February 22, 2012

BOOKS: Firebird, Jack McDevitt (2011)

Sixth in the Alex Benedict series. (My takes on some earlier volumes here and here.)

Our hero is Alex Benedict, antiquities dealer. And when the story's set roughly 9000 years in the future and man has established colonies on dozens of other planets, there are a lot of antiquities in which to deal. This time around, he's being asked to handle the estate auction of physicist Christopher Robin, who disappeared mysteriously forty years ago. Robin's work was often at the very edges of accepted science, and he explored ideas that many of his colleagues didn't take seriously, such as finding a way to travel between parallel universes.

The auction revives the public fascination with Robin and his baffling disappearance (that revival being fostered by Alex, who knows that it will drive up the auction prices), and leads Alex and his associate, Chase (who narrates the story; she is the Watson to Alex's Holmes), to begin investigating what actually did happen to Robin.  That investigation leads to a series of unexplained appearances of unidentified spacecraft, a trip to a planet where humanity was killed off by natural disaster, and a political controversy surrounding the sentience of the artificial intelligences that run most people's homes and ships.

As always, I'm struck by the coziness of McDevitt's future. Nine thousand years from now, and there's apparently been relative stability in human culture for all that time. There's certainly been no great cataclysmic disaster that destroys the knowledge base; Shakespeare's plays and Stravinsky's ballets are still being performed. And for all the high-tech advances -- interstellar travel and AIs that tend to your daily scheduling and routine business -- events often play out through simple conversations in someone's living room.

McDevitt's style is simple and straightforward, and his characters, while perhaps not the richest creations in the genre, are pleasant people to spend time with. McDevitt's novels are rarely dazzling or surprising, but they are reliably solid entertainment, and Firebird is no exception.

It is also one of this year's Nebula-nominated novels, which were announced earlier this week. Of that group, I've read two already: China Mieville's Embassytown and Jo Walton's Among Others. I will probably skip over N.K. Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods, which is the third volume of a series in which I could barely get through the first. That leaves Kameron Hurley's God's War and Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique, both of which are on my to-do list.

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