by Jack McDevitt
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1996, Jack McDevitt published the novel Ancient Shores, and I picked up one of his novels for the first time. I enjoyed the book, which followed the discovery of an ancient artifact on farm in Northern North Dakota and the subsequent discovery of a strange roundhouse. Despite the threat of government interference, the roundhouse, discovered on property belonging to the local Sioux, is left in the hands of the Indian tribe. Nearly twenty years later, McDevitt returns to the barren plains of North Dakota in Thunderbird, and looks at the exploration of what the roundhouse means.
Returning from the original novel is April Cannon, one of the primary characters from Ancient Shores. In Thunderbird, she is joined by radio talk show host Brad Hollister and Sioux tribal chairman James Walker. While the discovery of the roundhouse was the crux of Ancient Shores, in Thunderbird, the question is “what can the roundhouse really do?” The short answer is that it provides a means of teleporting to different places. When the novel starts, they’ve identified three of them…a space station , an enclosed maze, and a edenic world quickly named Eden. Access to the roundhouse and the worlds beyond is carefully rationed by Walker in the name of the tribe, and it is also his job to work with US President Taylor, who I concerned about the role of the roundhouse in national security, but also realizes that sending troops onto an Indian reservation to take property would be a bad idea.
Exploration of Eden and the other worlds moves slowly and carefully, with efforts being split between the various places. Furthermore, it is possible that something has come to Earth through the roundhouse, although reports of the creature are tenuous at best, usually just site of a localized windstorm and out of body experiences. One of the oddities of the novel is that the resources the Sioux have to study the various world, as well as chase down the possibility of an alien presence in North Dakota are extremely limited. McDevitt makes it clear that some of this is intentional, with Walker maintaining control over the roundhouse and Taylor allowing him to for political reasons, but it does seem as if scientists would be deep on the ground around the area, offering any assistance they could, as well as exploring the strange occurrences in the area.
One of the many features of McDevitt’s novels is that they often lack villains, or even antagonists. People might have differences of opinions, but the main focus of the novel is the quest for knowledge. April, Brad, the scientists, and many members of the security team all want to learn as much about the strange worlds beyond the roundhouse as possible. Walker and Taylor are also interested in that exploration, but each have their own concerns, Walker wanting to protect his tribe and its resources form outsiders, whether in Washington or from the other side of the roundhouse, and Taylor wanting to protect his political power and keep the nation safe, both militarily and economically.
The explorations of Eden, the space station, the Maze, and eventually other places doesn't necessarily occur as one would expect, and in many ways seems cursory, partly because the characters have so many different places to explore and are, by design, limited in their resources. As he so often does, McDevitt creates worlds which his characters can spend many more novels exploring, and the discoveries and conjectures included in Thunderbird range from the almost pedestrian to the shocking, especially when discussing the different alien races his characters come into contact with.
In 1996, I described Ancient Shores as having “one of the most fun ‘feel good’ endings” I had read in a long time. The same can’t be said for the ending of Thunderbird. Although it would be easy to describe the new novel as falling into the “There were some things man was not meant to tamper with” category of fiction, to do so would be a disservice to the novel, which actually accomplishes much more than that.
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