Eternity Road Jack McDevitt (HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 338 pages, paperback. Published 2 February 1998.)
In Eternity Road, we come across an old and hoary tale, of a post-Apocalypse America where the present day is a forgotten age only made real by the devastated ruins of our cities, and by the roads we left criss-crossing the landscape. In McDevitt's story settlements in the Mississippi valley have united again, become prosperous and time for intellectual curiosity is once more available. With few books left from before the Plague that destroyed our civilisation, the discovery of a printed copy of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur comes as a bombshell. The source of the book is a recently deceased man, someone who led a disastrous expedition (of which he was the disgraced sole survivor) to discover the fabled town of Haven. Rumour says all the works of earlier generations have been gathered in Haven to preserve them. Plainly, the man did find something, and now a new expedition sets out to retrace his steps, heading north towards the ruins of old Chicago.
Jack McDevitt's entry into the post-Apocalypse stakes joins a field crowded with past successes, from authors like Edgar Pangborn (Davy and The Company of Glory), George Stewart (Earth Abides), David Brin (The Postman) and Walter Miller (A Canticle for Liebowitz), to name but four of the most distinguished. The list of writers chancing their arm in this particular sub-genre is very long indeed, and to succeed any new entrant has to have some fresh wrinkle to the story, some gimmick to make their work stand out from the clichés of a heavily-ploughed field.
McDevitt doesn't really have a new twist to the old stories, which is where Eternity Road falls down. The storyline seems to have only one logical outcome, and its course is certain as soon as the various characters are introduced. Even the plot twists are flagged and in retrospect are pretty obvious.
Eternity Road is competently written and has some interesting characters, but ultimately has nothing of substance to lift it out of the clichéd mire. If, in the manner of new generations forever re-discovering the wheel, you have never read a post-Apocalyptic 'recovery' story, then Eternity Road could seem quite an original piece. Even then the pedestrian plotting could prove a drag on appreciation of the book. Even if you have only read the Miller before (A Canticle for Liebowitz being surely the best example of the sub-genre available), you would have to wonder why McDevitt bothered when he has nothing at all to add that is of lasting interest.
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© John D Owen 14 March 1998