The Engines of God
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Jack McDevitt's novel The Engines of God opens with a tribute to Arthur C. Clarke. Humanity has found a statue (which resembles the Overlords from Childhood's End) on Iapetus (where the monolith was found in the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey). This statue is one of several artifacts found throughout the galaxy which point to the existence, at one time, of a race called the Monument Builders. Only two other civilizations have been discovered, the extinct Quarquat and the primitive Nok. The Engines of God follows a group of archaeologists trying to understand the lost Quarquat and discover something about the Monument builders.
First and foremost, The Engines of God gives the reader a look at several interesting artifacts left by an alien culture. While some authors who write about missing civilizations (such as David Brin) tend to imply these structures, McDevitt not only shows them to the reader but he tries to explain them as well. The characters, and the readers, are able to gain an insight, if not into the alien psychology, at least into a human interpretation of that psychology.
McDevitt's characters never really come together. Most are, while not two-dimensional, certainly simplistic. They are introduced with a few words describing their personalities, but McDevitt rarely shows us them acting on those personalities. Similarly, while characters talk to each other, they rarely interact with each other, even in cases like Hutch and Richard, who have known each other for years, or Hutch and Cal, her former lover. The reader cares about McDevitt's characters, not because they are deep, but because they are paradigms with which the reader is already familiar.
The book is only loosely plotted, jumping hither and yon as the characters come across another artifact of the Monument Makers and attempt to unravel its secrets or fit it into the growing puzzle. In many ways, this is realistic, since life generally does not have a neat plot. Unfortunately, it does not work particularly well in a work of literature which generally should have a logical plotline. The events in The Engines of God remain distinct events without a unified feel to them.
While The Engines of God provides a good look at archaeology, it is lacking in both plot and characterization, and therefore it ultimately fails to satisfy. In fact, it is somewhat surprising at how much the novel does work. McDevitt manages to make the ideas in The Engines of God carry the novel. Whether or not the reader cares about any of the individual characters, the reader is made to wonder about the missing Monument Makers. The characters' work in piecing together whatever information they can find about the missing race provides the mystery which gathers and holds the reader's attention.
The Engines of God doesn't represent McDevitt's best work, but it does showcase the skill he has in presenting big ideas. Steven Brust calls this "Cool School" of writing. When an idea just grabs the reader and makes him say "Cool."
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