Monday, March 30, 2015

Review:: Ancient Shores, by Jack McDevitt

Title: Ancient Shores
Author: Jack McDevitt
Format: eBook
Rating: ★★★★☆

Jack McDevitt takes a pretty stock standard science fiction trope and manages to make something bigger than expected out of it. Ancient Shores teems with deep, realistic characters, and a harrowing, yet optimistic look at how humanity reacts to fear.

Ancient Shores starts off with the premise of about a billion other science fiction works: a farmer finds something out of the ordinary on his land. In this case, it was a fully buried yacht, a yacht we quickly find out is made of materials humanity does not currently possess the technology to manufacture.

I was kind of surprised to see this trope being worked in this novel. For some reason, I felt like it was kind of "used up." But then again, Nolan just put out yet another science fiction work about a farmer, Interstellar. (Which I hated, but that's neither here nor there.)
I think there must be something about American science fiction and farmers. They represent this one last bastion of Americanness, and the nature of a farm allows for something unexplored, yet tantalizingly domestic.

The farmer's friend Max is the one who went to get one of the yacht's sails tested by a lab. For the most part, the story follows Max and the chemist who tested the sail, April. I say for the most part, because throughout the book, McDevitt treats us to other stories, other reactions to what's unfolding and shaking the world.
The yacht is not the only cause of strife. Max and April discover that there's another piece of technology, but this time it's not on a farmer's land; it's on a Sioux reservation. As it becomes more and more clear that this technology will have major impacts on the world economy, the fact that it's on native land becomes more and more important.
There's a lot McDevitt seems to be trying to do with this book. First and foremost, though, I think he's trying to caution us not to react out of a place of fear. While the end of the book felt a little cartoony to me, the fact that such a situation even needed to unfold was because no one was willing to look the situation in the face, adapt, and change. Instead, it was better to do something unspeakable, but keep the status quo.
We get to come face-to-face with these fears (and elations) throughout the book, as McDevitt gives us brief bits with less-related characters and their reactions. What struck me is how each of these characters, although some of them only got a few pages, were deeply pieced together. Some of them felt a bit stock, but McDevitt made sure that there was something about them that made them unique. And it never felt like the reason was to make them unique.
Because he managed to create so many real-feeling characters, he managed to remind us how diverse the world is. We aren't all going to react to situations in the same way, but we will all have our own unique experience, and it's that experience that will guide our reaction.

McDevitt also refuses to leave diversity to the minor characters. April is a young African-American chemist, and it never feels that was added for mere flavor. She has reactions throughout the book that feel like they are guided by her experience as a woman, as a female scientist, and as an African-American who has suddenly become palatable.

Many of the major characters are also Sioux, but McDevitt does not fall into the common stereotypes for Native characters. The first one we meet is a lawyer. McDevitt is aware the Sioux have a chairman, not a chief, even if Max doesn't. As he's dealing with Native characters who don't fit his stereotyped exceptions, Max expresses his own short-comings. In fact, at one point, when he gets to deal with someone who better fits the Native stereotype, he recognizes the cognitive dissonance of being more comfortable with the "typical" native, while knowing how messed up that is.

I feel like too often, race is either portrayed in a completely stereotypical way or it's portrayed in a way that defies all the stereotypes, but characters never take note of it. I feel like both are rather unrealistic, and while I prefer the latter, I immensely prefer a situation in which characters can be aware of their own biases.

It was hard to tell if I wanted to rate this 3 or 4 stars. It's probably somewhere smack in the middle, around a 3.5, but I think because the final, optimistic message resonated so deeply with me, it's hard not to bump it up to a 4. Even if the method in which he sent that message seemed a bit... much.

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