Despite a fairly rushed and anticlimactic finale, The Engines of God is a spectacular exercise in "sense of wonder" adventure storytelling. Combining traditional themes of deep space exploration and alien contact with the always-reliable standby of ancient mysteries and lost civilizations, McDevitt has created an exciting page-turner whose popularity is well deserved.
The story opens roughly 200 years in the future, at a time when the Earth has undergone seriously bad climatic change. Ocean levels have risen, famine and plague have waylaid the still-developing world, you name it. Fortunately, faster than light travel has become a reality, so interstellar exploration to find a new home for humanity — or at least some of humanity — is underway.
It is during these explorations that the first of the strange alien Monuments is discovered on Jupiter's moon Iapetus. Soon, others are found in several systems. And each monument is different; a large sculpture on Iapetus that archaeologist Richard Wald thinks is a self-portrait, mysterious square "moons" orbiting the first world found to have an intelligent (if pretechnological) civilization. But the most remarkable find is on the moon circling the world of Quraqua, a series of stone structures built to resemble nothing less than an entire city — but it was never a real city. The native Quraquat, themselves extinct, weren't the Monument-Makers, but explorations of their own ruins indicate that they did indeed come into contact with the strange species that inexplicably built this massive edifice, nicknamed "Oz" by its human discoverers, on their moon. Who were the Monument-Makers, why did they undertake these projects, and where are they now?
Pilot Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins flies Wald out to Quraqua to assist in the excavations of an ancient temple. The archaeologists' timetable is running low; the Earth wants a planet to terraform and Quraqua fills the bill. With only days left until the terraforming teams begin their work, it appears that the excavations are on the cusp of uncovering a vital key to translating an ancient Quraquat language. This would enable several key inscriptions (possibly discussing the Monument-Makers, whose sculpted features are already known to adorn the sunken temple) to be translated, thus solving a whole slew of mysteries: who everyone was, why Oz exists, and why it appears to have been curiously... bombarded.
Though the dig does not end without disaster (they miss their deadline), it turns up enough information that the homeworld of the Monument-Makers looks like it's in the offing. When Hutch and several of the team members from the Quraqua dig head to the system where they believe said world to be, they stumble upon an entirely new set of mysteries, not the least of which is evidence that a number of the systems where the Monuments have been found have experienced some form of cataclysmic event at nearly precise 8000-year intervals. What's up with that?
McDevitt is thought of as a hard SF writer by many but, strictly speaking, he isn't. His stories feature solid hard science when they need to, but he's not averse to such concepts as FTL, or force-field-generating harnesses instead of spacesuits, when the mood suits him (and the story requires the use of such chestnuts to fill out its epic canvas). Hutch is immediately established as a flesh-and-blood heroine from the get-go. Self-assured and insecure at precisely the correct balance, she anchors the exciting narrative. And exciting it is. While it's true that McDevitt has Hutch and Co. nearly come to grief perhaps one time too many, McDevitt has a remarkable skill at building tension and making you feel for his people. A scene where a collision in deep space leaves Hutch and her team stranded, with power draining away and the only possible help due to arrive just a few days too late, is unforgettable, as is the preceding race against time (and an oncoming tsunami!) to evacuate the Quraqua temple. But equally dazzling are the book's quiet moments; the images evoked by Hutch's shuttle flying over Oz, the desolate artificial city guarding its ancient secrets under a cloak of impenetrable time, fire the imagination.
Of course, this is also a book that is unapologetic about going over the top with scenes such as an attack by hordes of giant alien crabs and a flight for survival over a remote moon covered in lakes of gasoline. It's true that after a while, scenes like these evoke less nail-biting than they do an "oh boy, here we go again" smile. But by that time, you have such an investment in seeing this saga through to its outcome that you'll willingly give in to the sheer entertainment value of it all.
It's only at the end, regrettably, that McDevitt disappoints somewhat. While a number of mysteries are resolved, a key one — in fact, the key one — remains elusive. But it's not something that's really a liability, when you consider it. Had everything been wrapped up in a tidy bundle, The Engines of God might have been less plausible and successful after all. If there's one thing science has taught us about this remarkable universe of ours, it's that just when you think you've got the whole shootin' match figured out, along comes something entirely unexpected to put you right back where you started. There is always another mysery to solve. Which is why we — and heroes like Priscilla Hutchins — never stop exploring.
McDevitt returned to Hutch in 2001's Deepsix.