It turned up in a North Dakota wheat field: a triangle, like a shark's fin, sticking up from the black loam. Tom Lasker did what any farmer would have done. He dug it up. And discovered a boat, made of a fiberglass-like material with an utterly impossible atomic number. What it was doing buried under a dozen feet of prairie soil two thousand miles from any ocean, no one knew. True, Tom Lasker's wheat field had once been on the shoreline of a great inland sea, but that was a long time ago -- ten thousand years ago.
A return to science fiction on a grand scale, reminiscent of the best of Heinlein, Simak, and Clarke, Ancient Shores is the most ambitious and exciting SF triumph of the decade, a bold speculative adventure that does not shrink from the big questions -- and the big answers.
Early in the next century, outside a North Dakota town, farmer Tom Lasker digs up a boat on his land. Not only is the vessel crafted from an unknown element, but Lasker's farm is on land that has been dry for 10,000 years. A search for further artifacts unearths a building of the same material and age that turns out to be an interdimensional transportation device. The building sits on land owned by the Sioux, who want to use it to regain their old way of life on another world; meanwhile, the U.S. government, fearful of change, wants to destroy the building. Right up to the climax, McDevitt (Engines of God) tells his complex and suspenseful story with meticulous attention to detail, deft characterizations and graceful prose. That climax, though, is another matter, featuring out-of-the-blue heroic intervention in a conflict between the feds and the Indians by, among others, astronaut Walter Schirra, cosmologist Stephen Hawking and SF writers Ursula K. LeGuin, Carl Sagan and Gregory Benford. "If the government wants to kill anyone else, it'll have to start with us," announces Stephen Jay Gould. That absurdity aside, this is the big-vision, large-scale novel McDevitt's readers have been waiting for.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 30, 1996
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Excerpt from Ancient Shores by Jack McDevitt
Pretty in amber, to observe the forms
Of hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms;
The things, we know, are neither rich nor rare,
But wonder how the devil they got there.
-- Alexander Pope, "An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot"
"If that ain't the damnedest thing. " Tom Lasker had to raise his voice to be heard over the wind. Will paused with his spade full of black earth to see what had drawn his father's attention.
A triangular plate, not unlike a shark's fin, stuck out of the ground. it was tough. Metal, apparently, but not corroded.
They were on the low ridge that bordered the west side of the farm, working late under a string of lightbulbs, trying to put in a system that would pump water uphill from the well. Lasker played his flashlight over the object, and Will pushed at it with the tip of his boot. The night smelled of approaching winter. A cold wind chopped across the rise and shook the lights. Lasker knelt and brushed the soil away with gloved fingers. The object was bright red. Smooth and hard. When he pulled, it had no give.
The house was about a quarter-mile away, a two-story frame building set back in a thick growth of trees. Its lights were warm and cheerful.
The fin was attached to a rod of the same color and texture, all of a piece. It angled down into the soil at thirty degrees. Will wedged his spade under it, and they tried to lever it up. it wobbled but wouldn't come loose. "On three," said Lasker.
He did the count, and they yanked together, lost their balance, and fell laughing over each other. "That's enough for tonight, Pop," said Will. "Let's go eat."
The Pembina Escarpment was visible through the bedroom windows of Tom Lasker's house. The escarpment consisted of a line of rounded hills and ridges and jutting rocks, a fairly impressive feature on land that was otherwise pool-table flat. Ten thousand years ago it had been the western shore of an inland sea that covered large areas of the Dakotas, Minnesota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The spot where the house now stood would have been several hundred feet underwater.
Lasker was a big man: awkward, with thinning brown hair and wide shoulders. His features were sharp, raw-edged, carved by too many unforgiving winters. He'd lived his entire life in the Fort Moxie area. He thought of himself as basically uninteresting, just a farmer who worked hard, didn't socialize too much, and took care of his family. He was happily married, his two sons seemed to be developing into reasonable adults, and he enjoyed flying. Like many of the local farmers, he had a pilot's license, and he owned a Katana DV-20. He also owned a World War II-era Navy Avenger and was a member of the Confederate Air Force -- a group of enthusiasts dedicated to restoring antique warbirds.
Shortly after dawn on the morning following the find, he and Will were back atop the slope. October on the northern plains tends to be bleak and cold. This day was typical. Lasker was half buried in his down jacket, not having yet worked up enough sweat to shed it.
The fin stuck several inches out of the ground, mounted on a support pole about two inches thick. Lasker was thinking about the damage it might have done had he run a tractor over it.
Will sank his spade into the earth. "Well," he said, "let's get rid of it." He turned the soil over, and even this late in the season it was heavy and sweet.
The air was still. A blue jay sat on a fence rail, watching, and Lasker felt good about the world. The shark fin interested him. Hard to imagine what it was or how it had come to be buried on land his family had owned for sixty years. More important, it provided a temporary puzzle that bound him a little closer to his son.
How deep did the pole go? He measured off a few feet in a straight line from its point of entry and began throwing up soil in his methodical way. Will joined in, and after a while they struck metal. The pole was at least six feet long. They continued digging until Will had to leave for school. Then Lasker went into the house, had some coffee and toast, and came back for another go. He was still working on it when Ginny called him for lunch.
She came back with him afterward to see what the fuss was about. Ginny was tall, clever, a product of Chicago who had come to North Dakota as a customs inspector, with the primary objective of getting away from urban life. She'd fallen in love quickly with this guy, who in turn had started making trips to Canada, hoping she would clear him when he returned. Sometimes he'd even bought things, stuff he could pay duty on. She remembered the first time he'd tried that approach: He'd spent thirty dollars in a Winnipeg bookstore for a history of Canadian aviation and had clearly been disappointed when she'd waved him through because books were free of duty.