Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ten millennia ago, a vast lake, Lake Agassiz, covered much of Manitoba, North Dakota and Minnesota. This vanished body of water forms the basis of a voyage of discovery in Jack McDevitt's Ancient Shores. Unlike the voyages extraordinaire of Jules Verne, McDevitt's journey remains (for the most part) within a small region of North Dakota.
The novel opens by dropping the reader into the moment that the journey begins. Tom Lasker and his son Will are digging in their farmyard when they uncover a fantastic yacht which appears as if it were brand new. The mystery yacht, found on a landlocked farm which was in the family for eighty years, quickly begins to draw tourists to the area and eventually Lasker contacts a friend, Max Collingswood, to help discover the origins of the boat. Collingswood, in turn, turns some material over to April Cannon at a chemical lab for analysis. Cannon's discovery that the yacht is made of an unknown element cause Collingswood and Cannon to explore the mystery in depth.
Throughout the four-hundred pages of the novel, very little actually happens. Collingswood and Cannon discover another artefact on a nearby ridge which is on a Sioux reservation. They enlist the aid of the Sioux in its excavation examination. McDevitt does a good job representing a reservation and their ways of dealing with the modern world. When the artefact begins to influence national security, McDevitt describes the way various government officials are torn between confiscating the "roundhouse" and the fact that it will be seen as another land-grab away from the Indians.
In many ways, Ancient Shores is reminiscent of an older science fiction. The characters, while generally well drawn, are incidental to the scientific discovery. The plot, such as it is, exists so the characters can poke and prod the "Big Dumb Object" which has intruded on every day life. Many of the discoveries are not particularly startling. Nevertheless, Ancient Shores is a fun book to read and, quite honestly, has one of the most fun "feel good" endings I've read in a long time.
One of the realistic, and therefore scary, parts of McDevitt's work is the attitude taken by the government employees in Ancient Shores, particularly Elizabeth Silvera. Given orders that they disagree with, McDevitt's characters all too realistically do not dispute their orders. Unfortunately, this has the ring of truth to it and results in government agents excusing their actions by saying, "I was just following orders," thereby placing duty above ethics and morality.
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