Some readers don't seem to grok Jack McDevitt, but he remains one of my all-time favorite writers of science fiction - and Omega did not disappoint this fan. He may take technological shortcuts at times, but McDevitt is a master at creating exceedingly human characters and seeing what they will do in futuristic sociological situations. In Omega, the story revolves around a newly discovered, intelligent alien race - one that unknowingly lies in the path of imminent destruction.
McDevitt's readers have followed Patricia "Hutch" Hutchinson through some wonderfully exciting adventures (in The Engines of God, Deepsix, and Chindi). In what looks to be the final Hutch novel, the focus shifts considerably. The intrepid hero of past jaunts now finds herself behind a desk, serving as the Director of Operations at the Academy, when word comes in that intelligent life has been discovered on a distant planet. Mankind had come close before, finding two exceedingly primitive alien societies, turning up lost artifacts on a number of worlds left by the mysterious Monument-Makers, and discovering a gigantic ship that served effectively as a museum of past interstellar races. Overshadowing everything was the discovery of omega clouds, wholly mysterious entities roaming the universe and destroying life-bearing planets. One of these omega clouds is headed for Earth, but governments and scientists have put little money into research efforts because the cloud is not due for another 900 years. The newly-discovered inhabitants of the planet unceremoniously dubbed Lookout, however, have a mere nine months before seemingly inevitable destruction.
Hutch coordinates the rushed effort to get people out there to do what they can to save lives. Because of their resemblance to a popular children's cartoon character, the inhabitants there are dubbed Goompahs - and the people of earth fall in love with them (which raises all sorts of issues in and of itself). The first Academy personnel to reach the planet surreptitiously stash recording devices all over the place, allowing scientists and linguists to begin trying to interpret the language and understand the culture based on recorded conversations, debates, plays, etc. The Goompahs are unusual in that they live comparatively simple lives seemingly free of war and full of play; their cities all cluster around a central isthmus, and they seem to have no desire to expand across their seas. They are, in essence, many a scientist's dream come true - but they will all be dead within the year unless mankind can figure out a way to save them (and to do so in such a way that they are not alerted to mankind's presence).
An intensive effort is made to destroy or divert the deadly cloud - and to camouflage the Goompah cities in the event the cloud does hit. As disaster draws nigh, brilliant minds try to figure out a way to warn the Goompahs of the coming cataclysm and evacuate them to higher ground - Protocol or no Protocol. Everyone involved becomes fascinated by these noble innocents and their simple yet enlightened Goompah philosophy of life. This is the equivalent of a sociological study of an alien culture - and McDevitt works his way through all sorts of ethical dilemmas and provocative questions in his typically deft, insightful manner. As the cloud closes in, the pace of the story goes into overdrive, and true heroes emerge on both sides of the alien divide. It feels strange not to have Hutch out there making more of her patented miracles happen, but the scientists on the frontlines of this unprecedented effort grow into well-developed characters capable of producing some on-the-fly magic of their own.
Omega does have a few small faults, however. Technology such as light-benders (allowing for invisibility) makes things far too easy for the scientists, a couple of human dimensions of the story (especially the early death of one of the project leaders due to another person's moment of utter stupidity) don't have the lasting impact they should have, and the ultimate explanation of the omega clouds themselves is rather disappointing. Still, McDevitt never fails to sweep me up in the events he describes, and I enjoyed this novel just as much as the author's earlier works in the Hutch series.