21 December 2007

Intriguing premise, inoffensive story

Eternity Road
Eos, 1998

Engaging and competently if not masterfully written, Eternity Road envisions a post-collapse North America dotted with the crumbling ruins of a bygone Golden Age, that of the "Roadmakers." McDevitt recounts the exploration of this land by a party of Illyrians (the neo-dark age successors to those who lived in what was once Memphis) in the context of an earlier, failed expedition.

He does a fine job of creating a landscape that is unsettlingly familiar. For example, the citizens of Illyria marvel at the ruins they call the Iron Pyramid, made not of iron but of some strangely permanent material and whose original purpose can't be fathomed. En route to the fabled outpost of Roadmaker civilization, a mythical (?) place called Haven, the travelers encounter other wonders: the Devil's Eye (perhaps the remnants of Fermilab's particle accelerator); an automated maglev train and the sole surviving artificial intelligence in Chicago's Union Station; a submerged Detroit-Windsor tunnel; the natural wonder that is "Nyagra;" reverse engineered technologies like steam engines; and, of course, the ubiquitous roadways which have given their name to the Roadmakers who built them.

While we learn that a plague killed almost everyone in North America (and presumably the world) in 2079 AD, the novel refuses to spell out explicitly just how long before our protagonists' time that plague occurred. Their knowledge of history only goes back 300 or so years, if that, and so we wonder at the age of ruined bridges and skyscrapers along with our heroes. Buried in the chapter on "Nyagra," the author gives us a substantial clue as to how far in the future the story takes place; if, through erosion, the Niagara has traveled approximately three feet upstream every year and the falls have traveled almost a mile in this fashion, then we are looking at roughly the year 3839 AD. That's approximately the same as our distance in time from the fall of Rome.

And so I guess my favorite feature of the story is that our contemporary, 21st century world becomes legend and pre-history to our barely civilized descendants and our commonplace technologies (those which survive anyway) are seen as the magical wonders of gods.

The story was strong until the last few chapters, which seemed hurried and disappointing. I was also unhappy with the conclusion, although perhaps McDevitt wanted his characters to learn to live in their own time and to experience progress on their own terms, instead of rescuing them from their "savagery" with a deus ex 21st century machina.

Definitely worth a read for people who like post-apocalyptic SF, especially since you can get it for a single cent.

(This review was originally posted on October 15, 2007.)

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