Ace Books, 1995, 419 pages
Humans call them Monument-Makers. An unknown race, they left stunning alien statues scattered on distant planets throughout the galaxy, encoded with strange inscriptions that defy translation. Searching for clues about the Monument-Makers, teams of 23rd century linguists, historians, engineers and archaeologists have been excavating the enigmatic alien ruins on a number of planets, uncovering strange, massive false cities made of solid rock. But their time is running out.
Earth's ravaged environment is quickly making it unlivable, and colonizers want to begin terraforming these abandoned worlds for human habitation. Only interstellar archaeologist Richard Wald and starship pilot Priscilla Hutchins are convinced that uncovering the secrets of the monuments may hold the key to survival for the entire human race.
This is a hard book to review, because basically it was a pretty good and utterly forgettable space opera. It did not arouse any strong reaction in me at all, positive or negative.
The "hardness" of this science fiction novel is the realistic treatment of alien races and astrophysics. It gets a bit softer by allowing FTL travel and an ancient alien race that foresaw an interstellar apocalypse moving through the galaxy.
The Earth is facing environmental catastrophe in the 23rd century. Humans have spread to other star systems, but generally not found a lot of Earth-like planets, and those they have found are already inhabited. A handful of intelligent alien races have been discovered, but all are primitive compared to humanity. Most alien races discovered, however, are long dead, and the most prominent is one that apparently traveled to other stars, as their monuments have been found across the galaxy.
Earth has generally taken a "hands off" approach to living natives, but as pressure mounts to begin terraforming habitable worlds as an escape plan, this "Prime Directive" morality begins to seem less desirable. There is an interesting reversal of the classic sci-fi trope, and subtle commentary on colonialism and how we might justify it in the future, when an argument is made to colonize an inhabited planet "for the natives' own good." They are in the middle of a savage global war, and it is claimed that some of them have become aware of the existence of their alien watchers, and are begging for intervention. That technological aid and imposed peace would incidentally involve Earthlings resettling on their hosts' planet would be only a logical extension of a benevolent intervention...
That said, none of it felt particularly exciting, even the tension between the academics, studying the archeological traces of the Monument-Makers, and the terraformers. None of the characters really came alive for me so the life-and-death struggles for survival, from an asteroid mishap to a grim battle with a race of killer alien crabs, provoked little reaction.
Verdict: The Engines of God is a perfectly good SF story, it's just not a very new or thrilling one. It was a decent read but did not hook me on the series; the Monument-Makers are too much like every other instance of this trope I've seen, and the scientist main characters were bright and heroic but flat.
Also by Jack McDevitt: My review of Going Interstellar.
My complete list of book reviews.