Thunderbird | Jack McDevitt | 2015 | Headline | 369p | Review copy | Buy the book
A stargate has been found on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Not far from it is discovered a boat made from modern, even futuristic materials, but the lake it is found beside disappeared over ten thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age. The stargate leads to a number of destinations, three of which are currently being explored: a fertile land of forest, garden and sea known as Eden; a deserted space station with a view of the Milky Way; a maze of underground passageways. Opinion on the stargate is divided. While some view it as a marvel with the potential to revolutionise society and culture, others, including the President of the USA, regard it as a Pandora’s Box which, at best, would damage industry and send the country into a decline and, at worst, could unleash unknown horrors onto the Earth. There are convincing arguments put here for both sides. The uncertainty isn’t helped by frequent observations in the nearby towns of a strange ghostlike presence which appears to be keeping watch and, now and again, touching human lives.
The stargate has stayed under the control of the Sioux community, led by chairman James Walker, and it has transformed life on the reservation. Every mission is escorted by Sioux guards while local journalists are keen to accompany the scientists, astronauts and explorers on their expeditions. All of them are united by curiosity. Chief among these is radio talkshow host Brad Hollister who both wants to visit these worlds and explain them to his listeners but is also terrified. Nevertheless, that curiosity forces him on to take step after step into the unknown. He travels with Paula, April and others into each of the three environments and is with them when new wonders are revealed. Back on Earth, we spend time with Walker and the President as they consider the wider issues of the stargate for society and for humanity as a whole. The debate takes on a whole new edge when April makes first contact.
Thunderbird is the sequel to Ancient Shores, published in 1996, which I have yet to read. Possibly because of the passing of time, Thunderbird feels like a stand alone novel. Its events have been moved into the present day even though it follows directly on from the earlier novel and much is recapped. Clearly the repercussions of events in the previous novel are being heavily felt in Thunderbird but it didn’t spoil it for me. On the contrary, it made me want to make sure I read Ancient Shores in the future.
I have been a big fan of Jack McDevitt’s work for years and I am slowly reading and re-reading his past novels while enjoying any new books that come along. I love the way in which he presents wonders in almost straightforward terms. Here we have the lighter side of science fiction. The emphasis, in my opinion, is very much on the human reaction to the mystery of space. The science is secondary to the sense of wonder he wants to achieve when he gets a timid but hugely courageous human to open a door on the stargate, to cross a bridge into the unknown, knock on the door of a house on another planet.
There are so many characters to follow in Thunderbird. They come and go, each with their personal ambitions for the stargate, their fears and prejudices, their sense of adventure, their reluctance. The novel presents a fascinating look at the relationship between different peoples, whether between the Sioux and others, or between human beings and aliens. What some see as a great opportunity, others regard with deep suspicion and even hostility. Not everyone is brave enough to step on to the stargate. The strange alien entity moving around the local towns is the focus for all sorts of conflicted feelings. But there is a strong sense in Thunderbird that once the gate is opened, that’s it. Life can never be the same again.
I found Thunderbird a very hard novel to put down. It’s an escapist read. I could not stop reading most of all because I had to know more about the worlds on the other side of the stargate and, as the novel goes on, more of these mysterious environments are opened up to us, leading up to some enormous developments and surprises. And when first contact is thrown into the mix, Thunderbird becomes irresistible.