Omega by Jack
Ace / Penguin Putnam HCVR: ISBN 0441010466 PubDate: 11/01/03
Review by Ernest Lilley
438 pgs. List price $ 23.95
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Jack McDevitt brings the story he started a decade ago in Engines of God to a close. Deep in space waves of clouds sweep across the galaxy, composed of energy and nano-nmachines, seeking out intelligent life and destroying it. For some reason, the clouds are attracted by artificial structures and unleash a torrent of electrical storms on any planet they detect with such artifacts.
Though we still have a thousand years to get ready, a cloud is about to strike another world, one with a young civilization on it. The planet looks like Earth, lush and beautiful. It's inhabitants don't look like humans, but through a devious quirk of the cosmos, they look like Goompahs, the much loved characters of a TV show back on Earth. Not saving the Goompahs isn't an option, not just because they're cute, but because they're the first intelligence we've found that we might have enough in common with to understand. How, and where the money will come from to fund the effort are questions that will take all the scientific and political ingenuity humans can muster.
Though scientists have been studying the omega phenomenon, they're no closer to solving its origins or stopping it than when they started. Though a team pacing the oncoming cloud will try to deflect it, or lure it away, they don't have much hope, and if they can't stop the cloud, can they hide the planet? Not under a force field or an invisibility shield, but in a classic example of fighting fire with fire, under a rain cloud.
One of the refreshing things about McDevitt is that he doesn't underestimate how hard it is to do big things. Two centuries from now there's no fleet of spaceships to take the aliens to a new world, no Federation Council to decide if the fight is worth it. Decision are still made in DC, and the best science can't offer miracles, just the best we can do. And somebody has to pay for it all.
The characters have grown over the series of books. Priscilla Hutchins was a young starship captain in DeepSix, seasoned in Chindi, and now has moved on to become an influential part of the Science Academy, married and with a house in the suburbs. She's content to leave the long voyages in superluminal starships to younger pilots, and has her hands full as acting Director of Operations for the organization scouting probing galaxy for its secrets. Now a new challenge is offered to her, to head the Omega Society and force humanity to turn its strength to save the aliens. Another young woman gets to fly the mission to the cloud with a compliment of scientists and dangle her ship in front of the oncoming destroyer of worlds while a team of scientists on and in orbit around the planet try to prepare the world and its people for the worst. In the finest tradition of SF, they're determined to keep out of sight and not to do as much damage through first contact as they would have by leaving the aliens to be destroyed. There are new characters mixed in with the old, and they're all folks worth getting to know.
There's a grand tradition of stories about some menace "out there" that mankind will have to face eventually, though not today. In Fredrick Pohl's Heechee stories we find that the main starfaring race has gone into hiding, but we don't know what they're hiding from. In Larry Niven's Known Space stories especially Ringworld, we've discovered that he galaxy's core has exploded and the wavefront will reach us thousands of years hence. It's a grand tradition, and McDevitt's Omega shows that it's far from played out.
Stephen King is quoted on the jacket as saying that "McDevitt is the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke." Though there's no one heir to those writing legacies, he's not far off. I think the author leans considerably more towards Clarke than Asimov, though, and in particular because I enjoy the bravery, rationality and optimism of his characters. Certainly McDevitt shares the suspicion of organized religion that has always been a hallmark of Clarke's work, and the challenges we face aren't evil (so far as we can tell) but indifferent. His characters don't suffer a lot of existential angst, because they're generally doers, not wishers. Not everyone is brave, bright, and rational, but enough of the cast is that it gives you hope for the future. That's the difference between McDevitt and other writers who regularly get compared to Clarke. Like early Clarke, he's hopeful, and it rubs off on the reader.
You can start this series: Engines of God, Chindi (see review), Omega anywhere you like and it will read just fine. Though Deepsix doesn't deal with the clouds, it takes place in the same universe, with some of the same characters, and is also a great story.