Omega, by Jack McDevitt

omega-by-jack-mcdevitt coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Berkley
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by S. Fazekas

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In his latest book Omega, Jack McDevitt continues the tale of his heroine Priscilla Hutchins as she continues her work for the Academy. Filled with the usual depth McDevitt brings to all his works, Omega is a story of a large-scale rescue effort. It starts off quickly as an alien civilization is found on a distant world–the third such kind ever found.

The aliens are christened “Goompahs” due to their physical resemblance to characters of a popular children’s show. They also live what appears to be an idyllic life on their hospitable planet. With no knowledge of war, and their population numbers in harmony with the available resources, their civilization is technologically backward but very stable. They thus capture the imagination of the public.

Hutchins has been taken off exploration duty and is the Academy’s acting Director of Operations. She and her team come to the realization that the Goompahs are threatened by one of the destructive Omega clouds. Introduced in McDevitt’s novel _The Engines of God_, these clouds are mysterious space objects that detect unnatural formations–right angles, to be specific–on planetary surfaces. The clouds then descend upon the hapless civilizations with massive destruction.

Remnants of other alien civilizations that have been destroyed by the Omega clouds have been found, and it is clear the Goompahs face an immediate threat of extinction. At Hutchins’ instigation an expedition to save them is organized and launched. The resultant successes and failures bring out the best and worst in humanity.

It is Hutchins’ willingness to go against the grain and risk her own career that sees the rescue expedition proceed. Petty politics and special interests intrude in an effort to highjack the rescue for personal gain, but Hutchins’ stubborn insistence on the correct course of action ultimately gives hope of success. The story closes with the implication that she also may have stumbled across the true nature of the devastating Omega clouds–and thus may be able to find a way to combat them.

Written as an adventure and a sequel to his novel Chindi, Omega shows what humanity is capable of when others are threatened by the capricious forces of nature. One of the most striking human characteristics is our willingness to risk ourselves to save a stranger. The rescue team is faced with significant dangers, and some members do in fact die. Yet the effort continues in face of seeming insurmountable odds, and at no time is it seriously suggested that mankind give up on the Goompahs.

Fast paced and filled with McDevitt’s signature intricately developed universe, nonetheless I found Omega to be somewhat of a disappointment. As Hutchins is now removed from the action by her promotion, McDevitt brings out a number of new characters. Unfortunately, he introduces too many. It becomes difficult to keep track of all of them, and I did not become particularly attached to any of them.

Also, the Goompahs are frankly too perfect. McDevitt does show them quarreling, acting in a superstitious manner and making some poor judgments, but their society is utopian to an unbelievable degree. Nothing seems to break in Goompah society, and there are no malcontents. Everyone appears to have enough material possessions; there seem to be no very rich and no desperately poor Goompahs. No one lusts for power for its own sake, and there is little envy or greed or hatred. Goompahs appear to be immune to disease and deformity. They do not experience the population pressure that drives other civilizations to war, and McDevitt introduces the mechanism by which they control their population numbers almost as an afterthought.

One of the problems the rescue team faces is how to inform the Goompahs of their danger without compromising the Protocol governing contact with alien cultures. The impending danger of the Omega cloud does allow the Protocol to be bent slightly, which gives the rescue team some leeway. The rescue team’s mission is further complicated by the fact that Goompah culture contains a demonic icon image that very closely resembles a human being. Direct contact is therefore out of the question. The method the rescue team uses to alert the Goompahs to their danger was very obvious–too obvious, in fact.

This is not to say Omega is not worth reading. Jack McDevitt is a multiple Nebula Award finalist after all, and the author of a number of very successful books. Taken by itself, Omega is an enjoyable read, with superb descriptive writing, a plot that moves along smartly and a good ending. However it is not McDevitt’s best work. When viewed alongside some of his other outstanding novels such as “Moonfall”, “Infinity Beach”, “Ancient Shores” or “A Talent for War”, Omega seems to fall short of the mark.

Nevertheless, people who like intricate and highly developed settings or adventure stories will enjoy McDevitt’s novel. The science fiction fan with an affinity for in-depth description of alien cultures will also like this book. Finally, any reader who can appreciate a good look at the more noble side of human nature will certainly not regret reading Omega.

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