Deepsix is the second novel in Jack McDevitt’s “Academy” series, which can be described as mostly-hard science fiction with a few exceptions like faster-than-light travel included out of narrative necessity. However, while it has the same main character as the first Academy book, The Engines of God, it is a fully self-contained story and can easily be read by someone who has not read its predecessor.
In the 23rd century, the Academy of Science and Technology and its fleet of superluminal ships is tasked with exploring the reaches of space and pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge. When a rogue gas giant adrift in deep space for half a billion years enters the Maleiva system, a scientific team is sent to watch. The rogue giant is on a near-collision course with the third planet of the Maleiva system, dubbed Deepsix, providing a rare opportunity- the chance to observe as a planet is ripped apart by gravity. Teams of scientists and an interstellar liner full of tourists gather in the Maleiva system to observe.
Deepsix is a rare life-bearing world, but has seen little exploration of its surface since the first human expedition to the planet ended with most of the survey team dying at the hands of local wildlife. But when the orbiting scientific team studying the planet in preparation for its destruction spots something that appears to be an artificial structure, rendered almost invisible beneath the ice and snow of an ice age that has frozen most of the planet for thousands of years.
In desperation, Academy pilot Priscilla Hutchins is sent to the surface with a scientific team, including the leader of the ill-fated first expedition, Randall Nightingale, with the hope of learning as much as possible before Deepsix is destroyed. They are joined by a second shuttle bringing renowned journalist, essayist, and curmudgeon Gregory McAllister, who managed to talk the captain of the tourist liner into letting him go down.
The exploration of the ruins on the planet has barely begun when disaster strikes. As Deepsix strains under the growing stress of the rogue gas giant’s gravity, a violent earthquake shakes the area and wrecks both shuttles, leaving everyone stranded on the surface. Now, trapped among the ruins of a dead civilization, they must struggle to survive on a hostile, dying world while the Academy personnel in orbit desperately try to figure out a way to evacuate them before the planet is ripped apart.
Deepsix is a great combination of survival thriller, tale of discovery, and traditional hard science fiction problem-solving story. The two narrative threads- Hutchinson and company trying to survive on Deepsix, learning about the fate of its civilization as they do so, while their allies in orbit struggle with the engineering problem of a rescue- provide a great combination of both intellectual stimulation and adventure.
As is often the case in his work, McDevitt does not reveal all of Deepsix’s secrets to either the characters or the reader, with new questions arising as old ones are answered, and by the end the reader is left with as many mysteries as at the beginning. However, this didn’t leave me feeling frustrated; rather, instead McDevitt is very skilled at both satisfying and tantalizing the reader at the same time.
Perhaps somewhat ironically for a story that simultaneously incorporates a lost alien civilization, bizarre and deadly wildlife, a struggle to survive in the wilderness, scientists in a race against time to mount a last-minute rescue mission, and the violent annihilation of an entire planet, McDevitt takes a “less is more” approach to the central question of Deepsix’s lost civilization. He is very effective at creating a fascinating picture by giving a bit of information here and a bit there, never filling in all the details but giving enough to stimulate the imagination and create a feeling of wonder and mystery.
The characters are not examined in extreme depth, but McDevitt is good at slipping in just the right amount of detail to make them interesting individuals. I especially liked the figure of writer Gregory McAllister, who is a type of character I’d like to see more of in fiction- a believably unpleasant person who is not a villain.
McAllister is bitter, unkind, and misogynistic. He’s doesn’t have a secret heart of gold beneath his harsh exterior and he doesn’t learn some dramatic lesson about the value of niceness. At the same time, he’s not amoral or relentlessly nasty or mean for the sake of being mean. He’s a jerk, but he’s not a caricature of a jerk.
McDevitt grounds his events in a background that also shows his skillful use of small details. In addition to references to human technology and the state of affairs back on Earth in the early 23rd century, McDevitt effectively creates a setting that is both full of wonders and yet believably mundane.
Rather than any mythological or historical name, the Maleiva solar system is named after the daughter of a Senator who voted to approve Academy funding. In the midst of a desperate do-or-die effort to get the survivors off the doomed planet before it is ripped apart, characters worry about things like lawsuits over the people who have died or the public uproar that will result if Earth’s premiere man of letters is killed- mundane but all-too-believable details. McDevitt carefully mixes these down-to-Earth elements in with more exciting ones, giving a sense of a world that is full of exciting events and yet still a place where everyday people live and go about their lives.
The more cataclysmic aspects of the premise are well-exploited too, with a growing sense of apocalyptic dread as Deepsix’s crust bucks and heaves under the growing tectonic stress, the weather is driven into chaos, and the approaching gas giant looms ever-larger larger in the sky. McDevitt does a great job of conveying the doom of an entire planet.
I would strongly recommend Jack McDevitt’s Deepsix to any fan of science fiction. If you want a book that successfully brings together adventure, discovery, hard science, and interesting characters, Deepsix is definitely a winner.