Thursday, February 08, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Long Sunset (The Academy, #8) by Jack McDevitt

I was very excited to receive an ARC (Advance Review Copy) of the eighth book in The Academy series by Jack McDevitt called The Long Sunset, which will be released by Saga in April 2018.

The main character in the Academy series is Patricia “Hutch” Hutchins. She is a spaceship pilot who has been through various adventures as the  spaceship technology has advanced tremendously  from the beginning of the series when it basically just allowed travel in our solar system (the first book, The Engines of God, has pivotal scenes on Iapetus, a moon of Saturn). In this, the eighth book, set several decades later humanity has real interstellar capabilities, with  ships that can travel faster than light, up to about 200 light-years per day.

The Long Sunset  is set in 2256 (an election year!) and civilization’s attention and interest in space exploration is waning. The United States is now part of the North American Union (NAU) and one key issue in the 2256 presidential election is the Centauri Initiative, which would essentially ban any human exploration of the Galaxy further than Alpha Centauri using the latest interstellar space ships. The main reason for this ban is the notion that the Universe is a dangerous place, with aliens who could potentially be thousands of years ahead of humans technologically and unfriendly, with genocidal consequences. This, despite the fact that dozens of star systems have been explored and the vast majority have been completely devoid of life. Also, the Earth is becoming over-populated so there are two worlds open for colonization that are also vastly oversubscribed.

 One of the interesting features of The Academy series has been the discovery of the remains and relics of ancient alien civilizations on various planets. A few planets have been found with (primarily hominid or mammalian) aliens who are in stages of civilizations hundreds or thousands of years behind humanity. But back on Earth several scientists warn that it is only a matter of time before humans stumble upon aliens that are equally ahead of humanity, and that this could be a species-ending event.

This is a fascinating philosophical question and the debate’s importance becomes heightened when an alien video transmission is received on Earth originating from a very distant (but accessible) star system which demonstrates that aliens with comparable human technology exist (or existed a few thousands of years ago when the signal left their star system traveling at the speed of light).

Of course, an interstellar expedition is planned to explore the transmission source and Hutch is asked to be the captain. However, the incumbent President (who is running for re-election) becomes involved and she and the segment of the population which feels that the proposed interstellar mission to explore the signal's origins is dangerous take extraordinary measures to try and prevent Hutch and her companions to leave.

Happily, they do leave (or else it would be a short book!) and what they discover when they finally reach the transmission star system is surprising and leads to new dilemmas and more philosophical questions.
I don’t want to spoil that aspect of the book so I’ll just say it is very compelling and provides commentary on the philosophical question(s) they left roiling on Earth. Namely, what is the future (and point) of civilization? Is the Universe ultimately a dangerous place, full of species who do not (and will not) have good intentions towards others?

Overall, I wouldn’t say that The Long Sunset is one of the best entries in The Academy series (the earlier books, The Engines of God, Deepsix and Chindi are all excellent) but it does raise some compelling philosophical questions. And the good news is that it may be the beginning of a new arc of The Academy books featuring Hutch that will probably extend the series into double digits. 

Some of these questions raised in The Long Sunset are not exactly original (the dangerous universe notion is one of the central ideas in Cixin Liu’s brilliant The Dark Forest and one of the key unspoiled plot point is very similar to a key plot point in The Bobiverse trilogy by Dennis E. Taylor). However, just because these questions aren’t original doesn’t mean that aren’t effectively deployed in the book. Overall, I found The Long Sunset so captivating that I started and finished it in one sitting (on a transcontinental flight)! I believe most fans of McDevitt and space exploration sci-fi will as well.

Title: The Long Sunset (The Academy series, #8).
Jack McDevitt.
Paperback: 464 pages.
Date (To Be) Published: April 17, 2018.
Date Read: February 2, 2018.

★★  (3.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B (3.0/4.0).


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