With his novel 'Chindi', Jack McDevitt ventures back into the world of Priscilla 'Hutch' Hutchins, the protagonist of his previous novels 'The Engines of God' and 'Deepsix', as well as 'Omega', written after 'Chindi'. Hutch's world is one of mankind's future where we've discovered faster than light travel, but are still stumped by the absence of other intelligent life.
Ruins of ancient intelligence has been found, and the Academy - a scientific body devoted to space exploration - has even stumbled upon a still living race - although their level of evolution is rather low. Still, by all probability, there should be more intelligent life out there. The Contact Society is a faction on Earth founded by rich individuals who are obsessed with the search for intelligent life. It seems that they just might have found it.
Five years ago a radio transmission was received in orbit around a nondescript neutron star. It was dismissed as a sensor glitch, but after a repeat performance, it becomes likely that there was something substantial behind it. The Contact Society uses their significant financial and political influence to hire two ships: One to journey to the neutron star, and another to explore the system at which its broadcasts seem to be directed. The ship journeying to the neutron star is captained by none other than the intrepid Cap'n Hutch.
That's the premise for 'Chindi'. It doesn't really tell you much, and the novel could take any number of directions. 'Chindi' does just that - choosing any number of directions, and interesting ones at that. Sadly, none of them are followed to a satisfying conclusion. McDevitt starts any number of engaging mysteries, but then quickly abandons them in pursuit of his main plot line, which suffers from a pretty severe lack of resolution itself.
One of McDevitt's points throughout the book is that space is vast and incomprehensible on a meaningful timeline for an individual - mysteries will remain mysteries for thousands of years to come. All well and good, but it makes for some pretty frustrating reading. Our band of explorers stumble across an existing alien civilization, an abandoned moon base orbiting a nuclear holocaust of a planet, an isolated cabin in the middle of an artificially created wonder, and a titanic spaceship of unknown origin. Any of these locations has the promise of some great sci-fi, but it's never realized and the reader is moving on to a new one without any sense of resolution.
McDevitt chooses not to redeem himself when it comes to characters. They're all completely two-dimensional and impressively stupid. It's apparent McDevitt has attempted to flesh them out but they're never given the opportunity to grow much. First off, many of them are exceedingly skilled at getting themselves killed, and the remaining ones don't manage to take away any lessons from these untimely deaths. The characters don't grow, and it's frustrating to read about them making the same stupid decisions again and again.
'Hutch' is a case in point. She's infuriatingly cautious before any action is taken - and when it happens in spite of her objections, she's always the first one out the hatch, and always finds herself unprepared for what awaits her. Nevertheless, the good captain remains undaunted. When the opportunity next presents herself, she complains about stupid risks again, and then jumps headlong into a situation she can't easily get out of.
Between the unfulfilled plotlines and the weak characters, 'Chindi' needs something of a miracle to keep it running. Unfortunately, there's not much else there. McDevitt ignores the science behind his technology for the most part of the book, and when he does get into the anatomy of astronomy, he does so with a disproportionate amount of detail. It would have worked nicer if he had spaced out his technical explanations more evenly. Expect plenty of mindless reading, and then some painstaking moments as you puzzle out some overly technical passages.
Ultimately, 'Chindi' promises many things, and generally fails to deliver on most of them. The elements of a good story are here, but none of them develop satisfactorily. In fact, the title of the novel apparently refers to a malicious spirit - but there's no antagonistic force throughout the book. The only thing that stands in the way of the characters is their own stupidity. If you feel like exercising some intelligence of your own, might want to give this book a pass.