Science fiction having grown from a needle in a haystack to a haystack of needles that has spilled over into nearly every other genre, numerous works appear these days that evoke discussion (to put it politely) about whether they are science fiction at all. But there remains a solid core to the haystack—an undeniable center point to the genre—that nobody would argue with. There may be debate within the community about what precisely that core is, but nobody would disagree Jack McDevitt is a writer of anything but. Featuring aliens, space adventure, heroes in the mold of the Big Three, and just enough real science to keep things honest, his 2002 Chindi is a needle everybody would agree is nowhere near the periphery of the haystack. Whether or not it is significant literature, well, that is yet another debate.
Chindi is story set in McDevitt’s ongoing series of Hutch novels. Like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series (another of which there is no doubt as to its genre location), it’s not necessary to have read the previous books to think of reading Chindi. And Hutch’s adventures begin before she even knows it. A research vessel, plying the interstellar starways looking for extra-terrestrial life, stumbles upon signals emanating from a star too regular to be galactic interference or random radio waves. When learning of the discovery back on Earth, a group of Fermi enthusiasts charter a ship to investigate. Hutch, and a friend called the Preacher, are handpicked by the government to head the two-flight mission. Arriving at the star, however, brings a huge surprise. It also sets the team following signals from one system to another, the purpose of the mission radically shifting gears as fresher and fresher knowledge is revealed.
If you didn’t take my word from the beginning, I believe that plot introduction should serve to leave no doubt convincing the would-be reader Chindi is core science fiction. Hyperspace, a World Council, Star Trek-esque (i.e. never-do-wrong) A.I., and space ships that are just too ideal, too clean to reflect human reality—it’s the Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov era all over again. With so many of the stereotypical elements of science fiction in play, Chindi could have been published fifty years ago, and apart from a few cultural references, none would be the wiser.
As such, this is a difficult review to write. I note, and like to point out, what makes a work unique or any sub-text of cultural or social importance a book might have. But Chindi is as vanilla as vanilla can be. It’s comfort food, sci-fi style. Before they begin, the reader is already familiar with the elements at play, meaning the only thing new to discover is McDevitt’s variation on plot. And considering that too plays out in unsurprising terms, I’m guessing that portion of sci-fi fandom which considers itself core (hardcore?) will enjoy the book the most. Readers looking for something outside this comfort zone will be bored.
In the end, Chindi is not a bad or good book. What it is, is a poster-izable example of science fiction that none would argue is not genre through and through. McDevitt imbues his characters with some sense of humanism so that the reader can relate to them; the plot, on an event by event basis, is not so predictable (but the overall plot arc is); and the motifs and plot devices are familiar to everyone, even mainstream readers. This makes Chindi a comfortable (i.e. done before), unchallenging (i.e. stereotypical) genre adventure that can’t be anything more. I also can’t help but wonder whether McDevitt read Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space—another vanilla effort—prior to writing Chindi…