The Engines of God is a novel about interstellar archeology. That’s right. Humanity has reached the stars and found the mysterious ruins of alien civilizations around them. It is actually to be expected. In the billions of years that the Universe existed, why would aliens evolve to intelligence and industry in the same few thousand years when we are alive? It is more likely that intelligent civilizations have come and gone, and we only find the remains.
McDevitt has his own ideas about this. Before starting the book, I was immediately reminded of the book 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke. When I think about alien artifacts, I expect very mysterious and rather creepy objects, like the monolith of Clarke’s book, or the incomprehensible alien ship in Rendezvous with Rama (1972), also by Clarke. However, McDevitt takes the associations with archeology very literally, and talks about an alien statue and about a Greek-like alien temple, complete with pillars and hieroglyphs of walking reptiles. I sounded a bit pedestrian to me, lacking some sense of wonder of the mystery and the unknown. But those huge mysterious artifacts do arrive later in the book.
The book reads as if Jack McDevitt comes from a very different literary tradition, but I checked his bio and he has always been writing science fiction. He doesn’t feel like a science fiction writer, but as if he comes from a tradition of writing mysteries, best seller mysteries or techno thrillers that feature spies, scientists and the president, with easily accessible characters and unsubtle ideas. The start of the book feels a bit like Dan Brown in space, with Prof Robert Langdon explaining the symbols in an alien temple. This is not to say that The Engines of God is bad, no, it is very easily readable. It is well written and entertaining.
I like how the main characters are all part of a science department, and everything that comes with it, such as the difficulties with finance and management, the obsessions with discovery, and the feeling of casual cooperation between people. It makes for a nice family of characters. The plot is very much based on a scientific quest: discovering the truth behind thousands-of-years old artifacts. I felt myself being a part of the group and following their discoveries. If you’re looking for a clear action plot with clear villains from the start, this book is not set up that way. Simply looking at what happens, the plot is thin and the book feels a bit slow, but it is more about a background tension that is rising while the story slowly unfolds.
The story is somewhat strangely split down the middle. There is an opening act that continues all the way to the middle of the book, in which the characters are all set up and mysteries are explored for the first time, and then a short rearrangement of goals happens, and a second half that starts a new journey. It’s a bit unusual, as if the book is two books melted together. In general, the plot is very unfocused and lurches from mini-adventure to mini-adventure, while the overall storyline remains hazy.
All in all, The Engines of God is enjoyable. It’s a solid story of adventure and discovery, and the characters were fleshed out well enough that I felt myself to be a part of their gang. I had some trouble keeping the characters apart and that had to do with their names. McDevitt juggles with names that are either surnames or last names and they sound the same to me. But I liked immersing myself into their adventure, because McDevitt has a good feeling for characters. The science is understated and it is all a bit too pulpy for any profound exploration of the human condition, but I’d recommend it for a simple good time.