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Slow Lightning by Jack McDevitt
(HarperCollins Voyager, £10.99, 435 pages, trade paperback, published 6 March 2000; mass market paperback, £6.99, published 4 September 2000.)

A Mr S King of Maine, USA, has taken up almost the entire back (and some of the front) dust jacket of Slow Lightning with burnished praise for it. So much so that the back blurb has had to be slashed to just a few basic expositional lines.

Don't get me wrong, I'm very pleased Mr King enjoyed the book so much, but it would be useful to know perhaps a little more about the actual contents.

Slow Lightning is a loose sf variation on the classic old dark house ghost story and whodunit. The old dark house in this case being the entire galaxy, and the who? and the it? both becoming whats? (In fact - this being sf - even the dun is essentially a what? to begin with).

Eight hundred years in the future the human race has colonised and explored a respectable amount of the galaxy without finding a single scrap or sign of life. Not an amoeba or carved flint or radio signal anywhere. Where is everybody?

Well, it turns out there's nobody else anywhere, the human race is unique and we just have to make the best of things so everyone settles down, puts their shoulder to the wheel and gives it their best shot.

Of course that isn't what happens, but it's an interesting speculation while it lasts - what if we really are the best the universe has to offer? Jack McDevitt's portrayal of a civilisation gradually winding down from the frenetic and enthusiastic efforts of the preceding millennium is a sympathetic and well thought out one.

The settled worlds are safe and civilised with more history behind them than the USA currently has, big relics of busier times are occasionally alluded to and you might just sneeze because a faint coat of dust is beginning to cover everything.

Extended life-spans have inevitably produced a society with a preponderance of conservative "old" people, and 800 years of silence from an infertile cosmos have only increased the general feeling of fin de siècle - that perhaps mankind has reached its limits.

But when a young failed astrophysicist-turned PR-wiz is directed by her former teacher towards something odd, a research mission that ended in mystery and disaster 23 years ago begins to look more and more mysterious and disastrous by turns.

Slow Lightning isn't terrifically hard sf, but it IS pretty damned good. The mystery of just what actually happened 23 years ago (and we know from the start that something sure as hell happened) is expertly spun out over the course of 400+ pages without it ever being quite obvious.

Reading it you know sort of roughly what's probably going to turn up at the end, but the journey from that vague hypothesis to the actuality is superbly handled. I was a little sceptical at the start that there were any surprises or thrills to be had, but I was really quite wrong.

Slow Lightning isn't a flashy, pyrotechnic kind of book: think of it as a slow-burning fuse, one you know has a big barrel of gunpowder at the end but still can't help following throughout all its twists and turns.

An unsought and unexpected pleasure.

Review by Stuart Carter.

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© Stuart Carter 25 March 2000