Civilization as we know it is built on knowledge, time-tested truths and scientifically proven theories which underpin our technology, our morality and our understanding of the world. But what would civilization look like if most of these truths were ripped from us? What manner of lives would we lead in a world where we had only the most rudimentary understanding of physics, of engineering, of society?
In Eternity Road, Mr. McDevitt imagines a world in which our civilization has been swathed in a thousand years of wind-swept desolation, a world in which humans have been all but wiped from the earth by that oldest and most deadly of foes. Plague has reverted the land of the 31th century to an 11th century environment of thick forests, swollen rivers and medieval towns which sway uncertainly between empire and republicanism. Though a few remnants of civilization have been handed down to these pre-industrial homesteaders in the form of the odd book or two, these fragments are cultural, not technological. These survivors, who call the Mississippi valley home, must trust in horses, livestock, and human labor to travel, feed and clothe themselves for they have lost the knowledge of how to build even the simplest steam engine.
Our adventure begins when the strong-headed leader of a failed expedition returns home from a nine year journey to discover Haven, a mythical store of knowledge left behind by the Roadmakers, the name these future medievalists give to our fallen civilization. Though the leader has solid explanations for how his companions perished, a shadow is cast across his story when, soonafter his return, he dies. His will petitions his son to give a mysterious book to Chaka, the sister of one of his fallen expeditionists. It is a here-to-for lost work by Mark Twain, the origins of which are enshrouded in mystery. Inspired to unearth the truths hidden within this twisted tale, Chaka, a strong-willed woman ill-suited to life within her paternalistic state, decides to reconstruct the road the first expedition took to find Haven and follow it with her own team of adventurers. For she believes that the volume of Twain could only have come from Haven, the fabled treasure that may well have the power to restore civilization.
Mr. McDevitt harnesses the timeless power of an adventure story to explore civilization at its infancy and how it might go about acquiring lost knowledge. In this, he adopts many of the epic's tropes, the rugged band of heroes who battle hardship, bandits, and ignorance in their against-all-odds quest to restore light to the world. But for all that this is fairly predictable work, Mr. McDevitt hires some excellent characters to entertain us on a vividly described journey which manages to be harrowing and creepy in spite of an absence of surprising twists and turns. Chaka is easily the brightest light, her iron will keeping the tale focused on its mythical destination. But even though she is clearly the hero of the piece, she is pleasingly human, full of doubts and fears that plague her and her expedition.
Post-apocalyptic fiction should always thrill. After all, it is an opportunity for us to stare into the existential darkness that may, at any moment, come for our civilization. And though Mr. McDevitt could have penned a less methodical tale, one in which his adventurers arrived at their destination at a more expeditious pace, a dark foreboding infuses Eternity Road, leaving the reader with the sense that he is being escorted through the graveyard of a civilization. How can that fail to thrill? (3/5 Stars)