When we last left Jack McDevitt’s North Dakota in 1996’s Ancient Shores, the U.S. Government had failed miserably and embarrassingly to wrest control of an alien stargate from the Spirit Lake Sioux, rightful owners of the land on which the alien artifact was found. Thunderbird, a sequel to Ancient Shores, picks up several months after the showdown, which also saw fictional poet Walter Asquith shot dead.
The world of Grand Forks, North Dakota, with its brutal winters and routine working days, had been replaced by a cosmos that was suddenly accessible.
The story in McDevitt’s Ancient Shores orbits the discovery of seemingly alien artifacts — a futuristic sailboat buried deep within the plains of North Dakota, a stargate transports explorers across vast distances to an Eden-like world, a malfunctioning space station, and a maze; a telepathic ghost-like being followed some of those explorers back to North America. But none of those mysteries were explained. McDevitt left us semi-satisfied with the ending in Ancient Shores, but he sure did leave a lot of story left to tell. McDevitt never explained the reason and motivation behind these discoveries, and almost 20 full years later, fans of the Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel will have a chance at those answers in Thunderbird.
Characters are enablers in this world of Jack McDevitt… not in the psychoanalytical way (although I’m sure some are of that ilk as well), but in a literary sense. Characters facilitate the story McDevitt wants to tell, which is not exactly hard sci-fi, but I’d characterize it as exploratory science fiction. McDevitt’s most interested in poking and probing at a future of world of discovery, how it influences today’s society and what it means to come into contact with something new. And it was the same way in Ancient Shores. Characters exist to further plot, and to advance McDevitt’s thematic notions.
The government was forced to back down after their failed attack and left the reservation and the Roundhouse in the charge of James Walker, Chairman of the Sioux tribe. Walker is left in full care of the Roundhouse and the stargate within it. He plans and coordinates all missions, agendas and attendees.
April Cannon returns as the scientist-turned-explorer, leading missions to several of the worlds discovered in Ancient Shores, and a few news ones as well. Brad Hollister, Grand Forks’ morning radio talk show host is a fringe character in the first book but gets more of a spotlight in Thunderbird, and rounds out the characters of note.
Several key narratives drive Thunderbird. The first is the further exploration of the world named “Eden.” The first world discovered by the users of the stargate consists of jungle and beach nestled on the shores of a large lake. On one journey, the scientists come across a man-man bridge. They follow a path that connects to a house, and April has humanity’s first otherworldly sentient contact:
Three wooden steps led up onto the porch. She climbed them and faced the door. It had a lever. She paused and listened. Something was moving around inside. The branches moved in the wind. She knocked. Softly.
The human-alien relationship develops throughout the book, but I fear describing too much further without drifting into ‘spoiler-land’.
The second key plot narrative is one which started in Ancient Shores — the political overtones of the existence of aliens and superior alien technology. The President of the United States, who ultimately approved the disastrous attack on the Sioux site at the end of Ancient Shores, builds his relationship with Chairman Walker and continually pushes for the complete shutdown of the site. He’s worried about alien attack, economic collapse driven by the new technologies, and the unyielding pressure from pretty much everywhere for the government to take over control of the Roundhouse. The President becomes a bit of Walker’s ‘devil-on-his-shoulder’ while continuously in his ear with caution after caution.
Political and economic influences aside, a friend of Walker highlights the cultural impact of the alien discoveries:
I’m not just talking about the potential for invaders. Or the possibility of economic collapse, which I’m sure you’ve thought of. But, as a result of what you find out there we may experience a total cultural shift… Historically, anytime a technology-advanced culture has connected with a relatively primitive one, a lot of things change. Values, for example. Perception. We could encounter an advanced society that laughs at religion. Or whose individuals have IQs at around two hundred. Or who live for centuries.
This exemplifies what McDevitt does well: cover the ground of the issues that surround the discovery while continually teasing us with incremental revelations. The societal issues are always humming in the background, while the scientists continue to plug away at exploring the different worlds: Eden, The Maze, a malfunctioning space station, a high-tech advanced city, and a world beaten down by a blazing sun, barely survivable by the explorers, but inhabited by other beings.
The clues continue to mount in Thunderbird but the answer to the key question of where these places are and who provided this technology remain always just out of reach. Tantalizing hints drive Walker’s internal debate around the Sioux’s opportunity to influence the future with their stewardship of the Roundhouse. The most enticing clue — a flag found, frozen stiff in the deep vacuum of a malfunctioning space station. Emblazoned is the stylized design of a Thunderbird… sky sprit of Sioux legend.
One of the most interesting plot elements also stems from an unfinished plotline of Ancient Shores — the alien ‘ghost’ that crossed over into the Roundhouse from the Maze world. The ‘ghost’ continues to haunt Fort Dixie and the surrounding areas. It seems to pull people’s consciousness out from within. It’s benign and often helpful: A old man falls in the snow in a frigid cold evening and the ‘ghost’ projects an image of the helpless man to a neighbor. A severely mentally handicapped girl has her first moments of full lucidity when in the presence of the being.
The fun of Thunderbird is the journey of exploration… McDevitt’s exploration of what the discovery of alien existence means to individuals, and humanity as a whole. His journey takes readers on a fun mystery ride of who these aliens are and what motivation and purpose they had for leaving the Roundhouse. And yes, we do find out who created the technology… and we mostly learn why.
I’ve also seen this type of story referred to as “situational” science fiction; the story is not discovering/inventing the technology as much as how society reacts to, and interacts with, the technology.
OH! I figured it must’ve had a name already, but that pretty much sounds like THUNDERBIRD.