Jack McDevitt is at his best in ruins. I first encountered him in The Engines of God, the first of a series in which humans seem to constantly stumble across alien ruins created by the Monument Makers. I went on to Eternity Road, in which post-apocalyptic humans look for the mysteries behind vast ruins. Even his other series, starting with A Talent for War and Polaris, is about a tomb-raider. These novels have generally been intriguing from start to finish. McDevitt is an expert at creating and keeping a sense of wonder and discovery, and I’ve bought all his books.
I was excited, therefore, to find Cryptic, which not only promised to be interesting, but was good value for money. It’s paid off.
The collection is broken into sections, which aren’t really explained despite a sizable foreword. The stories aren’t presented chronologically, but the book reads as if they were. The first section, Unlikely Connections, contains some of the weakest. Frankly, some of them are just not very good, though they’re not bad either. Persevere past the first few, and you’ll reach some stronger collaborations with Michael Shara. In section 2, Lost Treasure, McDevitt starts to hit his stride, including with a companion to Eternity Road.
The rest of the sections are at or slightly below that level, which makes this a very satisfying read. There are ancient ruins, distant worlds, and a sense of loneliness throughout. There are very few actual aliens, but there’s a good mix of philosophy and light-handed theological speculation. There are quite a lot of historical references – much more so than in McDevitt’s novels. It’s never too dense though – I’m sure it adds to the story for those who like it, but it didn’t get in the way for those of us who don’t.
Aside from the weak opening section, the only negative here is also a positive. This is a lot of McDevitt. In terms of value, you’re unlikely to do better – this is a boatload of stories for a pretty low price. But I’d advise reading some, taking a break, coming back, etc. There’s a certain sameness that pervades the stories, making them a touch predictable, at least in terms of their resolution and emotional impact. Spaced apart, it’s easier to see them for the (mostly) excellent stories they are.
All in all, a substantial collection of very good stories by an excellent writer.