My rating: 1 of 5 stars
This book was, in a word, chaotic. And in a second word, preachy. It’s actually very difficult to determine which of those two descriptors was more upsetting, as I went through the book. Around three-quarters of the way through, I had had more than enough, and I only finished reading to give the book a fair shake.
In all honesty, I rather wish I hadn’t.
Let’s start with how it was chaotic. This issue should be relevant to any reader, regardless of your philosophical bent.
The chaos begins with simple organization. It seems Mr. McDevitt wanted to have titled sections, but he also wanted smaller breaks within the story. His choice on how to resolve this? Ten titled “chapters” with anywhere between 3 and 13 smaller, enumerated breaks in each. Except that those enumerations restarted with each chapter. So either you had to read eighty pages at a sitting or remember both chapter number and section number, at which point, it would be easier just to dog-ear the page and stop whenever you want. This might not matter at all to some, but it’s hardly conducive to a good reading experience, in my opinion. It’s just a little sloppy.
But that is probably the least of McDevitt’s crimes against fiction in this work. He introduces – and kills off – more characters than most movies have extras. In fact, he introduces so many that it’s almost impossible to keep up with them – which is proven by the fact that McDevitt in fact does not keep up with them all. There are a few characters, introduced sporadically, which he mentions again only once or twice, or perhaps never returns to. And he kills so many characters over the course of the book that he finds himself in need of new ones about halfway through, and starts introducing more. Not only does all this make the book a crowded mass of names, places, and biographies appropriate for a dating site, but it cheapens the characters that do survive. Since anyone could die at any moment, whether they had been a narrative influence, present from the beginning of the book, or seemed integral to the story, I quickly stopped caring for anyone. The romance in the book is irrelevant and emotionless, because one or both characters could die at any moment, with neither drama nor reflection.
Tangential to that point is this one: Mr. McDevitt begins the book with a small number of characters and a setting to which he only returns twice in the entire remainder of the book, and only for a paragraph each time. Perhaps I am alone in my thinking here, but I have always believed that the first chapter, the first paragraph, the first character in a story has either a pivotal role or thematic importance. The characters in Mr. McDevitt’s opening scene have neither. They are, to put it bluntly, completely irrelevant to the entire book.
Finally, let us examine the prose. For the most part, the book is in third-person omniscient – presumably so we can relate to characters who will soon be dead. But Mr. McDevitt does not appear comfortable writing death scenes, so nearly every death in the book is from an observer’s perspective: “So-and-so never saw it coming,” “She was dead before she knew it,” “He died in the middle of a sentence.” If Mr. McDevitt wanted us to care about any of these characters, he should have made their deaths more interesting. Instead, much of the book reads like a historical account of the time when the moon was destroyed by a rogue comet, and this list of people died, and this list lived, and that other list should have been executed for their religious fanaticism.
Which brings me to my second primary point: how the book was preachy. Mr. McDevitt evidently lacks the capacity to understand the mind of a person who has religious faith. For one thing, he asserts that religious people live easier lives than the non-religious, that this ignorance (as McDevitt sees it) is bliss, and that the biggest challenge a Christian must face is explaining away bad events as divine providence. Churches are ridiculous, and things which must be escaped. (See pages 330-331 for these points.)
Furthermore, there can be no intelligent religious people. McDevitt cannot imagine someone being both intelligent and religious; the two descriptors mutually exclusive in his mind. After all, the one religious character who is neither a terrorist nor laughably short-lived is Chaplain Mark Pinnacle, who became a pastor not because he had faith, but because he was rebelling against his father, and Pinnacle had plenty of doubts about the truth of religion. (See pages 160-161.)
Mr. McDevitt is not only harsh against religion. His opinion of marriage is equally poor. For the only characters in the book whose marriage is even discussed, it’s on the rocks because he is distant and she is lonely. This alone is not a problem; this describes many marital situations for many people, making it eminently relatable. However, even when the marriage improves because the dangerous circumstances force them closer together, there is no effort to love and care in any meaningful way, but just to press through this calamity so things can go back to normal… a normalcy which held no particular depth to their relationship. And let’s not forget that the romance of the story, between Charlie Haskell and Evelyn Hampton, is no deeper than his acknowledgment that she is attractive and her invitation that he kiss her once. These romances are at once shallow, meaningless, and not reflective of any marital ideal.
Perhaps most telling is how Mr. McDevitt concludes this little escapade. Almost every character in the book, even staunch agnostics (which seem to be the majority of the population for his characters; there are few staunch atheists and no staunch religious protagonists, in spite of every character’s concerns about what the silly, religious voters would think), was praying in the final chapter that the mission would succeed… and yet, in the end, the important thing for Charlie Haskell (probably the primary protagonist of the book) to remember is that failure in the mission would mean going back to “inventing religions to give meaning to disease-ridden, violent, pointless lives, and then becoming subjugated by the religions,” going back “to refight all the battles against war and disease and superstition,” when, “finally, the common effort was bearing fruit.” (See page 531.) And of course, success led to the formation of a universal bond among all humankind “that transcended national and religious identities,” so much that “even in Jerusalem” (that wretched hive of warmongering, according to the underlying tone), “at long last, an accommodation seemed to have been reached.” (See page 544.)
And what’s the basic principle of all this? That religion is, at best, backwards, barbaric, ignorant, and foolish. And at worst, it’s both malicious and evil, and it seeks to destroy humanity with wars and death, and we need a “common misfortune,” brought about not by any god or religious cause, not by karma or dogmatic punishment, but by chance, by Lady Luck, so that we can all come together and achieve world peace.
See? Preachy. And chaotic.
Another humorous quibble is with Mr. McDevitt’s ability to predict the future. Writing this book in 1998, he was four years late on his estimation of the first African-American President, and his view of the future of the Internet and other technologies is somewhat lacking… not to mention the sad issue of NASA’s defunding, pressing, not the government, but a wide range of private companies into the reaches of space. But of course, he can’t be faulted for any of that. It’s just fun to note.