much too late, but still it was exciting to see if we were going to have another Little Big Horn. Mr. McDevitt does a great job with busting stereotypes (his characters even mention it), and his writing is above par.
I don’t think I’ll put it on my permanent reread shelf, but I will pick it up at the airport if he doesn’t have a new one by then.