Book Review: The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt

The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt
The Long Sunset
by Jack McDevitt
Saga Press, 2018

The Academy has been shuttered and Priscilla Hutchins (Hutch) is adjusting to life on Earth. Humanity has become fearful of continued space exploration—there’s a growing paranoia that someday such expeditions will bring back something too dangerous. The President herself is campaigning for reelection on a platform of ending the space program.

When an astronomer discovers a signal from deep space which clearly indicates the presence of an intelligent, technologically sophisticated alien civilization, he recruits a team to seek out these aliens and Hutch is put in command. But people don’t want them to go and the team must race to take off before the government can shut them down.

(Spoiler: They manage to take off anyway.)

Once underway, they discover new planets with signs of civilizations long since dead. They also discover what killed them: a rogue black hole barrelling through space. The black hole is on track to destroy another planet, this one with an intelligent alien civilization on the cusp of developing advanced technology. Now they have to make contact with these aliens and find a way to save them.

The Long Sunset has all the delights of galaxy-spanning discovery, elements of a gripping race-against-the-clock thriller, and a compelling Big Idea about what alien life might be like. It’s a potent mix of ingredients.

And they’re all wasted. This is one of the most indifferent novels I read this year.

At the core of this novel, McDevitt offers an idea about alien intelligence and civilization which is genuinely fascinating: he believes that aliens will be just like us—technologically, culturally, in their values and customs, with houses, cars, schools, beach vacations, well-tempered music, religion, etc. Moreover, their history will follow the same trajectory ours did. If you encounter an alien race farther behind on the technological development timeline, their culture will be like stepping back in time to an earlier iteration of human culture.

McDevitt posits salient points to support this idea: the laws of physics are universal and spacefaring requires the development of certain technologies which in turn require iterative progress. There’s some merit to his premise and he argues it well.

One can’t help notice a couple of problems, though:

His vision of the universally required technological culture is exclusively Western (almost exclusively American, almost exclusively aspirational middle class) and completely fails to acknowledge the vast cultural diversity of our own planet and species. One wonders how historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and the like would react to the reductive implication that all culture is a product of technological development. It’s also facile to assume there isn’t more than one possible path to technological advancement, even within the strictures of universal physical laws.

But when we put those criticisms aside and accept his premise for the sake of the story, it remains problematic.

The thought that aliens would be just like us is intellectually fascinating but it’s a boring dramatic choice. We can ponder it with some philosophical pleasure but as a storytelling mechanism it’s bland. There are two first contact scenarios in this book and both of them go nicely. It’s all pleasant. Everyone is agreeable and polite and gets along. The problems are mechanical, impersonal. There’s no conflict in these encounters.

It could still be a good story—interesting people interacting under interesting circumstances. But it’s clear McDevitt doesn’t know how to tell this kind of character focused story. It comes across stilted and overly formal. The dialog is mostly characters talking about the situation, so there’s less substantive character development than one would hope for. There’s nothing personal about any of it.

I enjoy aliens in science fiction primarily for their role as foils and contrasts to humanity. In attempting to envision beings different from us, we reflect on who and what we are in unique ways. By creating aliens who are just like us (indeed, far nicer versions of us) this contrasting, reflective power is lost.

There’s a reason McDevitt chose to address first contact this way: the very beginning of the novel establishes that most people on Earth have grown fearful of encountering hostile aliens more powerful than us. The peaceful, non-confrontational first contacts which occur are an answer to this paranoia: “See? There’s nothing to worry about.”

Structurally, this makes sense. Intellectually, it makes sense. Dramatically, it’s weak.

There are two main sources of tension and conflict in this book:

1) The impending cosmological cataclysm, as the black hole bears down on the alien world and the race to bring help in time to evacuate them.

2) Earthly politics at first threatening to stop the expedition entirely, later threatening to scuttle the alien rescue attempt.

The black hole is a passive conflict, unavoidable, inviolate to the actions of the characters. The only impediment to the rush to evacuate the alien planet is Earthly political obstructionism.

Which means Earthly politics is the only source of substantial active conflict in the novel. In which case, McDevitt needs to delve deeply into this political conflict, to mine it for everything he can.

He barely touches it. The political situation on Earth is frequently discussed but there are very few scenes in which political conflict drives the interaction of the characters. There are a couple of scenes in which political conflict is the primary motive force—notably, at the beginning when the expedition launches, and near the end when Hutch meets with the President. But these scenes are mostly short and shallow, and only at the beginning and end of the novel.

It’s clear that McDevitt doesn’t know how to write good political scenes and wasn’t comfortable with them. He doesn’t seem to know how to handle this kind of storytelling and gets it over with as quickly as he can. His timorous attempts at it are awkward and unconvincing.

The end result is there’s hardly any compelling conflict for most of the novel.

So we end up with a story featuring the exploration of strange planets, a world ending apocalypse, multiple first contacts with intelligent alien civilizations, a race against the clock, deep political conflicts…

And it’s dramatically inert and timid.

This is definitely not McDevitt’s best work.

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