Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2003: Omega (McDevitt, Jack)

Monotony and senselessness synergize (2/5)

Do you remember eating your first great Mexican meal at a new restaurant and thinking, "Wow, this is great food!" Do you also remember going back and trying something different but then thinking, "Hey, all the ingredients are the same!" But you get through the meal and return months later to decide upon something else from the menu, when you realize, "Dammit, does this ever change?"

*cue escalating violins, flashing white light*
Bam. Jack McDevitt.
*staccatissimo violin note, red streak on screen*

Omega is the fourth novel in the six-book series following Priscilla Hutchins (known to her friends as Hutch) in her "Academy" career. Starting as a lowly pilot cum archaeologist in Book 1: The Engines of God. A great start to the series which is unfortunately followed by the , eye-rolling, diatribe-infused dud Book 2: Deepsix, where Hutch is still a pilot but finds herself stranded on a doomed planet leading a hopeless group to rescue. The sense of adventure and discovery returned in Book 3: Chindi where Captain Hutch leads her crew on a quest following stealth satellites scattered across space, but the story has an abrupt ending instead of a conclusion. Welcome to Book 4: Omega.

*cue thundering drums, dusk approaches*

Rear cover synopsis:
"For a quarter of a century, humanity has watched as the malignant omega clouds have destroyed every civilization they have come across. Now, it's Earth's turn--but not for another nine hundred years. A cloud has switched direction, heading straight for the previously unexplored planetary system--and its living pre-technological alien society. Suddenly, the need to find a method for the omegas' destruction becomes urgent, as a handful of brave humans, scientists and military alike, try to save an entire world--without revealing their existence..."

*cymbal crash, door creaks open*

Hutch makes a mere guest appearance in Omega. The reader discovers that she has been promoted to Director of Operations and temporarily in place as Acting Director. Herein the reader is bombarded with meeting synopses of endless variety and endless irrelevance. When the discovery of an omega cloud careening toward a newly-found civilization, Hutch acts quickly dispatching a crack team of linguists and scientists to the planet. Hutch largely disappears from this scene, only being referred to in FTL messages. The emphasis is put on the landing team, who gather as much data as possible to send it to the crack team in 9-month transit, whose date of arrival is just short of the date of destruction by the Omega.

The most interesting thread of this novel is the three-person contact team's attempts at understanding a new alien culture, not a dead civilization like in other McDevitt novels. However, the alien culture portrayed is anything but "alien." McDevitt has transposed too many anthropomorphic traits onto the aliens, colloquially known as Goomphas as they resemble the Earth cartoon of the same name. The aliens are erect four-limbed two-sex bipeds with two eyes (in the visible light spectrum), two ears, mammary glands for the females, and similar facial expressions. Their material possessions of metallic coins, wooden furniture, beasts of burden, libraries with scrolls of papers, and the equivalent of tea and beer. There is hardly anything "alien" about the aliens at all, except for their green skin tint, awkward stature, duck-like waddle, and sexual behavior.

*sympathetic woodwinds, country scene*

With one or two alien facets to hypothesize on but only to be disappointed by the in-your-face explanation in the worst epilogue ever, the readers disappointment will settle in and their focus can shift to the mystery surrounding the origin and function of the Omega Clouds. The lead scientist in understanding the omega clouds dies early on in the novel, so only vague guesses by Hutch and her team are put forth. Only at the end does Hutch come back onto the scene to sprinkle fairy dust on the conclusion to make origin the omega clouds somewhat sensible... somewhat. Sadly, it reads like a dull knife stab into the thick carapace of a well-rounded novel--it bounces right off and the stabber stabs himself. Leave the novel with a knife wound and loss of pride.

I've been critical of McDevitt before for his sloppy characterization. In Deepsix, McDevitt maniaclly describes EVERYONE'S height. Why, I haven't the faintest clue. McDevitt does this again in Omega--I keep track. He describes about 5-6 people as being short, one person as being of average height, and seventeen (SEVENTEEN!!!) as being "tall". He doesn't have enough creativity to use a synonym, but only uses "tall" a total of 17 times (pages 36, 52, 57, 60, 78, 91, 101, 118, 120, 159, 163, 289, 326, 343, 352 (twice), and 459). It's these senseless additions that makes me wonder who in the hell proofread this crap.

*symphony of clowns with slide-whistles and noise-makers*

Additional senselessness amid the pages of a McDevitt novel are found quite frequently, though not to the degree of filler as in Chindi. Some additions are just stupid: "Her first afternoon call went to Rheal Fabrics. Rheal specialized in producing a range of plastics, films, and textiles for industry. (They also had a division that operated a chain of ice-cream outlets.)" (52) But the coup de tĂȘte of senselessness comes from a seven paragraph reaction (159-160) to a character's viewing of a stereotypical horror movie (ala abandoned mansion, story weather, creaking doors and other strange noises). It are times like this that make me gently place the book down and collect myself.

I don't like McDevitt's novels. They are a utter chore to get through when the reader has to slog through diatribes (like in Deepsix), song lyrics (like in Chindi), and petty nuances (like in Omega). I have Book 5: Odyssey on my bookshelves but I think to myself, "How much more fractional senselessness can one man heap upon a novel to make the greater whole a failure?" With my head shaking, my hand trembling, my eyes screwed shut... I reach for Odyssey.

*cue ominous carnival music and lurking shadows of clowns*

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