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Literature / Priscilla Hutchins

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"In the streets of Hau-kai, we wait
Night comes, winter descends
The lights of the world grow cold
And, in this three-hundredth year
From the ascendancy of Bilat
He will come who treads the dawn
Tramples the sun beneath his feet
And judges the souls of men
He will stride across the rooftops,
And he will fire the engines of God."

The Priscilla Hutchins series, also known as The Academy Novels, is a series of science fiction thrillers by Jack McDevitt. Like most of McDevitt's works, the novels focus heavily on alien archeology. The individual novels are mostly stand-alone, and revolve around Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins, an ambitious and beautiful young pilot who works for The Academy of Science and Technology, an international scientific organization dedicated to exploring interstellar space.

At the beginning of the 23rd century, mankind has slowed the problems caused by pollution and global warming, but not solved them, and life on some parts of Earth is growing increasingly desperate. The discovery of faster-than-light travel offers some promise for the future, but potentially habitable planets seem to be very rare. Furthermore, while evidence of extinct alien races have been discovered, still-living sapient races seem to be extremely rare, and technically advanced ones non-existent. It seems that technology is no guarantee of species survival. What does this imply for mankind?

Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins is a pilot, not a scientist, but she has a strong interest in science and archeology, which leads her to volunteer for some of The Academy's more interesting missions. As the series progresses, and Hutch gets older, she begins to take a more administrative role in the Academy—something that's not always to her liking.

The novels in the series include:

  • The Engines of God (1994): Last-minute archeological studies of a planet scheduled for terraforming reveal the existence of the Omega Clouds—strange planet-sized forces of destruction that travel through the galaxy in waves about 8,000 years apart. Hutch is sent to investigate.
  • Deepsix (2001): When alien ruins are discovered on a planet that is about to be destroyed by a cosmic collision, Hutch pilots an archeological expedition to learn what they can before time runs out.
  • Chindi (2002): The discovery of an alien interstellar network of radio transmitters leads to an expedition to follow the signals and see if humanity can finally make contact with an advanced alien species.
  • Omega (2003): A primitive but promising alien race is discovered directly in the path of one of the deadly Omega Clouds. Can humanity save them from destruction? And can it do so without destroying their simple society?
  • Odyssey (2006): Mysterious apparitions known as "moonriders" have been harassing ships. Are they aliens or some unknown natural phenomenon? Are they even real? The Academy needs to investigate.
  • Cauldron (2007): Earth is retreating from the stars, but the discovery of a new FTL drive that can reach the source of the mysterious and deadly Omega Clouds justifies an expedition to learn more.
  • Starhawk (2013): A prequel set during Priscilla Hutchins' first flight.

Tropes in these novels include:

  • Alien Arts Are Appreciated: Mostly played straight with the works of the Monument-Makers, the Quraqua, and the Goompahs. But averted in Omega, which suggests that the Omega Clouds are an art project which is appreciated by no-one but the very callous creator.
  • Alien Non-Interference Clause: The short story "Kaminsky at War" revolves around an anthropology researcher deciding to break one to save a planet from endless war.
  • Anti Matter: Provides the power source for the Hazeltine hyperdrives.
  • Artificial Gravity: mentioned as a fairly recent invention (except in the first book, where it is mentioned as a logical development of the anti-gravity technology humanity is in the process of inventing).
  • Big Dumb Object:
    • The Omega Clouds, known as the "Engines of God" in the alien legends that first put humanity on to them, are planet-sized organized clouds of unknown nature which sweep through the galaxy in waves approximately every 8,000 years, destroying obvious signs of civilization. They seem to be primarily attracted to right angles. One now-extinct race went around building fake cities with lots of right angles on various uninhabited moons to try and distract them. The next wave is expected to reach Earth in about a thousand years.
    • The giant alien ship known as the chindi in the novel, Chindi, which is discovered refueling itself in orbit around a gas giant in a remote system.
  • Bold Explorer: Hutch herself is a borderline case, but a more clear-cut example is George Hockleman, a rich entrepreneur in Chindi who hires an Academy ship, and the use of Hutch, to go chasing alien interstellar radio signals in the hope of making First Contact.
  • Cold Equation:
    • In The Engines of God, Hutch is piloting a spaceship which crashes into an alien artifact, shutting down their fusion engine. The spaceship starts to lose heat (so much that it starts snowing inside) and the oxygen pumps fail, leaving them with only a week's worth of air in the shuttle and the nearest rescue ship ten days away. A Lottery of Doom is half-heartedly suggested, but Hutch tells everyone to sleep on it, then sneaks out with the intention of committing suicide (as pilot it's her responsibility to ensure the safety of the others). At the last moment Hutch realises all they have to do is melt the 'snow' (actually frozen atmosphere) to get the needed oxygen. Later on another pilot is looking at his shuttle — named after a pilot who famously performed a similar sacrifice — and bemoans the fact that such exciting heroics don't happen now that spaceflight has become routine and safe.
    • In Chindi, Hutch is piloting a ship being sent for standby duty at a research station near an unstable star. When she's nearly there, she realizes that the list of Academy personnel on the station includes a teacher, which suggests that the researchers may have their families there—but due to a bureaucratic snafu, her ship is only large enough to carry the listed personnel! At which point, an EM pulse from the star fries everyone's communications systems, and the explosion that caused the pulse looks like it will destroy the station. A number of researchers volunteer to go down with the station, so that others might live, but fortunately, someone back home noticed the snafu, and when communications go out, hurriedly redirects another ship, which arrives just in the nick of time.
  • Death from Above: The Omega Clouds (see Big Dumb Object) rain down electrical death from the skies on any civilization foolish enough to use right angles in their architecture.
  • Deflector Shields: Personal deflector shields have basically replaced space suits. They use more energy than a passive suit, but are much less bulky and obtrusive.
  • Descriptively-Named Species: The Engines of God has "The Monument-Makers", a now-extinct race that traveled throughout the local part of the galaxy, setting up giant statues and mysterious fake cities on isolated, uninhabitable moons, including Iapetus, one of Saturn's moons.
  • Dress Hits Floor: In Omega, Digby "Digger" Dunn has fallen in love with Kellie Collier, the captain of the research vessel he's traveling on, and she seems to reciprocate his feelings, but Academy regulations forbid a captain from sleeping with passengers, so she insists they have to wait. But the ship gets diverted for a rescue mission that may add up to a year to their voyage, and Digger is scheduled for a risky landing on an unexplored planet with aliens of unknown temperament. He visits her quarters the night before the landing, and... robe hits deck. End scene.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Deepsix is about a last-minute xeno-archeological expedition to a doomed planet that is about to be hit by a large rogue moon. The team only has three weeks before the planet-shattering kaboom, so it's important that nothing go wrong. Of course....
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: Uses journal entries, newspaper clippings, and the like to give you some perspective on the story, with two unusual features: one, the entries appear at the end of a chapter, to give you some perspective on what you just read, and two, you occasionally get a whole list of newspaper headlines, which not only gives you a broader perspective on the setting, but lets you see how far up list of top stories the story you're following has gotten.
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: In Omega, the newly discovered alien race known informally as the Goompahs have a complex system of shared spouses that the researchers studying the race have a hard time figuring out. Conjugal relations are allowed throughout a particular marriage group, but most individuals seem to have one or two preferred spouses within their group.
  • Fantastic Racism: In Chindi, it's mentioned that stealth studies of the winged aliens of the planet called Paradise reveal that the initial landing party was probably attacked because the natives consider a lack of wings to be a mark of evil.
  • First Contact:
    • In Omega, an intelligent species is discovered directly in the path of an interstellar catastrophe. The species has begun to develop technology, but is still at a pre-spaceflight stage of development. Researchers determine that the technology they have may be enough to save most of their population if they can be persuaded to apply it properly, but the Alien Non-Interference Clause makes the first-contact team's job difficult. Disaster is approaching rapidly, and the team needs to learn as much as they can about the language and culture of the Goompahs, starting from zero. But how do you persuade some alien creatures to cooperate in saving their species if you can't even reveal your own existence?
    • In Chindi, the First Contact Society are wealthy UFO-chasers who are generally regarded as kooks but are indulged because they help raise funds for the Academy. When they fund a private expedition to investigate an alien transmission, no-one expects they'll find anything but the Academy sends Hutch to babysit them. Unfortunately several of them end up getting killed when they make First Contact for real, as they lack the caution of professionals.
    • In Cauldron, an expedition is able to visit the planet of origin of the Chindi. It doesn't go well, because due to a mistranslation they contact a health guru instead of the physicist they were hoping for.
  • Gaia's Lament: The series features a mild version of this. Coastal areas are shrinking, deserts are growing, famines and foot riots are common. But it's not uniformly bleak: Canada and Siberia are becoming temperate, and are stepping up their food production. Nevertheless, much of the world is in a horrible state, and things look to get worse, and so far, only one potential new colony world has been found.
  • Grey Goo: In Chindi, an ancient alien satellite that has already mysteriously destroyed one ship is being much more carefully investigated by a second when the ship begins to come apart. It turns out that the satellite uses grey goo to repair/replicate itself, and the ship is being eaten. Several people die, and one, the artist with a big crush on Hutch, is rescued just in the nick of time.
  • Hanlon's Razor: In Omega, some characters suggest that the Omega Clouds, which appear to have no function other than seeking out and destroying all intelligent life in the galaxy, could have arisen from mere negligence as opposed to active malice.
  • Higher-Tech Species: The Monument-Makers are a race that at their peak were noticeably more advanced than mankind, and far more advanced than any other species around. They left the monuments for which they're named on worlds all around the local part of the galaxy, including the one on Saturn's moon Iapetus, which was the first evidence we found that other starfaring races existed, but their civilization eventually collapsed, and then the successor civilization collapsed, leaving only stone-age remnants only remembering their past in myths.
  • Improvised Microgravity Maneuvering: In Chindi, the protagonists have to catch an alien ship that's traveling faster than any human ship can, so they strap a ship to a huge boulder (small asteroid), and then release it in hyperspace, which gives them just the boost they need.
  • Invisibility Cloak: The "lightbenders" are basically high-tech invisibility suits. Access for the general public is highly restricted, but the Academy is allowed to use them for exploring new alien worlds. Their use requires care, though, since they don't hide the eyes. (If they did, the wearers wouldn't be able to see, since light wouldn't reach their eyes.)
  • Invisible Aliens: The galaxy seems to naturally produce things called "omega clouds" every 8000 years or so, strange clouds that are sent out in a wave from the galactic center and can look for and track excessive, clearly artificial regularity on planets — in other words, square and rectangular buildings and constructions of other shapes that are too regular and precise to appear in nature — and crash into them, sometimes catastrophically, to eliminate societies that have advanced much beyond the Stone Age. Some characters theorize that an omega cloud may have inspired the legends of Sodom and Gomorrah when it destroyed an early Earth civilization, since the relative timing fits with when the clouds should have last been through.
  • Lampshade Hanging: In Chindi, the characters remark on the strange coincidence that their visit to an alien site takes place just days or weeks after OTHER aliens visit the same site.
  • Mad Artist: In Omega, Priscilla hypothesizes that the creator of the Omega Clouds might be one.
  • Married to the Job: In the early novels, Hutch finds being an Academy pilot a serious obstacle to long-term relationships. It's not that she doesn't want a relationship. Things just don't ever seem to work out. She's even contemplated quitting, or moving to a desk job, but somehow, that never seems to happen.
  • Medieval Stasis: The Noks—the first living alien race discovered by humanity—appear to be permanently stuck at a 19th century level of development. They've been that way for an estimated 14,000 years, and show no signs of developing further. They're also extremely hostile and xenophobic, so it's probably just as well.
  • Mile-Long Ship: In Chindi, the alien ship known as the chindi is over 16 km long, and apparently uninhabited, but still intent on its unknown mission.
  • Precursors: The Monument-Makers were Benevolent Precursors, doing their best to save other civilizations from the Omega Clouds up until their own homeworld was destroyed.
  • Precursor Killers: The Omega Clouds, which destroyed the Monument-Makers and are implied in Chindi to have taken out the Hawks as well.
  • Someone Has to Die: In Omega, when a ship is disabled by a too-close encounter with an Omega Cloud, the only plan they can come up with for getting the escape pod free is to blow up the ship to provide a distraction. But someone has to remain behind to destroy the ship.
  • Space Elevator: The Deepsix skyhook, which was constructed by the Hawks to help evacuate the inhabitants of Deepsix prior to a lengthy ice age.
  • Spy Satellites: In Chindi, Hutch and friends find alien spy satellites around an alien world. The aliens went extinct in a global war several thousand years ago, but the satellites are much more advanced than anything this race ever built. Apparently someone wanted a front-row seat for the war. Even more disturbing is the fact that most of the satellites date back to the time of the war, but one of them is less than 100 years old. It's later discovered that the satellites are an extensive network monitoring developing civilizations. This includes Earth, though the satellites there have shut down to avoid detection and are only programmed to reactivate if the radio envelope goes dead.
  • Subspace Ansible: Unlike FTL ships, which can take weeks or even months to arrive at their destination, hyperspace communication is basically instantaneous, which allows expeditions to be coordinated from back on Earth, but means that when something goes horribly wrong, people back home are forced to listen, helplessly.
  • Terraform: The Engines of God and Starhawk both deal with projects to terraform planets, and the controversies which arise as a result.
  • Time Dilation: Becomes an issue in Chindi, as the Chindi travels by accelerating to close to the speed of light rather than by taking a shortcut through Hyperspace like everybody else.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: In Cauldron it's revealed that the omega clouds are an Epic Hail sent by a sentient Space Cloud trapped alone at the centre of the galaxy for billions of years. It's ignorant of other forms of life and that the clouds are destroying entire civilizations. When Hutch tries to make First Contact, it tries to seize her spacecraft to replicate its technology in order to escape. Hutch self-destructs the ship and flees in another vessel, with the alien pleading for them not to abandon it again.

Alternative Title(s): The Academy Novels, The Engines Of God, Chindi, Deepsix