Just two months ago, I had never heard of Jack McDevitt. I was browsing in a bookstore and came across a title which caught my eye -- "A Talent For War", the first of the Alex Benedict novels. It was both a science fiction and a detective novel, and the basic premise really intrigued me.
I picked up all four of the Benedict books and plowed through them, and then read the six Priscilla Hutchins novels for good measure. I am thoroughly hooked on the works of this author. A couple of his standalone works are also top notch.
Alex Benedict is an antiquity dealer who, along with his assistant Chase Kolpath, lives some eight thousand years in the future on a planet called Rimway. With faster-than-light travel a routine matter, and a wealth of planets (including Earth) harboring the ruins of countless ancient human civilizations, there is no shortage of artifacts and memorabilia to buy and sell.
Every now and again, Alex comes across something mysterious which really captures his imagination, and he focuses an intense amount of his, and Chase's, time and energy into pursuing it. It's not about the money, it's more the thrill of the chase, the thirst for knowledge. The pair begin to receive death threats and even become the targets of diabolically clever assassination attempts. While Chase has reservations about the sanity of continuing the quest, Alex is undeterred. After all, if someone is willing to kill to keep a secret, it must be really, really big. The kind of stuff that can rewrite history books or even save huge numbers of lives.
Since all but the first book are narrated in first person by Chase, we can assume that she's going to survive to write about it, but we never know about Alex.
So, when "Echo" came out, I was very eager to dig in. In a brief prologue, we are introduced to two key individuals. The first is Somerset Tuttle, a maverick scientist who has devoted his whole life to finding an alien civilization. True, there is a telepathic race known as the Ashiyyur, nicknamed the Mutes. But they're old hat -- people want to find OTHER aliens. And yet, Tuttle has become the butt of jokes. Real scientists know the galaxy is empty. There are planets with life, but no intelligent life. "Found any little green men yet?" is a common question or maybe taunt hurled at Tuttle.
The second person we meet in the prologue is Rachel Bannister, a spaceship pilot for World's End Tours. She is very upset about something she saw out there, something terrible. But we won't find out what for the rest of the book. It's a bit of a surprise, nothing I would have guessed.
Chapter One picks up 28 years after the prologue. Tuttle has died and Rachel is no longer piloting. Alex and Chase are invited to pick up a peculiar stone tablet from Tuttle's old home. It's been sitting out in the yard, and the new owner doesn't want it. Alex is intrigued by the pictures because of its mysterious writing. It matches nothing known to humanity, and is unlikely to match anything Ashiyyur either.
But, before Alex can examine the stone, Rachel Bannister's relatives snatch it up and proceed to lead Chase and Alex on a merry, but fruitless hunt. Soon, the first assassination attempt takes place. True to form, Alex knows he's on to something big, and won't quit.
The burning question: Did Tuttle find an alien civilization? His old friends think the idea is preposterous. He would have shouted his discovery from the rooftops to prove his ridiculers wrong. But whatever he found, people are willing to kill to cover it up. Rachel clearly knows something, but won't say what.
Soon, both Chase and Rachel will be pushed to the breaking point as the pressure mounts, and the news media begin to have a field day.
I enjoyed "Echo" as much as its predecessors in the series, but noticed an interesting development. The other series, featuring Priscilla Hutchins, is set in the relatively near future, on Earth and nearby star systems. McDevitt extrapolates current environmental and political developments to their logical conclusion, and humanity's prospects look dismal indeed. People are beginning to give up space travel and are looking inward, and history shows that civilizations tend not to survive once they lose a crucial amount of dynamism.
The Benedict novels, in contrast, are so far in the future that they're completely detached from 21st century Earth's affairs. Human interstellar civilization has gone through two major dark ages, but things are currently pretty vibrant.
At least, they were for the first four books of the series. With "Echo", a certain malaise is starting to creep in, just like the Hutchins books. People are more interested in experiencing the universe virtually than in taking an actual star voyage. Hardly anyone goes exploring any more. What's the point, they ask. People are getting too soft and comfortable.
It will be interesting to see what happens with any future books. I'm hoping a certain amount of optimism remains.
What I really enjoy about McDevitt's writing is his matter-of-fact approach to the technological marvels surrounding the characters. When someone asks how antigravity works, Chase replies: "Push a button, and you lift off." The books don't get bogged down with technobabble.
McDevitt drops you, the reader, right into the local culture, with plenty of offhand remarks about popular writers, singers, restaurants and sports games. He mentions exotic (to us) pets in a casual way, and we get some idea that they're dog- or cat-like from general descriptions.
It looks like the Hutchins series has ended, but I'm certainly hoping there will be a few more Benedict books before McDevitt hangs up his quill.