I think I’m starting to lose my tenuous grip on reality. A couple of days ago, for example, I was ensconced in my command chair in our family room desperately trying to find my glasses.
I take them off when I’m reading, but they weren’t in their usual position on the coffee table next to my chair. We’ve all heard about people looking for their glasses — which end up being perched on the top of their heads — but I patted my head, and they weren’t there (sad face).
Eventually, my wife (Gina the Gorgeous) asked why I was squirming around. I told her I couldn’t find my glasses. In return, she told me that I was wearing them. Well, that certainly helped to explain why everything was in focus.
The reason I mention this is that I wanted to tell you about a book called Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt. I’m sitting here in my office and I was planning on looking inside the front cover of the book to see some of Jack’s other works, but it was nowhere to be found. I had it in my hand just a few minutes ago and then it vanished into thin air. Since I haven’t left my chair, this was something of a feat.
Eventually, I thought “$#& it!” and proceeded to work on sizing the images of the cover that I’d just… scanned… dang it… the book was in arm’s reach hidden by the cover of my scanner. Give me strength!
Eternity Road commences in a small town located somewhere along the Mississippi River in a post-apocalyptic North America. At the beginning of the tale, we don’t know exactly how far in the future we are. All we know is that there was some sort of plague that took most people out. We are introduced to a somewhat superstitious pre-Industrial Revolution-level society. They refer to us — their distant ancestors — as “The Roadmakers” because of the remnants of the giant roads that surround them.
A small group of the folks we meet decide to set out on a quest to find a legendary haven of knowledge and ancient wisdom. Along the way, they discover various artifacts from our civilization, but have no real understanding of what they are looking at. This was so frustrating. I really wanted to be able to go there and explain the purposes of all the things they found.
Late one evening, about halfway through the book, they see what they think is a dragon with shining eyes snaking across the landscape on the other side of a river. The next day they ford the river to take a look around, but all they find is a long flat path that curves out of sight. That evening, the dragon returns. It turns out to be a maglev (magnetic levitation) train. Our heroes discern its purpose enough to board the train, which — after a while — sets off on its return journey.
Eventually, they reach what turns out to be the central railway station in the heart of the ruins of an enormous city (I’m thinking Chicago). This is where we are presented with a scene that haunts me to this day. While they are hunkered down in the station, one member of the group hears a voice calling her name. It turns out that the sentient artificial intelligence (AI) that used to control the station is still active. It’s been keeping the trains running in the hope that they would prove useful to someone. Frustratingly, all it knows relates to the areas covered by its sensors, which is basically the station. All it can tell them about what happened is “One day, no one came.” All it wants is for them to turn it off.
In some ways, this book reminded me of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (he also wrote The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Midwich Cuckoos, to name but a few of his masterpieces). It also reminds me of the Life After People TV series. Also, the Eagle Flight virtual reality (VR) experience for the Oculus Rift where you soar through the skies above a people-less Paris set 50 years after all the humans vanished.
I’m not going to say any more about Eternity Road except that we eventually get clue as to “when” we are when the party reaches what we know to be Niagara Falls and one of them wonders why the observation building is located a mile away from the falls themselves. The author notes that the edge of the falls is receding at a rate of three feet each year. Knowing that there are 3 feet in a yard and 1,760 yards in a mile — and allowing say 100 years for us to develop sentient AIs such as the one found in the train station — we can be reasonably confident that this story is set about 1,860 years in our future. Would our buildings still be standing after all that time? All I can say is that I recently ran across an interesting Can Concrete Last 10,000 Years question was posed on the Quora website.
To be honest, I’d never really (at least, consciously) heard of Jack McDevitt before. The only reason I ordered this book in the first place is that I read a review somewhere. When I started looking, I found a quote by Gregory Benford, who is an author I enjoy, saying “You should definitely read Jack McDevitt,” so I took the plunge.
I really did enjoy this book, so I decided to root around to see what else Jack has written. I saw a couple of his books that that look interesting — Moonfall and Ancient Shores — so I just ordered them. Do you remember my use of the “consciously” qualifier in the previous paragraph? Well, the write-up of Ancient Shores — finding a boat made out of some non-terrestrial material that had been buried in a North Dakota wheat field for more than 10,000 years — sounded familiar. It turns out that this is the prequel to Thunderbird, in which a star gate more than ten thousand years old has been discovered on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota.
I have Thunderbird somewhere at home. I remember picking a hard copy of it up in the bargain books section of my local Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago. I also remember starting to read it but then putting it down to give myself a break because it was too exciting. I kid you not — I was a couple of chapters in when our heroes passed through the star gate to an alien world. I’m both blessed and cursed with a vivid imagination. I started to think about what I would do if the aliens suddenly appeared at the same time as the star gate disappeared or deactivated.
The thing is that new books are coming in all the time, and I never returned to see what happened next. “If we don’t have a plan, we’re no better than the French,” as the old saying goes, so my new plan is to first read Moonfall and Ancient Shores, and to then return to Thunderbird, which I shall re-read from the beginning.
How about you? Are you familiar with Jack McDevitt and his works? If so, are there any you’ve read that you would recommend? If not, has anything you’ve read here persuaded you that dipping your toes in the McDevitt waters might be a good idea?