Jack McDevitt – Chindi (2002)

chindi

  • Genre: Science fiction
  • Series: Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins / Academy, book 3
  • Pages: 528
  • My Rating: 7/10

These are the voyages of Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins. Chindi is the third book of Jack McDevitt’s Hutchins or Academy books, but can quite easily be read as a standalone. In this episode, Hutch flies a motley crew of passengers known as the Contact Society around the galaxy in search for extraterrestrial life. They find a relay station of alien satellites and follow the trail from solar system to solar system.

Chindi reads like a spiritual sequel to books like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973). It’s about space archeology and the ancient remains of long-dead aliens. But McDevitt already covered this in the first two books of his series, The Engines of God and Deepsix. So, this time, hints are found of alien machinery that still functions, and the so-called contact society hires Hutch to pilot a ship to search for real living aliens. The Society are a bunch of amateurs and Hutch must keep everyone in line while they tramp across the galaxy.

There is lots of potential in a story like this. But there is something about Jack’s writing style that makes me groan instead of smile. As an author, he feels too present in the text. The dialogues read as if he was struggling to make something snappy out of it. And the quotes at the start of the chapters read like his own opinions. I can’t dive into this story without seeing McDevitt typing away and feeling pleased with himself, while the story and the characters are a bit so-so. He doesn’t reach that top tier of writers and that makes his efforts at smug storytelling slightly painful.

At about 300 pages, a kind of repetition sets in. The group finds a clue, discovers something unusual, goes on an expedition, gets into peril and Hutch saves them, and they find a new clue. And they go through the cycle again. Repeat and repeat for a couple of cycles. But where is the story? There is no real tension in it, and 100 pages could easily be cut out. Besides some minor love affairs and dashed dreams, the characters could just pack up and go home, without leaving any plot threads unsolved.

McDevitt peopled his spaceship with all sorts: a UFO-nut, a porn actress, an undertaker, a painter. A varied bunch, you would say, but we hardly get to know any of these people. All dialogue in the text could have been spoken by any of these characters. Just switch around the names and it would still be the same story. Because the observations that they make and the emotions they describe are bland and barely in service of any character development.

A specific point of irritation in Hutch’s love life. Hutch as a character is generally appreciated by reviewers, because she is a classy heroine. Competent and down-to-earth (for a space pilot, heheh). But every male character, and McDevitt, keeps saying how beautiful she is. And because of her space pilot job, she is away for long stretches of time and keeps her lovers hanging on and pining, and she gets annoyed when they give up or check out. In general, McDevitt comes across as a white knight, criticizing men but gushing over how sexy and smart his female characters are.

The problems with the story and characters would not have been so pronounced, had the novel delivered on its premise of creating a sense of wonder. That is what it ultimately aims for, but doesn’t quite achieve. Arthur C. Clarke also wasn’t the greatest character creator, but while he is celebrated for his ideas, McDevitt’s ideas about alien life are not stunning or inspiring enough to make us forget about such flaws. His aliens and their artifacts feel mundane. While the novel isn’t all bad, the final 200 pages were still a slog to get through.

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