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Eternity Road

Eternity Road - Jack McDevitt This is really 3 1/2 stars. I can't bring myself to give it a four due to its flaws, but I did enjoy it for the most part.

"Eternity Road" follows the journey of a small group of people from the post-apocalyptic Mississippi area several centuries after the world we know ends. They are searching for Haven, a town that stories tell was set up after the catastrophic event that killed off the Roadbuilders (us), and that may have historical and scientific information that has otherwise been lost. A mysterious item--a copy of Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", previously thought to be lost forever--left behind by the sole survivor of the previous, tragic expedition to Haven, offers the group a tantalizing hope of what wonders they might find.

The first 150 pages or so are a bit slow--just buildup to the group leaving. After that, however, it gets a lot more interesting. They make a lot of discoveries, and it's very clear how little they understand of much of what they find. Most technology is lost--travel is done on foot or horseback and books are all handwritten. (One character makes note of how humanity forgot how to make a printing press but remembered how to make guns.) Not all of it really makes sense--at one point the group meets a man who has basically re-invented the steam engine and the hot air balloon (and apparently knows some kind of chemistry as he refers to hydrogen), but no one has come up with a printing press still? That seems unlikely.

The characters are pretty flat and most of them come off more as checklists of traits rather than real people. (The one I felt was the best written was of course the first to die.) The romance, if you can call it that, was dry and forced and a complete waste of words. Not every books needs a damn romance, especially if it's just pasted on for a little extra word count.

However, what really detracts from this book is the ending--or should I say, the lack thereof. The book builds up and builds up and builds up the mystery about what happened to the Roadbuilders and what they would find in Haven, but then it ends with the surviving members of the group finding a cache of handwritten books that can't be more than a hundred years old, naked and close to drowning in their attempt to save the books from the rising tide. No, really, that's where it ends. Then the five-page long epilogue tells the reader that oh, by the way, the Roadbuilders were killed by an airborne virus that came from the rainforests, possibly as a population control check. By the rainforests. Also, they are still hand-copying the books they found and the remaining survivors live reasonably happily ever after.

The book just stops. It was like the author had a deadline (or got tired of the story?), wasn't finished, and just said "to hell with it" and slapped an epilogue on it. There were so many loose ends and avenues of exploration that just went nowhere, and I think the book would have been a lot better if Silas had survived instead of one of the people who actually did. The characters with the most valuable contributions to the expedition--the scholar, the wilderness guide, and the healer--all killed. The survivors: the soldier, the merchant along to redeem his father's name, and the silversmith along to find out what happened to her brother. (He was also the only character I felt had much depth, and the only one whose death I cared about.)

For example: Silas, the scholar, would undoubtedly have tried to get a lot more information from Mike. Mike, a sentient computer AI from the Roadbuilder times, who remembered the Roadbuilders and undoubtedly had all kinds of treasure troves of information to offer, who the group kills at his request. Yes, they killed a sentient AI who remembered the people they were trying to understand. Mike says that there were others like him who survived the end of the Roadbuilder civilization, but that is never explored any further. The group took the maglev (futuristic rail train), that Mike was still running, for a long distance--so when they killed Mike I wondered how the hell they were going to get back. I still don't know how they got back since the book just trailed off.

There is also a part where they find an old Planetary Society building with a computer that was still analyzing data from the Hubble Telescopes that remain operational. The computer says that they have found seventeen artificial signals from outer space, indicating possible intelligent life, and asks for authorization to send a signal back. Chaka tells the computer to do it, so post-apocalyptic, technologically-challenged Earth is now sending out "hello, here we are's" to possible aliens. This could be really important, but the entire scene is apprently pointless though as it doesn't relate to what happened to the Roadbuilders (as I initially thought it might) and it doesn't go anywhere. And of course Silas, the most intellectually engaged and curious of the group, was too dead to investigate further.

There's also regressive gender politics, yawn, of course. (I didn't buy the author's naive assertion that most women would just refrain from having sex to avoid pregnancy. So people only have sex in his world when they are actively trying (or at least open to the possibility) to procreate. Seriously, has he met the human race?) Avila's death (shot several times after expressing previously barely indicated sexuality--of course; sexual women always die, the dirty sluts, bla bla bla yawn, and yes she was trying to save the group but the scene just felt exploitative) was terrible, and seemed like it was written to titillate as much as anything else. Overall the gender stuff isn't done as heinously as a lot of other post-apocalyptic stuff though, and the author does show that some of the other little societies that have cropped up are more open to women having a more equal role. However, it's mostly a sausage fest. And the very last line of the novel... oh the manpain. Was that really the right note to end on? Meh.

Also, Karik's actions make no sense. After his team all died except him, he had a big stack of priceless, irreplaceable books that had previously been lost... which he dumps overboard except for one. The one he keeps he hides, and wills it to a young woman he barely knows. He had to have known full well that something as tantalizing as the book could very well launch a second expedition, and he knew full well how dangerous it would be, but left no instructions and told no one. He refused to tell anyone the truth about his team and lived out his final years in self-imposed exile, with everyone believing he had failed and led the others to pointless deaths. Bringing the books back and telling the truth would have have done more to honor his dead companions AND would have kept other people (in the inevitable second expedition) from dying. Pointless, irresponsible, and selfish.

And DID they actually find Haven, or something else? The books there were in excellent condition and supposedly less than a hundred years old. What happened to the people who put the books there? (And why the hell didn't these people, who painstakingly copied out by hand thousands of books, not resurrect or reinvent the printing press?! Seriously: guns, steam engine, hot air balloons, attempts at scuba gear (?!) but not the printing press?) That is a LOT of work to just abandon. And to hoard and not share with a world in ruin.

So while the book is pretty compelling during the journey, it falls flat in end and leaves way too many loose ends. All in all, a decent but ultimately unsatisfying read that could have been great with a little more thought and a proper ending.