The best part about having a stable universe in which to set stories is that it lets an author explore different themes without having to establish and explain a different world for each one. For instance, Jack McDevitt has set five novels in one particular future: The Engines of God (1994), Deepsix (2001), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), and now Odyssey. Having explored the dialectics of religion versus secularism and colonial versus postcolonial approaches to more "primitive" societies than our own in Omega, McDevitt tackles something different in Odyssey: the ongoing debate in the Western world over the propriety of investing in space travel.
McDevitt's universe is set up in such a way that the arguments he presents in the stories are obviously speaking to our own time. Even though the events of Odyssey happen in a period more than three hundred years in the future, McDevitt repeatedly emphasizes its similarity to the early twenty-first century. He ends most of the chapters with headlines from the news of the day, such as "Middle East Turmoil Unlikely to End Soon," "Dodgers Trade for Baxter," "Hurricane Season Will Start Earlier This Year, Last Longer," and "Robot Runs Loose; Terrorizes Tasmania." Obviously, except for the last one, those could easily have come from any year out of the last twenty. There are significant differences, of course. McDevitt's future has space flight, faster-than-light (FTL) travel, and permanent space and planetary stations. Humanity has found alien civilizations, both current and in ruins. Even three hundred years from now the planet hasn't been destroyed by armageddon or global warming, although the latter is still a going concern. War has mostly been eliminated. (At the mention of a Lysistrata-type effort being crucial in that development, I burst out laughing. It is just about the most improbable thing in the book, but it's also a small point and not worth dwelling on.) In many ways Odyssey describes the most optimistic future a science fiction fan could reasonably hope for. So why are the folks in it still arguing over space-flight funding?
The reasons are the same ones causing us to argue about it now. We've been to the Moon, and we've sent robots to Mars. We've had some good success with space stations, probes, and the Hubble Space Telescope. The fundamental physics and astronomy researchers couldn't be happier. Yet every year the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has to justify its existence to skeptics of all kinds. Environmentalists suggest we should focus our resources on solving earthly problems. Politicians look around for programs the public wouldn't miss if their budgets were cut. Even some in the scientific community argue that manned space flight is a waste of resources when robots can do the research more cheaply. Robert L. Park, in his book Voodoo Science, an otherwise fairly standard diatribe against snake-oil salesmen of various types, attacks NASA on these grounds. His most memorable argument notes that if a Low Earth Orbit satellite were full of solid gold, it would not be profitable to send the shuttle up to retrieve it, since the cost of lifting the shuttle off the ground is more than the value of the gold it could carry back. (Although gold is catching up: in 2000 it cost $10,000 to lift a pound of payload on the shuttle, and gold cost $4,010 per pound. Now it costs about $11,000 for the shuttle, assuming normal inflation, and $9,112 per pound of gold. If the commodities markets keep going up, this argument will perforce fall by the wayside.)
In the world of Odyssey, not much has changed. There are still problems on Earth that need fixing. The fundamental research done in space is all well and good, but what has the public gotten for its investment? Why put humans at risk when automation could do things just as well? Space flight is still accessible only for the rich and the scientific elite, and why should the public pay for them? The aliens are interesting, but most have left behind only ruins, and others are more primitive than we are (they don't have space flight yet), so we can't start talking to them yet under a Prime Directive sort of arrangement.
George McAllister is our main point-of-view character, an influential columnist and editor, and he is one of the skeptics. Last seen in Deepsix, he has been involved in the space-flight debate for years. While he considers Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins (star of most of the previous books) a personal friend, the sentiment doesn't extend to the Academy (the future NASA equivalent), of which she is now deputy head. At first, not having read Deepsix, I assumed McAllister was the Bad Guy to Be Worked Around. As the story unfolded, however, I realized that he is instead the Skeptic to Be Convinced. After a close call with an Earth-orbiting space station and a Very Large Asteroid (which the Academy takes heat for not seeing, despite having had its early-warning budget slashed years before) and seeing some odd, possibly alien anomalies out by the sites where a tour company routinely goes, McAllister agrees to Hutch's suggestion that he accompany an expedition that is going out to plant probes for monitoring any possible alien activity. This is perhaps the book's weakest plot point: would the editor of the Atlantic Monthly or the Weekly Standard suddenly decide to take two months off (even with the future's FTL, travel between far-flung star systems still takes days and weeks) in nonluxury accommodations on a journey that probably will not yield anything newsworthy or exciting? Unlikely.
Yet given that it is the central plot thread of the book, it is equally unlikely that the journey will be uneventful. And indeed, sightings of the "raiders," as the UFOs have been dubbed, aren't long in coming. They appear to be aiming asteroids at various targets, raising questions about the space station's recent near miss. First, one of the probes observes the raiders changing the orbit on another large asteroid. Calculations show that in seventeen years it will hit a planet that is uninhabited but home to a beautiful abandoned alien temple. Next, in another system the construction site of a future tourist space-station hotel is threatened by yet another asteroid. McAllister's ship goes to help with the evacuation of the workers.
These rapidly succeeding close calls may be exactly what's needed to fatten up the Academy's budget and allow it to modernize its fleet and fulfill its various missions. Having McAllister on the scene as an obviously reliable and anti-Academy witness only strengthens the case. But as with journalist heroes throughout the ages, he senses that something more than mysterious aliens may be at work and begins to probe deeper into what is going on.
As adventure stories go, Odyssey is a slow one. The points at which you would expect some serious ratcheting up of tension are often played flat, such as the various encounters with the raiders and the political conflicts upon whose conclusion the fate of the Academy rests. The hook is not terribly snappy, involving an innocuous early encounter with the aliens and the subsequent journalistic follow-up. The majority of the book is spent on dialogues concerning the fate of the space program, illuminating competing positions and giving them each fair time. Eventually a major plot is revealed that is completely unrelated to the plot of the majority of the book. This new situation involves a nonasteroidal threat to a humongous scientific experiment station. Finally McDevitt pulls out the stops on the dramatic tension, but this occurs so late in the book that we barely have time to comprehend the new plot before it is resolved. There is also an odd C plot, told mostly in the headlines at chapter endings. It involves a man who smacked a prominent religious figure in the head with a book. He had gone to the man's school as a child and was scarred by its repeated emphasis on the torments of hell waiting for anyone who sins even a little. Although he grew up to be moderately successful, when he saw the preacher he snapped. McAllister decides to support him in an effort to take the whole thing to trial and portrays the assault as justified to the media and public at large, although convincing a judge is unlikely. It's obviously an allusion to the Scopes trial and shows how various forces in the public sphere can use random occurrences to advance a public agenda. It often seems a bit disconnected from the central debate of the book, though it does show the dangers presented by true believers of any stripe, an echo of some of the things that happen in the A plot.
Still, there is a lot here for McDevitt fans to enjoy. Hutch has a larger role in this book than in Omega, organizing the response to quickly changing events in space and equally rapidly changing public perceptions. She has to go head-to-head with her boss, a political appointee who is by turns charming, obsequious, hard-headed, and absent. Her struggle is an excellent illustration of the challenges of working within a bureaucracy, even when one has the best intentions. Also, there are several easter eggs for science fiction fans: Babylon 5 and Firefly references show up in ship names, and there is a scene that is a direct call-out to Arthur C. Clarke's 2010 that should send shivers up many spines. Unfortunately, as written it leans very heavily on its predecessor. I imagine that if one hasn't read 2010 already, the scene will fall a bit flat.
In the end, McDevitt is challenging the science fiction community to recognize the difficulties ahead even if many of our fondest wishes are fulfilled. He's telling us in no uncertain terms that there is no magic bullet that will suddenly make all the peoples of Earth realize how important space flight is for the species. No matter the technological advances, the aliens met and saved, the ruins found and examined, there will always be naysayers. Are they right? Are the pro-space arguments strong enough to convince those who need to be convinced? We should keep in mind that the people who must be on board for these efforts to move forward aren't the sort who read books like this; Odyssey is a warning and a call to arms for those of us who do. McDevitt is reminding us to keep our wits about us and our arguments sharp and timely as we move ahead in our nascent space-going efforts. We'll need every bit of our disputatious stamina to keep them going long into the future.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She lives in Long Beach, CA, and archives her reviews at www.SpiralGalaxyReviews.com. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.