In recent years, Jack McDevitt has emerged as a leading practitioner of the high-tech, deep-space disaster novel. His 1998 SF thriller, Moonfall, concerns an imminent collision between Earth's moon and a massive, wandering comet, and it stands firmly in the tradition of Philip Wylie's When Worlds Collide. Worlds collide once more in McDevitt's latest novel, Deepsix, an interstellar adventure that might just be the most exciting science fiction novel published so far this year.
The story takes place in the early 23rd century and opens with a prologue describing the disastrous expedition to a remote, Earth-like planet called Maleiva III. Fourteen years later, as the main narrative begins, Maleiva -- popularly known as Deepsix -- stands directly in the path of a roving gas giant and is two weeks away from complete destruction. Scientists and sightseers from across the galaxy are flocking to the event, which promises to provide an unprecedented cosmic spectacle.
Trouble begins when a scan of the planet's surface reveals previously undiscovered evidence of intelligent life. Immediately afterward, commercial pilot Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins finds herself conscripted and sent to Deepsix. Her mission: to discover and preserve as many remnants of that alien civilization as time and circumstance allow. Accompanying Hutch are several volunteer crew members, a middle-aged veteran of the first expedition to Deepsix, and an acerbic journalist named Gregory McAllister. Their exploration has barely begun when an earthquake destroys all functional landing vehicles, stranding Hutch and her amateur archaeologists on a rapidly disintegrating planet.
The bulk of the novel concerns the subsequent, increasingly desperate efforts to mount a viable rescue mission. As the days pass and available options dwindle, a team of scientists from the superluminals -- faster-than-light starships parked in orbit around Deepsix -- concoct an unlikely scheme that involves the modified use of newly discovered alien technology. As Hutch and company struggle to survive on a planet filled with unpredictable dangers, their orbiting cohorts struggle to construct an impossibly large "skyhook," a Rube Goldberg device that will literally scoop the explorers out of the sky and bring them safely home.
In Deepsix, McDevitt has created an exquisitely calibrated narrative in which moments of extreme, almost unbearable tension give way to contrasting moments of beauty, pathos, and unexpected humor. The result is a furiously paced novel that works equally well as hard SF, as a ticking-clock suspense story, as an account of characters changing -- and growing -- under the pressure of external events. However you categorize it, Deepsix is an intelligent, involving entertainment that deserves the largest possible audience. I urge you to give it a try. (Bill Sheehan)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).