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  Bookends: Dan Davidson


Reviewed: September 9, 2009
By: Jack McDevitt
Publisher: Ace Books
511 pages, $10.99

A chindi is a Navajo term for a bad spirit, the psychic chaff of a person’s life, left behind when the good part moves on.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if chindi is the right word for the artificial asteroid that plays a big part in the story told in this book.

It all starts quite some time in the future, when space travel is normal and humankind is exploring the boundaries of the galaxy. The annoying thing about all this discovery is that they don’t seem to be finding anything. Well, no, that’s not quite right. They’ve found lots of things but they haven’t found anyone to talk to about them. They’ve found some other living creatures on various planets, but none that show signs of intelligence. Humanity seems to be pretty much alone in space.

An exploration ship comes across something that seems to be a radio signal. It’s not enough for the Academy to be interested in, but it is enough for a group of dedicated amateur SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) enthusiasts with money to burn. They hire two ships with two crack captains. Priscilla Hutchins is the captain who gets to go to the neutron star where the signal had been detected. Preacher Brawley gets to go to the place where they thought the signal was either coming from or going to, once they detect second one.

That is Preacher’s bad luck, an amazing piece of bad luck for a man who’s had mostly good fortune up to that point. That is Hutch’s bad luck too, because they’d hardly had time to get to know each other. Once it is clear something has happened to him, his ship, crew and passengers, Hutch has to take her ship to try to find out what that might have been.

What they find is a further mystery that leads them, like a trail of interstellar bread crumbs, to a chain of stealth concealed communications satellites which seem to be monitoring events on any planet with intelligent life forms on it. To complicate matters, the alien satellites are unintentionally deadly. Tinker with them, take them apart, and they repair themselves, using whatever material comes to hand - like your spaceship, for instance.

So it’s not really possible to find out much about the technology, and by inference, the beings which created it, or why they are watching the races they are. Some of planets being monitored have already reached the point where their primary species’ technologocal abilities have outstripped their social development and have left them barren wastes. Others are at earlier stages of development, yet so alien that it seems they might never be able to interact with humans.

Others seem to have been so advanced that they could juggle suns and planets merely to achieve an aesthetic effect - and yet it appears that the couple who lived in the place they found have died and were buried there.

The survivor buried his/her mate, but who buried the survivor?

That of course, is when the chindi appears: an artifact the size of the city of Chicago driven by engines; able to stir up the surface of a gas giant so as to harvest the chemicals needed to fuel its engines; unresponsive to any means of communication they can devise.

How do you manage first contact with someone who doesn’t even realize you’re there?

Failing that, the team breaks into the chindi by what seems to be an airlock, and mounts an exploration of the incalculable number of rooms and corridors within that asteroid-like exterior. What they find seems to to be a collection of artifacts, museum dioramas, video displays which probably come from the satellites, maintenance 'bots which keep everything tidy. But no “people”. Either they don’t care or the whole enterprise is running on automatic pilot.

Finally, in a race against time, Hutch has to find a way to rescue one of her passengers who has been stranded on the chindi when it began to move on after finishing its refueling stop. This chase, and the failure of several desperate plans, takes up the last quarter of the book.

There’s lots in here. McDevitt provides detailed backstories for all the members of the expedition. Hutch gets the most space and viewpoint time, but even the artificial intelligence (Bill) that helps run her ship has a personality. For plot threads we have exploration, politics, romance and frustrated dreams - lots of frustrated dreams.

McDevitt is what you’d call a hard SF writer, which is to say that he deals with science and technology and some of the consequences of using it. He’s been nominated for every major award in the field several times over and has won both the Nebula and the Campbell awards. Chindi didn’t win the Nebula, but was nominated in 2003. It is part of a series of books in which Priscilla Hutchins is a central character.

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