Tuesday, October 12, 2010

[Review] Ancient Shores by Jack McDevitt

When a small-town farmer digs up a yacht on his land, something strange is afoot. The yacht is in pristine condition; the land is nowhere near a sea, lake or river on which to sail it. However, the location of the find is on the shore of the ancient Lake Agassiz, a huge inland sea that disappeared at the end of the last glacial period, some 10,000 years ago. The locals see this as an opportunity to attract tourists to their town, a curiosity to put them on the map and make some money. But there are wider implications... how did the yacht come to be buried? Who built it? Could there be more artifacts to be uncovered?

It soon transpires that the yacht is made from a material unknown to modern science, namely a transuranic element, which has been artificially created and is beyond the technological capabilities of any scientist on earth. Further exploration reveals another surprise further along the old Lake Agassiz shoreline; a building made from the same material, a bright green glass-like roundhouse with a channel leading to where the water's edge used to be. This turns out to be a portal to another world, a world that seemingly used Lake Agassiz as a holiday spot!

These revelations are all within the first quarter of the book, and given the green building is depicted on the cover, I am not giving anything away here. But what could have been a novel of space exploration becomes an examination of how the US (the rest of the world is barely mentioned) reacts to the discovery of the yacht and the portal. Industry and big business is threatened by the new, non-decaying material, stock markets crash as traditional manufacturing is almost rendered redundant by the promise of the new technology. Religious extremists are also threatened by the reality of the existence of other-world beings. The US government wants to destroy the artifacts and claim all rights to them in equal measure. Within all of this politicking, the original characters get lost and, in my view, the author loses his way and squanders what could have been a great opportunity to explore the possibilities of the portal, rather than focussing on the squabbles and fears of hide-bound politicians and big business. At one point, an alien being makes an appearance, but this is not followed up and is turned into a quasi-religious hysteria.

One aspect I did enjoy was the involvement of the Sioux people, on whose land the portal was uncovered. It was good to see the Native Americans getting a fair deal for a change. However, my overall enjoyment of the book was let down by the ending, which appeared contrived and rushed to me. Pulling in such luminaries as Ursula le Guin, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and others to a final showdown seemed at odds to the rest of the book and I felt it was a cop-out on the part of the author, almost like he had lost interest in ending his story and had run out of ideas.

Overall, Ancient Shores is an enjoyable, light read, a book that would be suitable for a longish plane flight when you don't want to have to concentrate too hard on the content. But the initial premise is more exciting than the actual execution and characters that are built up in the beginning are dropped midway through, leading to a lack of engagement on my part. I found I was overly keen to finish the book, just to find out how it ends, which is not a good sign. I have read other books by Jack McDevitt and know he can produce better books than this one, so my disappointment in Ancient Shores will not put me off reading more by him.

Reviewer: Cara (@murf61)

Rating: 6/10

Title: Ancient Shores by Jack McDevitt
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Eos; Reprint edition 2008, Originally published 1996
ISBN-10: 0061054267
ISBN-13: 978-0061054266
Genre: Science fiction
Copy: Bought secondhand
Available from Amazon UK - US | B&N | Book Depository

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