If there is anything forums, chat rooms, comments sections, blogs, news reporting, and other media have made us aware of, it's the variety of opinion on what is "right" for humanity. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World pointed some easy fingers at what is "wrong" for humanity, while others have purported social structures as ideal, holes appearing in them as well. A microcosm of debate in what is "good" for humanity, Jack McDevitt’s 1996 Ancient Shores is not so much a story of alien discovery, rather humanity’s reaction to it. And what a reaction it is.
Ancient Shores literally opens with the discovery of a yacht buried in the middle of a North Dakota wheat field. Unearthed and set up as a tourist attraction in the farmer’s barn, the discovery that its hull and sails are comprised of an element that does not exist on Earth, and that it emits a strange green glow at night from power sources unknown, quickly have the scientific community scrambling for answers. Said answers not easy to swallow, an even larger wrench is thrown into the perception of reality when a second unidentifiable object is discovered in a nearby canyon. Turning the small North Dakota community, and eventually the world, upside down and shaking it, the best manner in which to put to use the ever-fascinating possibilities of the discoveries becomes as heated a topic as only humans can argue.
The strange, extra-terrestrial objects only a catalyst, Ancient Shores is predominantly a presentation of the ripples in society such discoveries could cause. Spiritualists, corporate CEOs, reluctant physicists, doomsayers, conspiracy theorists, view-hungry crowds, religious extremists, local hotel owners, foreign diplomats, journalists, and even an unfortunate graffiti artist are caught in the storm of media and curiosity that follows upon the strong possibility mankind is not alone. McDevitt formerly involved in the military (a factor apparent in the prose), the characters representing these facets of society are rendered in simple yet convincing enough terms. Like the supporting characters in a Coen brothers’ film, every reader will have known one of them as ‘normal’ members of society.
Another relatively unique facet of the novel (for a sci fi book, at least) is its discussion of Native American affairs. The second strange artifact discovered on Sioux land, several additional layers of political, cultural, and social sensitivity are applied to those seeking to profit or waylay, view or research what comes to be known as the Roundhouse. McDevitt handling the Sioux with poise, there were numerous politicized roads available but not traveled, much to the book’s benefit.
In the end, Ancient Shores is solid social sci-fi in a contemporary setting. McDevitt using the discovery of strange alien artifacts to expose human reaction from myriad viewpoints, the science fiction bits take a backseat to personal stories paralleling the main storyline: the fate of the extra-terrestrial objects. The prose perhaps not the most subtly rendered, and in turn the characters rather blocky, the people described nevertheless exude enough realism to exist in real life. The story seemingly an amalgam of Le Guin, Heinlein, Clarke, and other writers of so-called ‘soft science fiction’, McDevitt has penned a tale that may not break new barriers genre-wise, but remains engaging enough due to the patient manner in which the plot is unpacked and the relevance of the human sub-text.