Novel Review: Village in the Sky, by Jack McDevitt

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The plot of McDevitt’s new Alex Benedict novel recalls his most recent Priscilla Hutchins novel, “The Long Sunset”, which finds the author spinning a first contact scenario through a narrative of discovery and mystery. The book is like a comfortable old pair of shoes, for better or worse: its familiarity is beguiling and relaxing, though at some point you stop noticing it’s even there.

McDevitt makes it easy to return to the far future world that Alex and his pilot Chase Kolpath inhabit. It is a largely pleasant, low-conflict future, though not entirely lacking in the typical anxieties that attend human society. Alex, now re-united with his recently recovered Uncle Gabe, is still selling antiquities and artifacts, and Chase is still getting him wherever he needs to go. The story kicks off when an exploratory vessel stumbles on a tiny alien colony in the furthest reaches of known space. Up until then the only other alien race humans had encountered were the Ashiyyur, with whom they fought a long and devastating war before achieving a peaceful resolution. So when a follow-up mission is sent to make first contact, they are even more surprised to discover that the colony has completely vanished, leaving no trace of its presence behind.

In another odd twist, a third, completely different alien race of spider-like humanoids shows up to make first contact with humans. These folks, the Ulakans, are friendly and inquisitive, and their culture is so similar to that of humanity that one of their great works of literature seems lifted from Shakespeare.

While the encounter with the Ulakans is a positive one in contrast with their previous encounter with the Ashiyyur, the question of whether to send another ship out to look for the missing alien colony becomes a political hot potato: the general consensus is, we got lucky with the Ulakans, who is to say whether these elusive alien colonists have similar goodwill and peaceful intentions or not? It is decided that no further missions to that star system will take place, and furthermore anyone who attempts to privately undergo a mission there will be subject to legal penalties.

Alex is of course having none of that. Soon he and Chase have put together a party to reach out and find where the lost colony went, and hopefully pick up a few artifacts along the way that might make up the losses they will incur for defying the law.

The novel’s strengths are those typical of McDevitt’s fiction. His ability to craft an engrossing and suspenseful scientific mystery has not diminished over the decades, and his characters are as likable, and likeably flawed, as ever. In this case, though, his weaknesses are magnified by design. McDevitt has always been a proponent of the idea that cultures will necessarily evolve in the general direction that European civilization has taken, hence the very Eurocentric slant of future humanity and the aliens they encounter. It bogs the story down in a conceit that isn’t particularly illuminating or wonderous – that humanity ventures out to the far reaches of the galaxy to find alien races that are really kind of boring and like us. Additionally, the lack of a true antagonist, or anything but minor obstacles in Alex and company’s path, keeps the stakes too low for this to be anything other than a minor entry in McDevitt’s canon.