With the Nebula-nominated Chindi, Jack McDevitt hurls intrepid starship pilot Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins into yet another interstellar adventure involving ancient alien artifacts, ineffable cosmic mystery, and hair-raising escapes from almost certain doom. While McDevitt isn't yet in danger of losing his flair for sense-of-wonder talespinning, familiarity is taking the edge off much of what used to make Hutch's stories exemplars of can't-put-it-down excitement. Here it must be said that the action scenes ultimately go so far over the top that they never come back down. McDevitt gives his readers' credulity such a workout in Chindi that if you can buy half the crap that Hutch and Co. have to survive in this novel, your willing suspension of disbelief will be so muscular that Arnold Schwarzeneggar will hang his head in shame. Fans of The Engines of God and Deepsix will be happy to embrace Chindi, even while their eyes are rolling.
This time, the story begins when mysterious transmissions are detected emanating from near a remote neutron star. As humanity has more or less given up on making contact with any alien species currently possessing spacefaring technology (all that have been discovered so far are long extinct, and the one civilization Earth does know of is primitive and warlike), this is exciting. Hutch, more than ready to retire, is asked to undertake one more flight (famous last words) ferrying a group of amateur explorers belonging to a widely-mocked club called the Contact Society out to the neutron star for a look-see. It should all be perfectly routine. Just travel out there and see what there is.
Everything is indeed routine up to a point. Hutch and her passengers do find alien satellites doing the transmitting, and employing some arcane cloaking technology that prevents their easy detection. But when another vessel from home exploring the system to which the transmission is being directed comes to grief, and Hutch hurries her ship thither to render aid, the rollercoaster ride has begun.
After numerous encounters that I won't spoil for you, Hutch and her intrepid team (who are getting a hard crash course in the perils of interstellar exploration) follow the transmissions — which have been going from star to star in an inexplicable pattern — to a bizarre system with two massive ringed gas giants in close orbit around one another. Here they find the vessel they dub the Chindi (after a Navajo spirit being), a colossal asteroid that has been modified into a starship by beings unknown. After failing to hail anything like a crew, some of the team manage to get aboard, and the mysteries begin to pile up as quickly as the dangers.
While there's a touch of Rendezvous with Rama here, I must confess Clarke's original was better. McDevitt is a savvy enough writer not to resort to obvious "things you encounter when wandering through dark derelict alien spaceships" clichés. The best scenes in the novel show McDevitt flexing his imagination to impressive effect. He's a man in whom science fiction's sense of wonder is as firmly entrenched as Pat Robertson's religious evangelism. And for those of you wondering, Chindi is a stand-alone novel. McDevitt makes brief references to the earlier books in the interest of continuity. But it's just enough to avoid both spoiling them for people who haven't read them, or making you feel you ought to have read them before reading this one.
But at the same time, the formula employed in the Hutch novels has gotten pretty obvious by now. (Naturally, this won't be a problem for readers who haven't first read Engines or Deepsix.) In almost every scene where our crew encounters a new alien wonder, it's a cue that someone's going to get the redshirt treatment. And while Deepsix in particular gained most of its excitement from a spectacular rescue sequence, in Chindi McDevitt makes the classic Hollywood mistake of trying to top himself. The result is overkill. The novel's final 120-odd pages are devoted to an extended rescue sequence that goes on so long it becomes more exhausting than exciting. Odds of success are a zillion jillion kabillion to one against, and so on, and every time it looks like Hutch might catch a break something else goes wrong. After a while I just thought "Good grief!" I mean, Hutch spends more time clambering outside her various spaceships trying different things to save her crew's lives then she spends inside them, and she's even briefly exposed to vacuum twice! (Why she doesn't flash-freeze McDevitt doesn't explain.) Cripes, McDevitt might as well dress her up in a red cape and blue tights.
In the end I'm still willing to give Chindi a three-star bottom line for several reasons. It is quite entertaining for most of its length, in a beer-and-pretzels entertainment kind of way. Like a dumb action movie that you know is dumb but you enjoy watching all the same, Chindi has a guilty pleasure appeal. Yes, there's a part of me that wishes this series had taken a less potboilerish direction, particularly considering the artistic promise of The Engines of God. And Hutch is a most likable space opera heroine. But even as she is transformed from heroine to superheroine before your eyes, McDevitt never lets her lose her humanity. You may hate yourself in the morning, but you'll have a good time if you curl up with Chindi tonight.