Saturday, December 19, 2009

Book Review - Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt

Eternity Road
Jack McDevitt
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0061054275
416 pages

Lean in closer, my reading friends…. Closer still…. That’s better!

I have a secret to tell. I am totally hooked on well-written post-apocalyptic fantasies that reflect broken and collapsed civilizations. Throw in a bit of half-working technology, a few cannibals or bandits, and a mythical “Haven” that holds all the answers and its all the better. Make it a road trip through the decimated countryside of an under-populated, over-demolished America and you have “Eternity Road.”

Now, I know that there are quite a few naysayers out there who have taken potshots at this particular work and I have to wonder why. Yes, post-apocalyptic stories are legion and only a few seem to rise to the top (i.e. “A Canticle for Liebowitz,” “Deus Irae,” etc.) but I believe there’s always room for more. In other words “been there – done that” does not necessarily equate to a merit-less contribution. Especially when penned by a gifted writer. And, make no mistake; Jack McDevitt is a very talented writer. Here’s why “Eternity Road” should be on your reading list and why you should not listen to the negative reviews.

Small pockets of civilization remain after the world has been devastated by an unnamed calamity. In Mississippi the community of Illyria is just beginning to reemerge from the destruction. Within the community is the Imperium, a throw-back university whose sole purpose is to unravel the mysteries of the artifacts and the history left behind by the “Roadmakers.” (That would be us, my silent readers.) Over the years, the hint of a rumor remains. “Haven” exists! Haven, the one place the apocalypse has left untouched. Where the world remains as it did in the days of the “Roadmakers.” A place where technology rules, knowledge is readily available, and everyone leads a life of ease.

Enter Karik Endine, the only survivor of a failed mission to locate Haven. After his return to Illyria he becomes despondent, closed off to his friends and acquaintances, and silent about the details of the disastrous quest. Ten years elapse and Endine moves further away from his family and friends. Finally, the mysterious and untold deaths of his companions become too unbearable to deal with and he commits suicide. After his death the discovery of a Roadmaker book in his possession, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and a journal of unusual sketches causes some Illyrians to believe that Endine may have located the lost Haven. But if he did why would he keep silent all those years? Based on this new information and using the sketches as a roadmap a small band of six companions set off in search of the mysterious city of Haven.

The narrative of “Eternity Road” is, in my estimation, riveting and is in some scenes reminiscent of medieval fantasy (see the works of J. R.R. Tolkien and Raymond E. Feist for example). Especially when McDevitt describes the many ruins of the ancient Roadmakers civilization, or when the band leaves the Crooked Man, a tavern at the edge of civilization, or when they try to cross the Wabash River.

In the semi-literate society of Illyria, books hold a certain fascination. Even those who are illiterate tend to understand their importance for rebuilding society. Other reviewers have called the process of literacy decline unlikely in McDevitt’s scenario but I strongly disagree. When people are forced to live off the land, to farm and scrounge and work long days simply to survive then literacy, schools, and books will take a back seat. That people will revere the written word under these circumstances is most probable. We only have to look back at our own not-to-distant past to see the truth. At the turn of the last century the majority of illiteracy occurred in rural, thinly populated farming communities where people worked long, hard days and had little time for reading. The literate minority were regarded with something equivalent to awe and there was a social stigma attached to those who could not read and write. The Illyrians would not look upon books as curiosities, as some might think, but rather as a means to become a better more advanced and knowledgeable society.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

One other thing I believe, and this is important to me personally, is that with the deaths of many of the golden age writers, Heinlein, Clarke, Vonnegut, to name a few, we as avid SF readers are going to need other talented writers to replace them. I think Jack McDevitt fits that mold. His stories are intelligent, quirky, and contain enough science to make them believable yet he still manages to make them enjoyable to read. With the newfound popularity of Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, and Historical Science Fiction, which I enjoy immensely by the way, we still need throwback writers who can successfully expand our imaginations. Jack McDevitt does just that.

If you’re not sure what I mean pick up any one of McDevitt’s “Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins” books; The Engines of God (1994), Deepsix (2001), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), Odyssey (2006), and Cauldron (2007); or his “Alex Benedict” books; A Talent for War (1989), Polaris (2004), Seeker (2005) and The Devil's Eye (2008).


By the by, McDevitt has won, or been nominated for, a number of prestigious Science Fiction awards:

* Nebula Best Short Story nominee (1983) : Cryptic
* Philip K. Dick Award (special citation) (1986) : The Hercules Text
* Nebula Best Short Story nominee (1988) : “The Fort Moxie Branch”
* Hugo Best Short Story nominee (1989) : “The Fort Moxie Branch”
* International UPC Science Fiction Award winner (1993) : “Ships in the Night” (first English language winner)
* Nebula Best Novella nominee (1996) : “Time Travelers Never Die”
* Arthur C. Clarke Best Novel nominee (1997) : Engines of God
* Hugo Best Novella nominee (1997) : “Time Travelers Never Die”
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (1997) : Ancient Shores
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (1998) : Moonfall
* Nebula Best Novelette nominee (1999) : “Good Intentions” (co-writer Stanley Schmidt)
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2000) : Infinity Beach
* John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel nominee (2001) : Infinity Beach
* John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel nominee (2002) : Deepsix
* Nebula Best Short Story nominee (2002) : “Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City”
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2003) : Chindi
* Campbell Award winner (2004) : Omega
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2004) : Omega
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2005) : Polaris
* Nebula Best Novel winner (2006) : Seeker
* John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel nominee (2006) : Seeker
* John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel nominee (2007) : Odyssey
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2007) : Odyssey
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2008) : Cauldron

Related Website:

Jack McDevitt’s author site

Jack McDevitt Wikipedia site

ISFDB Website

Google Books

Michael Swanwick’s profile of Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt’s Facebook fan club

Jack’s own explanation of how “Eternity Road” came to be

The Alternative
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