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BDO of the Day: The Chindi

Today’s Big Dumb Object (BDO) is the chindi, a mysterious alien ship in Jack McDevitt’s eponymous book. It’s a little small by my own standards, but has occasionally been mentioned as a BDO (e.g., in this review by Russ Allbery).

Chindi was first published in 2002, but I reread it recently and it definitely holds up as a science fiction novel, though perhaps not so much so as a BDO novel. The novel falls around the middle of McDevitt’s Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins, or Academy, series. (Spoilers follow for Chindi, but not for the rest of the series.)

About half the novel is devoted to investigating smaller stuff than the BDO: a mysterious signal that turns out to be a mysterious spy satellite, that itself turns out to be part of a mysterious network of such satellites, leading a group of human explorers from star system to star system. The systems are inhabited, formerly inhabited, or otherwise interesting, and space is dangerous, leading to plenty of drama before the BDO is revealed.

In one of these star systems they find the ship responsible for producing and sending out the satellites, whose purpose turns out to be spying on primitive alien cultures (alien to the makers of the chindi, so including humanity back when we were primitive). The ship gives itself away by having made its own red spot (well, a white spot) on a gas giant in order to suck fuel out of its atmosphere. It’s an asteroid-looking thing that is 16.6 kilometers long by 5.1 kilometers wide by 0.8 kilometers high, but it has exhaust tubes.

They choose a Navaho word for spirit to refer to it and decide to board it (one of a series of risky decisions the explorers have been making throughout the novel, leading to an ever-diminishing number of explorers, not to mention ships, involved in this expedition). But the exploration is predictably interrupted by the start of the high-speed trip the chindi has been gathering fuel to make, and much of the rest of the novel is devoted to the physics and gymnastics of rescuing (or losing) people in this predicament, rather than to the interior of the chindi per se.

The humans discover a warren of corridors inside the ship; off of each corridor are countless rooms ready to be filled, or already filled, with archaeological exhibits assembled (how, we never discover) by the chindi in its travels. Careful examination is made of a few of these chambers. The ship has artificial gravity; during an adventure involving an antigravity shaft, Hutch estimates that the ship is about 80 decks high in both directions; despite extensive exploration, no estimate is ever given of the number of chambers found on these 160 decks.

A few robots haunt the halls, ignoring the interlopers, but the engine room isn’t mentioned and no living aliens are found inside. The source and ultimate purpose of the chindi is not discovered in the novel, so it retains an air of mystery appropriate to a BDO.