Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In three novels, Engines of God, Deepsix and now Chindi, Jack McDevitt has created a galaxy teeming with the remains of long dead races. Furthermore, his favorite pilot, Priscilla Hutchins, seems to be drawn to these artifacts like a moth to a flame. The hope of the human race, if not Hutch, is to discover an actual living, sentient civilization to make contact with.
Chindi opens with the discovery of a strange signal being broadcast from around a neutron star. Naturally, a spaceship, the City of Memphis, is sent out to explore the strange broadcast. Although McDevitt attempts to create a rationale for sending out a team of dilettantes to this area on a ship commanded by Hutch, his reasoning falls short, which continues to be apparent as the Memphis chases the signal from star system to star system. Part of the problem is the nature of the crew, a first contact nut, an actress, an artist, a funeral director, and others of similar ilk. Furthermore, the action takes place only a year after Hutch's adventure on Deepsix. It is practically incomprehensible that she wouldn't still be the focus of lawsuits and committees.
Those points aside, Chindi presents a galaxy in which humans appear to have only missed meeting alien life by the slimmest of margins. As the Memphis moves further and further from Earth, they come across signs that alien life was present as recently as only a few weeks earlier. McDevitt carefully builds the tension that the explorers will finally discover an elusive extraterrestrial civilization. McDevitt further heightens the tension by demonstrating the dangerousness of the galaxy by having characters killed by a variety of means. This allows him to maintain tension throughout the novel since the reader can never be sure if rescue operations, or even simple activities, will result in complete safety for the characters involved.
One of McDevitt's strengths is his ability to create a sense of wonder through his descriptions of both artifacts and planetary systems found by his explorers. His description of the Gemini planetary system begs to be captured on film. The artifacts found on various moons and in space make the reader wish they actually existed. If all of these wondrous objects seem a little too coincidental, McDevitt eventually does provide an explanation which makes their frequency understandable if not completely believable.
Although Hutch is the most well defined character in Chindi, McDevitt also builds many of his other characters so they are more than two dimensional. Even Maurice Mogambo, the egotistical glory hound who is eventually sent out to explore the ruins the Memphis has found, and George Hockelmann, the single-minded leader of the Contact Society, acquire non-stereotypical characteristics as McDevitt begins to show the world through their eyes.
McDevitt does tack on a seemingly gratuitous ending to the novel, however it seems to point the direction of a promised fourth novel dealing with Priscilla Hutchins, so, presumably the hints will be explained in a later novel. Nevertheless, McDevitt does wrap up Chindi in a manner which leaves the reader satisfied that the book can stand on its own without reading the previous or future adventures of Hutch.
Chindi returns to the days when the most important aspect of science fiction was an appeal to the reader's sense of wonder. McDevitt includes scientific and sociological speculation and strong characters to make Chindi a novel which can, and will, be appreciated by readers with a modern sensability.
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