McDevitt probes alien mysteries in ‘Chindi’

August 12, 2012

Jack McDevitt’s 2002 novel, Chindi, is a fun science fiction romp about explorers who get in over their heads.

This is the third of at least six novels in McDevitt’s so-called Academy sequence, which involves the 23rd century exploits of interstellar voyagers pursuing relics of ancient spacefarers. The hero of the Chindi and its predecessors is a no-nonsense captain known as Hutch.

I hadn’t previously encountered Priscilla Hutchins, and I don’t believe I’ve read any of McDevitt’s novels before. But Chindi grabbed my attention almost immediately, and I plowed through the book enthusiastically.

When the tale begins, in the 2220s, humanity has voyaged to many solar systems and found a handful of other intelligent species; none are capable of space flight. But artifacts show that alien races used voyage among the stars. The immensely rich George Hockelmann has founded the Contact Society, based on his fervent desire to meet intelligent extraterrestrials.

The Academy of Science and Technology, Hutch’s employer, sends her, Hockelmann and a small group of fellow enthusiasts to a remote spot where a mysterious signal has been intercepted. The captain’s skepticism about encountering alien astronauts soon turns to dismay when an E.T. artifact damages the vessel that has accompanied hers.

After tracking a transmissions to another star, Hutch and company continue onward and outward. As they push ahead, the group struggles to balance the desire to gather knowledge against the dangers of exploring the unknown.

Chindi, which is named after a Navajo word for “ghost,” has a nice blend of action, characterization and science. Here’s Hutch and her travelers examining one alien world from orbit:

Here was a roof, and there a set of supports. It almost seemed to be constructed of branches and vines, wild in themselves, yet part of on overall design.

As Hutch watched, a large bird appeared in an alcove, spread enormous wings, and launched itself like a great swan into the sky.

“Bill,” she said.

The AI knew what she wanted. [It] magnified the image.

The swan wore clothing! A loose-fitting tunic was draped across near-human shoulders. It had limbs that might have been arms and legs. And it had a face. Its skin was light, and golden hair, or feathers, tumbled down its back. The wings were patterned in white and gold, and as they watched the creature soared to another level of another structure, alighted gracefully, and stepped out of view.

Alyx was first to make the obvious observation. “It looked like an angel,” she said.

A pair of the creatures appeared, and rose form the trees. They swirled gracefully around each other in an aerial dance with a vaguely sexual flavor.

“We’ve come to Paradise,” said Herman.

They were gawking at the images and somebody said how by God it was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen, and who would have believed it.

“How soon can we be ready to go down?” George asked.

Hutch hadn’t expected that such a moment would arrive, and she was caught off guard. She hadn’t considered what might happen if they actually found a set of aliens. It all seemed so preposterous.

Chindi boasts many wonders, including hyperspace jumps and extended life spans, but it also contains familiar downers, such as bureaucracy and credit-hogging colleagues. McDevitt keeps it all fairly relatable, and most science fiction fans should enjoy this book. As for me, I plan to read more of his work.

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