[This review contains spoilers. Also, I get a nice long rant on, so get ready.]
Omega feels like a religious tract masquerading as a hard SF novel. In its final scenes, Jack McDevitt takes a brilliant and exciting adventure saga with a can't-fail premise — a team of human scientists must save an alien race from destruction while doing their best to avoid revealing themselves to said aliens or interfering with their culture — and turns it into a frontal assault on science and reason themselves. This may not bother readers of a religious bent as much as it does Skeptical Inquirer-types like me. But I can't think of the last time when I was so disgusted with the climax of a book I had up to that point been loving that I threw it across the room hard enough to dent the sheetrock. Especially when it's a book with such estimable prequels as this one. Right up until the last sixty pages I was ready to give this book one of my most enthusiastic recommendations ever, kids. Disappointments don't come more acute than this. Omega's ending is almost enough to sour me on McDevitt altogether (though it won't in actuality — I take my critical responsibilities of fairness seriously), and it will take some time and detail to explain where this book went all wrong for me. So bear with.
Now let me just start by acknowledging that a number of folks reading this are most assuredly religious themselves, that not all of SF's readership is made up of hardcore scientific rationalists and atheists, and I respect that completely. I don't know what Jack McDevitt's own personal religious inclinations are, though I have a pretty good idea. And, whether he's really expressing his own views here or just assigning different beliefs to different characters like a game of musical chairs, his personal beliefs are his business and don't matter. It's a free country.
What I'm critiquing here is the way in which religious themes are suddenly thrust into the story at its climax — for which only the term "reprehensible" seems to suffice — and, moreover, how the novel then goes on to question, if not repudiate entirely, the value of the scientific method and even truth itself, compared to the perceived benefits of religious faith. Omega's ultimate thematic message is that when the chips are down, reason and science simply can't cut it, and one needs, in the words of one character, the "priceless gift" of faith. By now you are either pitying my poor lost soul, or doing your best to choke back vomit. If you belong to the latter camp, feel free to click over to another review now. You know all about Omega you need to.
Set some years after Chindi, Omega has Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins, now older and retired from the business of nonstop hairs-breadth rescues, entrenched in the life of the bureaucrat. The constant political wrangling and hair-pulling involved in getting anything done at all is wearying, but gives her a new appreciation for how much work goes into what does in fact get done.
The omega clouds, the inexplicable interstellar nanotech storms that travel throughout the galaxy, zeroing in on any civilization and eradicating it, are still 8000 years away from reaching Earth. There is of course a contingent of people who insist that now is the time to start worrying about them, otherwise, the inertia of human procrastination will sink in and before humanity knows it, the things will be on our doorstep catching us without a plan. But most people, naturally, don't think of the clouds as a threat.
The situation changes when a living civilization is discovered on a distant planet directly in the path of one of the omega clouds. Early indications are that while the aliens, who come to be called Goompahs, have a relatively sophisticated and peaceful society centered on a narrow isthmus, they are pre-technological (there seem to be no other settlements anywhere else on the globe) and have no way of knowing what the omega cloud looming over them is, much less what to do about it. It is up to humanity to figure out a way to save the Goompahs somehow, without violating the Protocol (think Trek's Prime Directive).
A mission is hastily assembled, among whose scientists is David Collingdale, who has a Captain Ahab-ish single-minded determination to destroy every omega cloud in the universe. Collingdale knows one possible way to foil the cloud, as he once saw one alien city spared because it was under the thick cover of a blizzard. Meanwhile, another team of scientists led by Harold Tewksbury is studying an omega cloud-related phenomena named after himself, in which they suddenly flare up with nova-intense light, forming what may be a pattern. It is discovered that each cloud is guided by a strangely shaped vessel of some kind.
This whole part of the book is terrific, particularly the way in which Hutch has to deal not only with the actual mission underway, but also fend off the numerous commercial and political leeches who see saving the Goompahs as a way to gain stature for themselves. And once we get to Lookout, the Goompah's planet, Omega is working on a higher level than Chindi, as its structure is more focused while Chindi was all over the place.
Wearing devices called "lightbenders" that render them invisible (McDevitt has never been above resorting to indistinguishable-from-magic technology when the mood suits him), the team's specialists wander freely among the Goompah cities, drinking in their culture, their arts and politics, and forwarding samples of the language to another incoming Earth ship where a staff of linguists waits. These are eminently rational beings who, while they have religion, don't seem to consider it all that important, and believe firmly in open debate and the scientific method. Their schools have signs posted reading "Think For Yourself" and "Accept No Claim Without Evidence," something I can hardly imagine existing an any public school in America, especially during the Bush years. However, there does seem to be something in the Goompah's past that makes direct contact a bad idea for more reasons than one. They fear creatures they call zhoka, who are represented in their art as looking nearly...human. The few times one of the team is seen by a Goompah, the poor creature runs screaming.
All of this so far has, again, been fine storytelling. But as we near the end, things go horribly, horribly wrong.
After an attempt to speak directly to one Goompah — the lecturer Macao, who seems one of the most level-headed and esteemed in their society — fails dismally (she doesn't run screaming, but her fear overtakes her willingness to heed the warnings), drastic measures seem called for. So while some members of the team install devices to shield the isthmus under heavy storms, the rest of them install holographic projectors in key populated areas. At the right moment, an image of the deity Lykonda appears to the awestruck Goompahs and warns them to head for the hills.
Okay, there are ways in which you might say this kind of thing could be morally defensible — for instance, if the civilization in question were nothing but ignorant stone-age savages. But the Goompahs aren't, and so to suggest that there was no other way to save them than by creating false religious visions that will no doubt impact their sociological development for the next few millennia is absurdly off-base. For one thing, these are supposedly rational beings, whose favorite public activity (aside from orgies, a subplot McDevitt wisely doesn't overuse to humorous effect) is freewheeling public debate not unlike what goes in England's House of Commons. For another, McDevitt never resolves the mystery of the zhoka — who they were, why they look human, why the Goompahs fear them so. One possible way to have continued the plot might have been to have further encounters between Macao and the humans, where the humans, in gradual stages, convince Macao they aren't evil, that there are other inhabited worlds in space, and that they've come to help. First contact is made in a meaningful way, and the integrity of Goompah culture is not only preserved but enhanced, as the Goompahs learn the zhoka are simply boogeymen. Then the Goompahs could be persuaded via evidence that they must flee their cities to survive the coming omega cloud.
But McDevitt doesn't go this route. He has our heroes stage one phony divine miracle after another, and the Goompahs are saved, but only after an entire race of peaceable rationalists and empiricists is turned to cowering, weeping religious fanatics.
McDevitt, apparently remembering that a good chunk of hard SF's readership does consist of scientific rationalists who might find all this appalling, has one of his characters voice a token moral objection to what has been done. But she's shut up pretty quickly, with naive arguments I can't even imagine McDevitt is foolish enough to believe.
"This is the sort of thing," Whit said, "that constitutes the stuff of legends."
"You mean they'll tell this story to their grandkids," said Julie.
Digger smiled. "And nobody who wasn't here will believe it."
"Don't be too sure," said Whit. "One day this might all become part of a sacred scripture."
"Not on this world," insisted Digger. "I keep remembering a sign we saw at one of the schools. 'Think for yourself.' If they can really push that, I doubt any of their grandkids will believe Lykonda actually showed up."
"Pity," said Julie. "It's a lovely story."
Yes, lovely. But on our own planet, the wisdom of the Greek philosophers didn't prevent the coming of the Inquisition centuries later, and a lot of people think the Gospels are a lovely story too. What may well happen is that Goompah schools will take down the "Think for yourself" signs and replace them with ones reading "Lykonda Saves." Especially as they've had what they consider to be direct proof of Lykonda's existence, without any way of knowing the "proof" was a fabrication.
From reading McDevitt's previous novels, I know the man isn't part of the anti-science fringe, who are currently championing all sorts of nonsense in America these days, whether it's "intelligent design" or climate change denial or what have you. But the fact that McDevitt went this direction with his story — instead of one that satisfies, rather than denigrates, the value of science — gives the unfortunate impression that he doesn't really value science, at least not as much as religion and its euphoric raptures. There are diary entries he gives the aforementioned Whit character, in which the virtues of faith over knowledge are defended with, predictably, emotional appeals.
It has been the fashion since Darwin to attack religious belief.... Yet there is much that is ennobling in the belief that there is, after all, a higher power. That there is a purpose to existence. That we owe loyalty to something greater than ourselves. And it strikes me that, even when we get the details wrong, that belief can produce a happy result.
Shooting heroin can produce a "happy result" as well, but that doesn't means it's good for you. (And did you notice Whit's use of the weasel-phrase "since Darwin"? What is that, I wonder? A sop to Religious Right anti-evolutionists? Hmm.) In any event, feeling that there is a "purpose to existence" and that we owe "loyalty to something greater than ourselves" is hardly the exclusive domain of theists. And as an atheist I'm proud to state my belief in a "higher power"... one that I call reason. Anyway, McDevitt's repudiation (via the Whit character) of reason and knowledge gets even stronger a few chapters on.
Tonight, perhaps for the first time, I can see the true value of faith. It strikes me as a precious gift. Those of us who have traded it for a mechanical universe may have gotten closer to the actual state of things, but we have paid a substantial price. It makes me wonder about the value of truth.
You heard it right, kids. Truth has questionable value, but faith is a precious gift. Don't worry about what's real, what's factual, what's provably true, because all that really matters is walking around life with the warm fuzzies in your tummy and a blissful blank smile plastered on your face. Faith brings happiness, knowledge misery. All those stuffy scientist types may actually be, you know, right, but so what? They've paid a substantial price. They have no purpose to their existence, no sense of loyalty to anything greater than themselves. Belief good. Knowledge bad.
I don't think I've ever read such stridently anti-science sentiments in the pages of a science fiction novel in my life. (But then, I refuse to read L. Ron Hubbard, so I don't know.) And personally, I think it's woefully remiss of SFWA to reward these sentiments with a Nebula nomination. Regardless of what the personal beliefs of any SF writer in the business may or may not be, to claim that truth itself is something of questionable value ought to be repellant in the extreme to anyone, believer or skeptic, with a shred of respect for reason. Some readers might find Omega's story truly uplifting. Well, go right ahead. As for me, I came away from this tale disappointed and disheartened that McDevitt felt his characters had to destroy the Goompahs in order to save them.