fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAncient Shores by Jack McDevitt science fiction book reviewsAncient Shores by Jack McDevitt

Fort Moxie lent itself to timelessness. There were no major renovation projects, no vast cultural shifts imposed by changing technology, no influxes of strangers, no social engineering. The town and the broad prairie in which it rested were caught in a kind of time warp.

A farmer works his land in the far reaches of North Dakota — just a few miles away from the Canadian border. Something pokes from the flat lands that he calls home. He lives in a large basin of prairie-land, farms and flat as far as the eye can see. “The plain stretched out forever.”

It’s manmade. Clearly not of the land. The farmer digs it up and finds that the cylinder is just the beginning. It’s connected to something even larger… a mast. Underneath is the rest of the sailboat. Buried in ground that’s been a prairie for millions of years.

The discovery of the sailboat is the launching point for Jack McDevitt’s short novel of first-contact, Ancient Shores, originally published in 1996. It’s a complex tale of humanity’s discovery that we’re not alone.

The cover of many newer copies of Ancient Shores and other McDevitt fare includes a quote from Stephen King referencing that McDevitt is “the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.” I’m not sure if King’s quote planted the seed, but I see much of Clarke in Ancient Shores. McDevitt’s language is straightforward, spare in its characterizations and sparse in its exposition. It’s a complex tale told in simple terms. His themes are common (first contact, mysterious alien artifacts, the cultural and political reactions to alien discoveries), but not all are dealt with in the most common nor expected of ways.

Word of the farmer’s discovery spreads beyond the small towns of North Dakota and speculation broadens around the aliens and their advanced technologies. Scientists are unable to determine what the boat is made of, however it’s beyond human ability to manufacture. And as word leaks out, rumors of a super-material starts hitting the boardrooms of leading manufacturers… leading to a broader theme whole of economic impact and industrial collapse.

Two individuals orbit McDevitt’s plot, though I found them thin and largely unmemorable. Max Collingwood restores and sells military warplanes, and rather than developing Max’s internally driven motivations through action, McDevitt lays out his personality very clearly.

Max… had no taste for military life or for the prospect of getting shot at. His father, Colonel Maxwell E. Collingwood, USAF (retired), to his credit, tried to hide his disappointment in his only son. But it was there nonetheless, and Max had, on more than one occasion, overheard him wondering aloud.

April Cannon is a chemical scientist who first establishes that the material used to manufacture the boat didn’t come from any known process or chemical makeup. She’s single, Max is single and there’s a smidgen of a love connection, but like much of the characters that float around McDevitt’s story, it’s background hum to the ongoing alien mystery.

The Plains on which North Dakota sits “had been the basin for Lake Agassiz, the inland sea whose surface area had been broader than that of the modern Great Lakes combined. Agassiz. Long gone now.”

April and Max theorize that whomever left the boat must’ve been cruising Lake Agassiz. And who cruises without having a dock? So they search and dig and find a structure buried close to the edge of the ancient lake. The location is on the reservation of a Sioux tribe, which drives a key theme to the story… the inherent conflict and contradictions between the ancient world and the modern. And the rather clear analogy between the “discovered” becoming the “discoverer.”

Buried deep beneath the Sioux reservation, positioned precisely to have served as a dock for a sailing ship the size of what was discovered just a few miles away, sits The Roundhouse. The Roundhouse is actually a portal, or a stargate. With the proper pressure placed on one of a few symbols carved into the walls, a person or object is transferred (not unlike a Star Trek transporter) to a seemingly distant location. At first it’s a Cupola in an Eden-like jungle on the edge of a lake. Another symbol takes the traveler to a seemingly endless maze, confusing, unbalanced and with more than a hint of the travelers not being alone.

The mystery deepens when a ghost-like entity follows the travelers into our world, from somewhere through the Roundhouse. It affects people in different ways. Some turn angry, some feel an incredible “otherness” of being. The invisible force makes the rounds in North Dakota. Some people hear voices… hear their name being called.

Ancient Shores made me reflect on Carl Sagan’s Contact. The discovery of other beings is just the core of the story, around which its impact is explored to greater and lesser degrees. McDevitt prods into the societal, religious and economic impacts of the discovery. He delves more deeply into the political impact of the alien discovery, and the military and religious factors that drive a face off at the Roundhouse between the Sioux guardians and U.S. Government heavies. He incorporates interludes of how people are affected, and how the discovery is treated in the media. A scientist is interviewed on TV:

A long time ago somebody with advanced technology went sailing on Lake Agassiz. They tied up at least once to a tree or a pier.

I think if we accept the results of the analysis, we are forced to one of two conclusions. Either there were people living here at the end of the last ice ago who were technologically more advanced that we are… Or we have had visitors.

The story ends. Rather abruptly. The conclusion, within the context of this single volume, is satisfying enough. But there are no answers, no sweeping consequence that addresses the key questions: who are the intellectual beings that created the stargate and where have they gone. Ancient Shores is ripe for a sequel that has just arrived… fortunately for you reading this at a minimum of 19 years after Ancient Shores was originally published. Thunderbird was published just this month, and yes, it delves into the unanswered questions left on McDevitt’s ancient shores.

As a short preface to many chapters in the book, McDevitt quotes a poem from the fictional Walter Asquith, aptly named Ancient Shores. I made a note to review all of the appropriate chapter headings after I completed the book and compiled the poem for this review. I found it a solid conclusion and framework for McDevitt’s story.

…Glides through misty seas
With its cargo of time and space…
The distant roar of receding time…
This antique coast, Washed by time…
For the moonlit places where men once laughed
Are now but bones in the earth…
Shopkeepers, students, government officials, farmers,
Ordinary men and women, they came,
And were forever changed…
In all that vast midnight sea,
The light only drew us on…
The true power centers are not in the earth.
But in ourselves.

Published in 1996. It turned up in a North Dakota wheat field: a triangle, like a shark’s fin, sticking up from the black loam. Tom Lasker did what any farmer would have done. He dug it up. And discovered a boat, made of a fiberglass-like material with an utterly impossible atomic number. What it was doing buried under a dozen feet of prairie soil two thousand miles from any ocean, no one knew. True, Tom Lasker’s wheat field had once been on the shoreline of a great inland sea, but that was a long time ago — ten thousand years ago. A return to science fiction on a grand scale, reminiscent of the best of Heinlein, Simak, and Clarke, Ancient Shores is the most ambitious and exciting SF triumph of the decade, a bold speculative adventure that does not shrink from the big questions — and the big answers.


  • Jason Golomb

    JASON GOLOMB graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.