Measures of redemption and enlightenment await characters in Jack McDevitt’s ‘Odyssey’

February 4, 2013

Jack McDevitt’s 2006 novel, Odyssey, opens as humanity has reached a precarious point. Early in the year 2235, interest in space exploration is fading just as concern about runaway global warming is ramping up. To make matters worse, the Academy loses a starship while political factions ready their push to cut money from the North American Union’s government-funded astronautics organization.

The person at the heart of this mess is one Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins, the former starship captain extraordinaire who has traded her commission for matrimony, motherhood and a powerful job as the Academy’s operations director. She takes point on the effort to locate and recover the missing ship even as the Academy’s commissioner enrolls her in public-relations outreach to influential NAU Sen. Hiram Taylor and his 15-year-old daughter, Amy.

Hutch easily wins the affection of the space-happy Amy Taylor, but the search and rescue operation is a bit more problematic. So is the appearance of an immense previously undetected asteroid, which barely misses smashing into Earth but does leave more egg on the Academy’s face.

But, although it takes a frustratingly long time to develop, there are more things aspace in Odyssey than political maneuvering. A private company, Orion Tours, has reported another in a series of increasingly common sightings of UFOs. These so-called moonriders are presumably the work of an intelligent species, which humans have yet to find in exploring numerous star systems near Earth.

Orion and the Academy agree to deploy automatic monitors in the star systems where the mysterious flyers have been seen. And this is where things start to get going.

Hutchins dispatches a ship captained by one Valentina “Valya” Kouros to position the monitors. She also sends three people to accompany Kouros — in the spirit of generating goodwill, not because any crew members are actually required. The most prominent passenger is the acid-penned Gregory MacAllister, a notorious writer and editor who sees no need for further publicly sponsored space exploration. They are accompanied by Amy Taylor and Eric Samuels, the Academy’s previously Earthbound public relations man.

About halfway into the mission, and the book, the moonriders mount an attack on a hotel being built in orbit around an alien world, and Kouros is diverted to rescue the construction crew. At this point, the pace (finally!) starts to accelerate. A strange vision alerts one character to a threat against an isolated deep-space scientific facility. Other people start to assemble clues that may explain some of the mysterious goings-on. And a disgraced individual is sent in harm’s way for yet another rescue mission — this one by far the most urgent and challenging of the novel.

McDevitt’s conclusion offers some redemption and enlightenment. The gripping climax and denouement don’t solve all the world’s problems, or even all of the story’s characters’ problems. But they do cap the book nicely while leaving a few mysteries unexplained.

Last summer, I read two McDevitt novels: the gripping space exploration romp Chindi, featuring Hutchins as its heroine, and the less gripping science fiction mystery Polaris, set far in the future. I’d slot Odyssey in between those novels — it’s more enjoyable than Polaris but not as much fun as Chindi.

I intend to read more of McDevitt’s fiction. But because of its pacing problems, I can only give Odyssey a half-hearted endorsement.

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