Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1945, Murray Leinster published a short story entitled “First Contact” which recounted a meeting between humans and extraterrestrials in a system which was not native to either species. While they were able to communicate, neither side felt they could trust the other side and a solution had to be discovered to make sure that neither species could find the other’s home world. Infinity Beach (Slow Lightning in the UK), is Jack McDevitt examination of a similar situation.
For centuries, humans have been attempting to find proof that they are not alone in the universe. Since all attempts have failed, the Institute on Greenway has elected to try an audacious beacon project by igniting a series of novae in a set pattern. Dr. Kim Brandywine, whose sister vanished shortly after taking part in the last attempt to discover possible “celestials” aboard the Hunter, is working on the beacon project as a public relations specialist until an enigmatic contact from Sheyol Tolliver, a former professor, makes Kim begin to wonder if it was possible that the Hunter had actually discovered celestials.
McDevitt’s novel touches on several philosophical and moral issues, ranging from treatment of possible alien species to the decision to destroy stars, to the role of government. However much of the novel is a mixture of thriller and mystery and Kim and her various companions lowly begin to uncover clues about what really happened aboard the Hunter.
Infinity Beach presents a society which has existed for several centuries and incorporates both legends and history which give the society a sense of depth and reality. McDevitt has exhibited this ability in such works as The Engines of God and Eternity Road. At the same time, he allows his readers and his characters to question the truth behind their legends, much as he did in A Talent for War.
While McDevitt employs a straight-forward story-telling technique, he manages to incorporate many twists and turns in his plot and motivations which belie the apparent simplicity of the story. However, his presentation means that certain scenes are less than successful, most notably sequences such as Kim’s first encounter at Lake Remorse which relies a little too heavily on a sense of the weird and eerie than McDevitt is able to pull off.
McDevitt’s initial meeting between humans and celestials is not as controlled as the one in Leinster’s short story. Fear and happenstance get in the way of making a logical and mutually beneficial arrangement. Kim’s mission becomes one of determining what happened and how it can be rectified, if at all. In order to do this, Kim becomes involved with a variety of criminal acts, which the authorities must overlook, however it seems as if the notoriety she gains must hinder her performance in ways not revealed in the novel.
McDevitt creates several interesting and highly different characters, ranging from Tolliver, whose conspiracy paranoia sparks Kim’s search, to Solly Hobbs, Kim’s doubting friend who accompanies her not through any deep conviction but because of his friendship.
While McDevitt leaves many interesting issue unexplored in Infinity Beach, he has written a novel full of interesting ideas, exotic locations and fully realized characters and their culture. While building on the themes of his earlier novels and stories, Infinity Beach stands on its own as both a story and an examination of those themes.
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