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WesternSFA


Thunderbird
by Jack McDevitt;
Ace; $7.99; 370pp
Published: July 2016

Whoa.

This is a great sequel to McDevitt’s 1996 novel “Ancient Shores” about the discovery of an alien water-going ship buried in a field in North Dakota….when it was the edge of a lake ten thousand years ago.  When the ship was uncovered, a star gate was also uncovered at the site. A star gate that can take people to other planets way beyond the reach of our galaxy---to places unknown via a transporter device. And finally see aliens.

Chairman James Walker of the Spirit Lake Sioux makes the decisions on who or who doesn’t use the Roundhouse (or Starlight Station as it is known later) because Johnson’s Ridge where the Roundhouse is, is located on Sioux land. And the people who live on the rez and in towns surrounding it are of understandably mixed feelings about all the attention and the implications of a star gate that could allow actual aliens to invade their streets. (And something may have actually come from one of the alien sites and is loose on the streets. No one is quite sure…but strange things are happening in town.)

Walker is a wonderful character, well-aware of the immense importance of the Roundhouse’s existence and his decisions on who to let explore the worlds they have reached. So far, they have discovered: “Eden,” a warm lush planet whose star gate is close to a large sea and dense woods, a deserted space station, a world they name the Maze—that at first look is nothing but corridors until they finally find what appears to be a sort of golf cart with seats and seat belts and when the visitors get on it---zoom! It ends up literally being a roller coaster that dips out over the hills to show the riders a huge, tilted ringed moon its light reflected across the surface of an ocean and then whizzes back into the tunnels. They decide this is an actual amusement park ride (There are no aliens on this planet).

And then there is Riverwalk. Riverwalk’s transporter is inside a museum seemingly not visited much by any of the inhabitants—but outside the windows is  a city of tall spires, floating ships and small humanoid folk laughing and enjoying what looks to be a park immediately outside near a river. The humans do not make contact with these folks as they are worried the alien technology would make them hard to establish a balance with. Sadly, they only visit Riverwalk a few times and then decide to stop.

This is what is so great about this novel. All these places and the Sioux Chairman struggling with who gets to make the trans-galactic journeys and how to keep the press in line, how to keep the nut jobs away---and how to enjoy the wonder of going to worlds millions of light years away…

And, even more importantly, keep the U.S. President in line and the military from taking over the Roundhouse.

Everyone in the government feels that if the technology of the Roundhouse, or any of the aliens’ technology got loose on earth---the economy would crash into chaos and tank.  But, but there are… aliens!!

On the first world discovered, Eden, they make contact with a couple, Solya and Morkim, gorilla-like in appearance, who have a cabin in the woods.  They are nice, the husband is a painter, and they have books but no electricity. They get a first-class linguist to untangle their language and alphabet and find out that some of the books contain plays and poetry. That the “Arkons” (the nearby continent is called Arkonik) have a sense of humor, are graceful and like to dance, are curious—and when brought large picture books from Earth, are enchanted.

The last place the humans decide to visit is a desiccated planet with nothing living on it and littered with ruins. It reveals a real surprise and discloses another facet to the star gate…

Mc Devitt decides to conclude the novel with an all-good-things-come-to-an-end finish and has Chairman Walker make a decision he is very reluctant to implement.

The characters throughout the book are wonderfully developed and their struggles are believably human and their emotional responses, save excitement, are not over-the-top even when dealing with the complete unknown.  What I love best about McDevitt is this is not a novel about fights and destruction and ravening aliens (or even ravening humans, for that matter). That the issues laid out in this book that require action are moral and far-reaching. What IS for the good of human kind? And the aliens, as well. It is not simple by any stretch of the imagination.

And McDevitt—as always—has a terrific imagination. This is a terrific first contact novel. ~~ Sue Martin

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