"That anyone could believe the human animal was designed by a divine being defies all logic... The more pious among us should pray that next time he does the job right. But we might in justice concede that there is one virtue to be found in the beast: he is persistent." -Gregory MacAllister, "Bridge with the Polynesians"
Anyone familiar with my media consuming preferences knows how much I loathe entering a series from any point other than the very beginning. Every episode of a television show must be watched in perfect order, regardless of the strength of its continuity. I don't really care that 95% of Bones episodes are self-contained, thank you, please change the channel until I'm caught up on this season.
So it was an interesting experience for me to find out halfway through Deepsix, the second novel in Jack McDevitt's (unofficially named) Academy series, that I was missing out on a previous novel. That neurotic part of my brain that forces me to research chronology before reading a comic book immediately demanded I slam shut the cover and rush out to grab the first book, The Engines of God. However, after calming myself with a small cup of organic chocolate pudding, I realized that McDevitt had, thus far, done such a good job with characterization and (brief and rarely necessary) summaries of previous events, that I didn't feel lost or out of the loop. So I pressed on (and God help the author if I ran into a "See ACADEMY #1!" footnote).
Deepsix is a deceptively simple tale -- so simple that it's somewhat difficult to discuss without giving away the twists and turns of the plot. The story revolves around the titular planet, a world teeming with exotic-yet-familiar wildlife, and the efforts of a small group of characters investigating it. Not much needs to be said. The expected plot points are hit: getting on, exploring, and getting off. Like any good story, the characters make the experience. And the characters here are fantastic.
Our main protagonist is Priscilla Hutchins, intergalactic pilot and star of McDevitt's previous novel. To be honest, while Hutchins's determined but down-to-earth attitude is perfect for the main viewpoint character, she's not the most interesting member of the group. That distinction belongs to Gregory MacAllister, the most widely-known and widely-hated writer in the universe. I fully expected the misogynistic, misanthropic blowhard to play the "annoying sidekick" throughout the journey, finally redeeming himself in an unexpected act of heroics at the end while muttering "I ... I still don't like women!" at the end while the female characters bombarded him with appreciative kisses. This doesn't happen. Instead, it's an absolute joy to see how MacAllister's many complaints about humanity are more philosophical than pragmatic. He doesn't change drastically over the course of the novel -- only our perceptions of him change. The rest of the characters are equally fleshed out, but considering MacAllister's interesting persona and strong voice, Deepsix is clearly his book.
As is customary in most science fiction stories, the plot drives the narrative more than the characters. It's simple, but it works -- the team explores the planet, and in the end, must devise a way to get offplanet. The exploration is never boring, and it often raises a number of questions and mysteries about the inhabitants of Deepsix. Enough of these questions are left unanswered to keep the reader's imagination, but enough are answered to avoid frustration.
Of course, no story can come without criticisms, and I have a few: First of all, the book is dense. It is dense in words, which isn't so much a problem. The 500-odd (paperback) pages fly by, especially near the climax, when McDevitt ratchets up the tension. However, it is also dense in the number of characters and settings thrown into the mix. This issue resolves itself after the first hundred pages or so, when the author decides which characters to really focus in on. It really grates for those first few chapters, though. Characters are introduced with full names, viewpoint sections, and personality quirks -- and then never heard from again. It's damn overwhelming to try to keep track of them before you realize which ones you can forget about.
We're also treated to an entire subplot -- not even a subplot, really, as it takes up at least half of the book -- about the flight crew's efforts to weld some metal to their ships. I realize these sections are meant to give us a breath from the fast pace of the ground team. And these sections might be highly interesting to a civil engineer or hard, hard-scifi fan, as I'm sure all the descriptions of stress and atmospheric pressures and such are authentic. Nevertheless: 250 pages. About welding. I could have done with only, say, 100 pages, and been just fine.
As slow as these sections can be, however, McDevitt's fleshed-out characters and compelling situations rise above it. I can't recommend this book enough -- I don't remember enjoying a science fiction novel this much since Speaker for the Dead (and I reaaaaaally enjoyed Speaker for the Dead). Buy it and read it -- no matter what your personal neuroses tell you.