Series: The Academy (#3)
Genre: Hard SF
Publication Date: 2002
Are we alone in the universe? It’s a question that has plagued mankind for thousands of years. And by the twenty-third century, it seems like the answer is yes. Until a mysterious satellite is found at a remote star . . .
This review starts with a big caveat. When I picked Chindi up in a charity shop, I didn’t realise it was the third in a series. ironically, the first book in this series was right next to it, but worn labels and a better more enticing blurb led to me choosing Chindi as my first Jack McDevitt read. Only later on did I realise my mistake. That being said, these stories are fairly independent of one another. An episodic approach to a series that I honestly wish was used more often. there are a handful of references to previous events, and I suspect character relations develop over the course of these six books, but Chindi‘s storyline stands on its own. With that preamble out of the way, let’s talk about Chindi.
I didn’t enjoy this book. I’ll get that admission out of the way early on. despite everything about the blurb screaming ‘this book was written for you!’ at me, I found it a real slog to get through. And there’s two reasons for that. the first is an issue of pacing. I mentioned above that the series appears to be episodic. Well, so are the chapters of this book. We spend a few chapters in each location, face a problem, resolve the problem, then follow a a lead to another location. Rinse and repeat. Chindi feels like a relic of an older time, when novellas and short stories were routinely fixed together to make longer novels. part of me wonders of Chindi was written with serialisation as a possible route to publishing, but I think it’s more a question of McDevitt’s style. And it’s the other part of his style that put the final nail in Chindi‘s coffin. McDevitt’s prose is heavy. Heavy and oh so dense. Now I don’t mind dry prose. Isaac Asimov is, after all, one of my favourite authors. But McDevitt’s writing ultimately feels as lifeless as the galaxy he portrays.
And that’s a massive shame, because the ideas McDevitt is playing with are incredibly interesting. He’s one of few authors who truly appreciates the massive scope of space travel, both in distance and duration. Even with hyperspace, it takes weeks to get everywhere. Characters talk about events occurring imminently – in a few thousand years. If you want a book to make you feel small and insignificant, Chindi is definitely worth a look. The encounters with nonhuman entities tread that very fine line between hard science fiction and cosmic horror. Because let’s face it: aliens are scary. They should be, because they are literally inhuman. McDevitt gets that, and uses the horror of the unknown, perhaps even the unknowable, to great effect. And it’s not just in face-to-face encounters. Even the remains of alien civilisations carry their own trauma with them. Chindi is a book laden with tragedy, both personal and societal. That ever-present theme of loneliness is driven home by the epigrams, a mix of real and invented extracts from books and poems spanning centuries. It’s a bleak world McDevitt portrays. I just wish the actual presentation had been a little more engaging.
In the end, Chindi feels like a missed opportunity. I love so many parts of it. The ideas are next-level, and thematically, McDevitt nails it. It’s just a shame that these elements aren’t held together by something a little stronger.