A Review of Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt
Note: This book is a sequel to Ancient Shores, a book I thoroughly enjoyed. You don’t have to read that book to understand this one, but I highly recommend that you do. This review will necessarily include spoilers for that book.
I have sometimes said of Jack McDevitt that he likes to write archaeological science fiction: stories where an artifact from the distant past reveals a mystery in the story’s “present” (which might be our distant future). The Alex Benedict books are about a famous treasure hunter in this mold. Many of the Priscilla Hutchins books involve an ancient force that systematically wipes out civilizations, leaving us little to study but ruins.
But while reading Thunderbird, I realized that I wasn’t giving McDevitt broad enough credit: he likes cultural science fiction, exploring the impact of discoveries on a culture. That was true from his very first novel, The Hercules Text, the story of how a message from a distant civilization affects our own.
McDevitt also delights in not answering all the questions. He has said that not answering makes a story more realistic. In real life, we have to live with unanswered questions. Some mysteries must wait for another day.
And both of those ideas were found in Ancient Shores, a book that starts with a North Dakota farmer making a strange discovery: a yacht buried in his fields, fields which were beneath a vast inland sea… ten-thousand years ago. The sailboat has mysterious properties: it isn’t quite the right size and its fittings aren’t quite the right shape for humans; and it is impervious to wear and tear, almost impossible to damage, and hence impossible for anyone to estimate its age. The yacht leads eventually to the discovery of the Roundhouse, a dock on the Sioux-owned cliffs that once overlooked the sea; and in the Roundhouse they find a working gateway to other stars.
That book is classic McDevitt. We see how these discoveries affect both individuals and the culture at large. Some want to explore. Some want to run and hide. Some see danger in how these alien technologies can disrupt the economy and render the world more dangerous. Some see their own fears and must decide to stand up to them or cower in shame. And the Mni Wakan Oyate tribe of the Sioux see the return of an ancient conflict as the U.S. government decides to “solve” the problem by destroying the Roundhouse. Only through the timely intercession of scientists and celebrities is the destruction halted. For now.
It’s a victory, and the book ends on a high note; but… In real life, we have to live with unanswered questions. Where did the Roundhouse come from? How does it work? Can the Sioux keep control, or will the government take over? And what is that strange sentient whirlwind that aids travelers in distress? Some mysteries must wait for another day.
Thunderbird is another day. (Literally. Ancient Shores took place in 1996 or so, the time that book was published. Thunderbird takes place today; but at the same time, Thunderbird takes place immediately after Ancient Shores. There was a brief bit in chapter 1 or 2 where McDevitt sneakily brought the prior book into the present. You would have to really look to notice, but I was watching for it. This book is in the present, with ubiquitous cell phones and Internet and cable news and modern politics.) And answers are forthcoming – as are surprises.
Many of the same characters are involved: U.S. President Matthew Taylor, Sioux Chairman James Walker, scientist April Cannon, and security guard Andrea Hawk. Others have been reduced to cameos, such as Matt Collingwood, the pilot who helped to find the Roundhouse. Tom Lasker, the farmer who found the yacht, is mentioned but never appears.
And there are plenty of new characters, chief among them being Brad Hollister, a radio host and reporter who gets slowly drawn into the missions. The Sioux unexpectedly find themselves with a space program, one more advanced than anyone else on Earth can imagine; and Brad is there to observe it. While other characters are caught up in the diplomacy and politics, Brad is there as a witness, the reader’s eyes and ears to the excitement. He understandably struggles with fear (Would you trust your life to 10,000-year-old technology?) and then shame over that fear. This struggle made it very easy to identify with him. We all want to believe we’ll be brave in the face of danger, but what happens when we’re really tested?
And there are aliens. Yes, in this book, the Sioux and their allies meet aliens: the ape-like Arkons, the not-quite-human Riverwalkers, and the aforementioned sentient windstorm. McDevitt explores each culture (though some deeper than others), and each adds to the mystery of the Roundhouse.
In the end, McDevitt answers many questions, but subtly. The reader, like the characters, has to decide what to believe from the evidence they find. I think that Brad learned who the gate builders were and part of why the gates were built; but there’s enough room to argue about it, and not everyone accepts their answers.
If Brad is right about the gate builders, then the Sioux people have a fascinating future ahead if they can use what they have learned; and yet the ending puts that future out of reach. For now. It’s a more definitive ending than the end of Ancient Shores, but did it answer all the questions? Maybe you missed the part where I said this is a Jack McDevitt book. We have to live with unanswered questions. Some mysteries must wait for another day – and (I hope) another sequel.
My verdict? I was intrigued in many places. I was surprised in all the right parts. I laughed out loud at several scenes. I was frustrated by some of the stupid decisions while still understanding why the characters made them. I enjoyed the characters (particularly Brad and April). The ending satisfied me while still leaving me wanting more. And the epilogue made me smile. I recommend this book to anyone who likes thoughtful science fiction.
Full disclosure: I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Before that, I preordered the Kindle version on the first day it was available, and I have preordered the hardcover so that I can get it autographed.