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Literature / Eternity Road

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The Illyrians knew the world was round, though some among the lower classes were skeptical. They knew that infections were caused by tiny creatures they could not see, that the pattern of nights and days resulted from the movement of the world and not of the sun, that the Mississippi rose in a land of gigantic ruins and emptied into a gulf whose waters ran untroubled to the horizon.

Eternity Road is a 1997 Science Fiction novel by Jack McDevitt.

It's the far future, long After the End. The residents of Illyria live (in what was Memphis, Tennessee), among the ruins of the "Roadmakers", named thus because the most lasting remnants of that great civilization were their roads.

When one citizen leads an expedition to find the fabled "Haven", where all the lost books of the Roadmakers are stored, written about by the mythical Abraham Polk, he returns alone and empty handed, the rest of the party reportedly dead. Nine years later he commits suicide. Strangely enough he bequeaths an assumed lost Roadmaker book named A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to the sister of one of the men lost on the trip. This leads some to think that maybe he had found Haven after all — but why didn't he tell anyone about it?

A second expedition is assembled to see what the truth is...

Tropes in this book:

  • After the End: A plague hit our civilization after about 20 Minutes into the Future. The book happens around 1,700 years into the future.
    • Dates dropped in the book by Mike are April 10, 2079 (The plague) and March 3, 2211 (131 years later, when Mike loses contact with the other computers). Later, at the planetary society they learn a space telescope has been offline for 741 years.
  • Anyone Can Die: A trademark of McDevitt. Order of death: Silas, Jon, Avila.
  • Benevolent A.I.: There are several surviving examples of AI among the Roadmaker ruins that do nothing more than what they are supposed to do.
  • Boring Return Journey: The return isn't covered, really. They do get back according to the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": The abandoned cars everywhere are called "hojjies" for the man who spent his life trying to figure them out.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Lightning activates a hologram to give Chaka a much-needed pep talk.
  • Cool Train: What the expedition has been told is a dragon turns out to be a working maglev train. Its ability to move at high speed without a driver or horses, in mid-air, spooks everyone out even after they work up the nerve to ride on it.
  • Cosmic Deadline: Then as the book nears its end the adventures hit harder and faster as if the author just wanted to tell his stories and get the book over with.
  • Crisis of Faith: Avila loses her faith in the Goddess after the Death of a Child. She goes on the expedition because she's Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life now she's no longer a priestess.
  • Darkest Hour: When they're about to give up after losing Avila to pirates.
  • Didn't Think This Through:
    • Mike knew they had a fire lamp, but didn't think there could be flammable gas buildup in rooms closed for centuries.
    • The rooms in Haven are damp and all the priceless artifacts in open rooms are waterlogged, plus there's a tunnel leading to an underground lake. There's also a tide that varies greatly. The second expedition fails to put these facts together, and nearly lose their lives and the remaining books (in a room that hadn't been opened until they arrived) when the tide comes in, flooding the base.
  • Drowning Pit: The tide comes in and floods the only remaining library now that the door is open. The protagonists have to rescue what books they can by moving them to higher shelves, as well as saving their own lives by plugging every hole so an air bubble will stop the water rising any further.
  • Fling a Light into the Future: According to legend, the October Patrol used a submarine called Quebec to salvage human literature and remove it to a place called Haven before society collapsed completely from The Plague, thus preserving human knowledge and culture for future generations.
  • Future Imperfect: They study the religious monuments of the past — Highways. They must have been of great spiritual significance, because the ancestors built them everywhere. They even call our civilization the "Roadmakers".
  • Haunted House: The Roadmaker cities are regarded as this, making people reluctant to linger there. The fact that there are genuine hazards in the decaying megastructures, not to mention still-functioning AI's and security systems, only provide substance to the tales.
  • Hologram: Of Winston Churchill, complete with the smell of his cigar and awareness of his surroundings.
  • Humans Are Morons: Mike takes this view, given that the humans who created Artificial Intelligence only seemed to use it for running trains and storage of trivial information. After asking to be shut down to alleviate its loneliness, the humans offer to send scholars from Illyria to talk to it. Mike replies that from its point of view, communication with humans is rather limited.
  • I Cannot Self-Terminate: "Mike", the computer running the ruins of Chicago's Union Station, wants to be shut off.
  • Imperiled in Pregnancy: Chaka and Quait avoid consumating their relationship so Chaka won't get pregnant during the dangerous return journey.
  • It's All Junk: To the shock of the crew, on the return boat trip Karik Endine threw most of the books he'd salvaged over the side, after all the other members of his expedition were killed. Though in this case the books really were extremely valuable.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Quait says this after they land the balloon. Becomes a Brick Joke when the epilogue mentions that ballooning has caught on as a risky adventure sport.
  • Just Think of the Potential!: Flojian, a businessman in the riverboat trade, realises instantly the commercial implications of the steamboat in opening up the Mississippi River. He eventually becomes Claver's business manager.
  • Logic Bomb: A security robot finds two of the characters poking around a bank and obeys its programming to hold robbers until they can be handed over to the police, stunning those who try to leave. There's a pile of bones from previous inhabitants who have been held until they died. After an attempt by Avila Impersonating an Officer fails (the robot demands an authorisation code), Chaka then enters pretending to be a doctor, accuses the robot of murdering the previous detainees, and takes the 'wounded and possibly dying' prisoners to safety. As the robot is programmed not to kill intruders, this causes it enough confusion for everyone to leave the building without being stunned.
  • Lost Common Knowledge:
    • Much, but one example is two characters wondering what a "chamber of commerce" could have been.
    • Scholars scoff at the legend that the October Patrol used a ship that could travel underwater, regarding it as a fanciful embellishment by later storytellers. Because of this they fail to realise that two of the doors at Haven form an airlock to a submarine docking chamber that has now flooded.
  • Lost Technology:
    • The expedition is seeking to find Haven, supposedly a library of knowledge assembled by the October Patrol during the plague.
    • Mike provides them with stun guns that help them survive several hazards. However this is truly lost technology; even at the end of the novel it's mentioned that they can't work out how they operate or to build more.
  • Mountain Man: Jon Shannon keeps moving further into the wilderness to stay on the fringes of civilisation, earning his keep as a hunter and guide. Chaka recruits him for the expedition though he's reluctant to join, only relenting because the expedition is going ahead regardless and they'll need his skills.
  • Mundangerous: The first expedition were killed off in a matter that left no mark, leaving those that found their bodies to assume that a demon or a Roadmaker defence system was involved. Turns out they drowned after forcing open the door to a flooded chamber. The water then receded at low tide, removing the cause of death.
  • Naughty Nuns: Avila is an ex-priestess who used to be a 'dancer' for the riverboat trade. She puts this to good use when they need a distraction after being captured by pirates.
  • Never Found the Body: It initially looks like it's heading for an Everybody Lives ending, so this trope is used after the first sudden death during a lighthearted section. The second such death—not so much.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The two expeditions nearly destroy the Haven library by forcing open all the doors, causing water to flood into the Elaborate Underground Base.
  • Mr. Exposition: Mike, the computer which was operating the Chicago rail transit system is finally able to talk some about the Roadmaker.
  • Pirates: Of the Great Lakes, no less.
  • Prolonged Prologue: A quarter of the book passes describing Illyrian society and the recent political swings before the expedition actually gets underway. This would be great if all that was actually important to the plot later on.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: The AI computer running the city of Chicago is still up and running many, many years after a plague kills off much of humanity, as is "The Dragon" (a tram). Also the automated security system of a bank. The in universe explantion is there are "powersats" still beaming power down, and the Roadmakers built things to last.
    • Lampshaded in a poignant line when a character finds some rotten books and laments that the only thing the roadmakers made that didn't stand up to time was plain old paper.
  • Reconstruction: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was a deconstruction of Arthurian Legend. During his Rousing Speech, the Winston hologram points out that Camelot was never real, but represented a set of ideals that people sought to live up to.
  • Rising Water, Rising Tension: The protagonists have located a library of pre-Apocalpyse lost knowledge. However by forcing the door open they've exposed the Elaborate Underground Base to a sudden tidal change. They find themselves trapped in the library, trying to haul the books to higher shelves so they won't be damaged, while also plugging every hole in the ceiling so an air bubble will be created and they won't drown.
  • Road Trip Plot: The book follows a second expedition.
  • Rousing Speech: By Winston Churchill, no less. After Avila dies the expedition decides to return home the next day. A lightning storm activates a self-aware hologram of someone called 'Winston' (part of a defunct entertainment park) who talks Chaka into continuing their quest.
  • Ruins of the Modern Age: Eternity Road has this in its title—we're remembered as the "Roadmakers," because our highways are just about the only things we left behind.
  • Scavenger World:
    • Downplayed; there's a trade in scavenged Roadmaker artifacts, but there's also a cottage-level industry in areas such as gunsmithing, silverworking and boat-building.
    • Orin Claver is a self-proclaimed inventor whose actual skill is working out how Roadmaker technology functions. He's already invented a balloon and working steam engines.
  • Show Some Leg: When they're captured by river pirates and facing rape and enslavement, Avila does a striptease dance for the pirates to get them all lined up for the stun guns which have only limited range. It works except when Avila grabs a pistol off the captain, all the attention is on her so the pirates open fire on the threat they understand, killing her instantly.
  • Survivor Guilt: Karik Endine was the Sole Survivor of the first expedition. As he was also its leader, people regard him with suspicion because he returned and his followers did not. He lives isolated in his Big Fancy House for years and eventually drowns himself, which is revealed to be what killed the others. The only reason Karik survived was that he was on an upper level when the lower chambers flash-flooded.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The last few pages.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Mike is an Artificial Intelligence who ran the maglev train system out of Union Station. Unfortunately it's confined to that building and cannot communicate with any other AI's as all links have long ago been destroyed over time. Even though it would be an invaluable source of information on the past, it asks the protagonists to Cut the Juice and destroy the chip that controls it.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: On the train they see an advertisement for a car called the Helios, the "best buy for '57", later they learn the trains started running empty in 2079. Either no one updated the ads for 22 years before the plague, or "'57" isn't an abbreviated year number.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Speech given by a hologram of Winston Churchill.