Ancient Shores

Ancient Shores

4.2 28
by Jack McDevitt

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It turned up in a North Dakota wheat field: a triangle, like a shark's fin, sticking up from the black loam. Tom Lasker did what any farmer would have done. He dug it up. And discovered a boat, made of a fiberglass-like material with an utterly impossible atomic number. What it was doing buried under a dozen feet of prairie soil two thousand miles from any ocean,

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It turned up in a North Dakota wheat field: a triangle, like a shark's fin, sticking up from the black loam. Tom Lasker did what any farmer would have done. He dug it up. And discovered a boat, made of a fiberglass-like material with an utterly impossible atomic number. What it was doing buried under a dozen feet of prairie soil two thousand miles from any ocean, no one knew. True, Tom Lasker's wheat field had once been on the shoreline of a great inland sea, but that was a long time ago -- ten thousand years ago.

A return to science fiction on a grand scale, reminiscent of the best of Heinlein, Simak, and Clarke, Ancient Shores is the most ambitious and exciting SF triumph of the decade, a bold speculative adventure that does not shrink from the big questions -- and the big answers.

Editorial Reviews

New York Daily News
An old-fashioned page turner...filled with breathless plotting...[and] a nail-biting ending.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Early in the next century, outside a North Dakota town, farmer Tom Lasker digs up a boat on his land. Not only is the vessel crafted from an unknown element, but Lasker's farm is on land that has been dry for 10,000 years. A search for further artifacts unearths a building of the same material and age that turns out to be an interdimensional transportation device. The building sits on land owned by the Sioux, who want to use it to regain their old way of life on another world; meanwhile, the U.S. government, fearful of change, wants to destroy the building. Right up to the climax, McDevitt (Engines of God) tells his complex and suspenseful story with meticulous attention to detail, deft characterizations and graceful prose. That climax, though, is another matter, featuring out-of-the-blue heroic intervention in a conflict between the feds and the Indians by, among others, astronaut Walter Schirra, cosmologist Stephen Hawking and SF writers Ursula K. LeGuin, Carl Sagan and Gregory Benford. "If the government wants to kill anyone else, it'll have to start with us," announces Stephen Jay Gould. That absurdity aside, this is the big-vision, large-scale novel McDevitt's readers have been waiting for. (Apr.)
Carl Hays
Hard sf specialist McDevitt explores what happens when an unearthed artifact, in this case a 42-foot yacht, proves to be the offspring of unheard-of technologies. Within weeks of its discovery beneath a North Dakota farm field, the boat becomes a media sensation coveted by prospective buyers and scientists, among them chemist April Cannon, who garners quick fame from analyzing the boat's astonishing components. And where there's a boat, there's a boathouse, which Cannon and company duly uncover on a nearby Sioux reservation and dub the Roundhouse. Soon the national economy verges on collapse because the materials from which the artifacts are made seem to wear forever: obsolescence in goods made from the stuff will be obsolete. So, just as scientists discover that the Roundhouse is the vehicle for instantaneous travel to other worlds, the government plots to desecrate Indian property once again to destroy it. A large cast of colorful characters, a wry overview of society's extreme behavior in the face of the unknown, and a surprise ending make this irresistibly compelling reading, one of McDevitt's best.
Kirkus Reviews
Astonishingly, North Dakota farmer Tom Lasker unearths a perfectly preserved 42-foot sailboat from his wheatfield. More remarkable still, the boat is made of materials unknown to science—and has probably lain buried for ten thousand years, since it last sailed the waters of an ancient glacial lake. While tourists line up to goggle at the boat—its automatic lights still work—Tom's pilot friend Max Collingswood and scientist April Cannon wonder whether there's a boathouse, too. Sure enough, a geophysics survey reveals a mysterious structure buried on the nearby Sioux reservation. Max and April negotiate permission to dig and soon uncover a glassy circular building that contains a transporter device connecting it to another planet hundreds of light-years away. But, clearly, these advanced technologies threaten global economic stability, and the President comes under pressure to secure the building and destroy it (having, apparently, forgotten about the a sailboat, which Tom has already sold). The Sioux resist, however, and just as a dreadful slaughter seems unavoidable, Max ferries in a planeload of luminaries to broadcast the truth of the world.

From familiar components, McDevitt (The Engines of God, 1994, etc.) has fashioned a solidly engrossing tale that, despite some plot wobbles, brims with low-key attractions.

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Ancient Shores

Chapter One

Pretty in amber, to observe the forms
Of hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms;
The things, we know, are neither rich nor rare,
But wonder how the devil they got there.

-- Alexander Pope, "An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot"

"If that ain't the damnedest thing. " Tom Lasker had to raise his voice to be heard over the wind. Will paused with his spade full of black earth to see what had drawn his father's attention.

A triangular plate, not unlike a shark's fin, stuck out of the ground. it was tough. Metal, apparently, but not corroded.

They were on the low ridge that bordered the west side of the farm, working late under a string of lightbulbs, trying to put in a system that would pump water uphill from the well. Lasker played his flashlight over the object, and Will pushed at it with the tip of his boot. The night smelled of approaching winter. A cold wind chopped across the rise and shook the lights. Lasker knelt and brushed the soil away with gloved fingers. The object was bright red. Smooth and hard. When he pulled, it had no give.

The house was about a quarter-mile away, a two-story frame building set back in a thick growth of trees. Its lights were warm and cheerful.

The fin was attached to a rod of the same color and texture, all of a piece. It angled down into the soil at thirty degrees. Will wedged his spade under it, and they tried to lever it up. it wobbled but wouldn't come loose. "On three," said Lasker.

He did the count, and they yanked together, lost their balance, and fell laughing over each other. "That'senough for tonight, Pop," said Will. "Let's go eat."

The Pembina Escarpment was visible through the bedroom windows of Tom Lasker's house. The escarpment consisted of a line of rounded hills and ridges and jutting rocks, a fairly impressive feature on land that was otherwise pool-table flat. Ten thousand years ago it had been the western shore of an inland sea that covered large areas of the Dakotas, Minnesota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The spot where the house now stood would have been several hundred feet underwater.

Lasker was a big man: awkward, with thinning brown hair and wide shoulders. His features were sharp, raw-edged, carved by too many unforgiving winters. He'd lived his entire life in the Fort Moxie area. He thought of himself as basically uninteresting, just a farmer who worked hard, didn't socialize too much, and took care of his family. He was happily married, his two sons seemed to be developing into reasonable adults, and he enjoyed flying. Like many of the local farmers, he had a pilot's license, and he owned a Katana DV-20. He also owned a World War II-era Navy Avenger and was a member of the Confederate Air Force -- a group of enthusiasts dedicated to restoring antique warbirds.

Shortly after dawn on the morning following the find, he and Will were back atop the slope. October on the northern plains tends to be bleak and cold. This day was typical. Lasker was half buried in his down jacket, not having yet worked up enough sweat to shed it.

The fin stuck several inches out of the ground, mounted on a support pole about two inches thick. Lasker was thinking about the damage it might have done had he run a tractor over it.

Will sank his spade into the earth. "Well," he said, "let's get rid of it." He turned the soil over, and even this late in the season it was heavy and sweet.

The air was still. A blue jay sat on a fence rail, watching, and Lasker felt good about the world. The shark fin interested him. Hard to imagine what it was or how it had come to be buried on land his family had owned for sixty years. More important, it provided a temporary puzzle that bound him a little closer to his son.

How deep did the pole go? He measured off a few feet in a straight line from its point of entry and began throwing up soil in his methodical way. Will joined in, and after a while they struck metal. The pole was at least six feet long. They continued digging until Will had to leave for school. Then Lasker went into the house, had some coffee and toast, and came back for another go. He was still working on it when Ginny called him for lunch.

She came back with him afterward to see what the fuss was about. Ginny was tall, clever, a product of Chicago who had come to North Dakota as a customs inspector, with the primary objective of getting away from urban life. She'd fallen in love quickly with this guy, who in turn had started making trips to Canada, hoping she would clear him when he returned. Sometimes he'd even bought things, stuff he could pay duty on. She remembered the first time he'd tried that approach: He'd spent thirty dollars in a Winnipeg bookstore for a history of Canadian aviation and had clearly been disappointed when she'd waved him through because books were free of duty.

His friends had tried to warn him away from Ginny. She'll get tired of the harsh winters, they'd said. And small-town life. Eventually she'll go back to Chicago. They'd talked about Chicago more or less in the tone they'd have used for Pluto. But twenty years had passed, and she was still here. And she and Tom thrived on snowy nights and roaring fires.

"Is it creating a problem?" she asked, puzzled, standing over the trench that Lasker had dug around the thing. It was about six feet deep, and a ladder stuck out of it.

"Not really."

Ancient Shores. Copyright © by Jack McDevitt. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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