To warm up for Jack McDevitt's sixth installment of the Alex Benedict series, I re-read the first five volumes last month. Right on Release Day, I was at the local bookstore eagerly looking for "Firebird". It turned out to be right at the bottom of the stack of new arrivals on a dolly, the telltale green cover hard to miss. The clerk very helpfully fetched it for me, and the whole stack promptly toppled over with a thud as I was en route to the register. I felt guilty, but only a little.
Set some nine thousand years from now, the Benedict novels follow the exploits of antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his long-time -- and long-suffering -- business associate Chase Kolpath. Alex makes a tidy profit getting buyers and sellers of rare artifacts together. Sometimes he finds, and sells, his own treasures. His detractors, especially the archeologists, call him a tomb robber. In "Firebird", as in the other books, this is an important element of the plot. The name-calling, and attacks on his integrity, can be a little hard to bear, especially when Alex doesn't see that he's doing anything wrong. Chase has more misgivings, but can never quite bring herself to leave him for long.
Even his enemies have to respect this about Alex: In tracking down his various finds, he, with the invaluable help of Chase, has solved several major mysteries. Together they've rewritten history books, discovered a lost civilization, done much to promote peace between Humans and another race called the Ashiyyur, discovered a new alien race, and saved the lives of literally billions of people -- a whole planet full of them.
What does a man like that do for an encore? Naturally, he gets back to work dealing in antiquities. It's in his blood. And Chase is right there with him.
According to the old Earth calendar, it's now the year 11,321. A woman named Karen Howard has inherited some items belonging to a famous physicist and songwriter, Christopher Robin. She asks Alex to set up an auction, and he agrees. Now, there's an art to doing this and maximizing the proceeds: Chris Robin disappeared under very mysterious circumstances, so Alex decides to launch an investigation. It's supposed to be mainly just for show, to drum up interest in this 41-year-old case.
Naturally, as Alex and Chase get to work, it isn't just for show any more. Dr. Robin wrote an iconoclastic work of physics called "Multiverse", discussing the possibilities of multiple universes. Maybe a given universe has laws of physics different from our own, or maybe it is just an alternate timeline, where history takes a different course. True, physics pretty much accepts this all as fact, but could it be possible to actually *visit* another universe? Or directly observe one?
Some people -- though not the serious scientists -- think that could be how Dr. Robin vanished. He stepped right out of this universe, right in his bedroom closet. Then again, maybe his wife was just having an affair and offed him, dumping him in the ocean. Everyone has an opinion.
Tied in with this is the matter of vanishing ships. This is not a new idea -- Chase originally worked for Alex's uncle, Gabe, whose ship, the Capella, vanished at the start of the series, presumably leading to Gabe's untimely demise. The prologue of "Firebird" features another ship vanishing, so we know it's going to be an important part of the plot.
It's not just the occasional disappearances that spook people, though. It's the mysterious sightings of ghost ships which, for thousands of years, have appeared, refused to answer any attempts at communication, and then, after a few hours, have faded out. Some witnesses even talk, in hushed tones, about seeing passengers pounding on the windows, desperate to escape. The authorities deny this, of course.
One other theme which becomes important is the nature of AIs, or Artificial Intelligences. These very sophisticated computer programs manage houses, ships and space stations, and are recurring characters as important as Alex and Chase. Some people come to treat AIs as close friends and confidents. It's almost like they're self aware. But, are they? Some people, including a few religious leaders, think so, but others mock the idea.
In the course of following Dr. Robin's trail, Alex will make a discovery which blows the whole debate wide open, and threatens to turn him into (at best) a laughing stock whose customers are abandoning him in droves, and (at worse) a recklessly negligent criminal worthy of having his mind wiped, as people at his prompting embark on a quixotic -- and frequently deadly -- effort to "rescue" AIs from a very dangerous planet.
I found it very hard to put this book down, and plowed through it virtually in one sitting. The ending, contained in an epilogue, particularly moved me. I've been thinking about it all day. I think I'll re-read "Firebird" this weekend.
One more thing I was glad to see: The previous book, "Echo", was somewhat somber, but the mood in "Firebird" is more in line with the earlier books. As always, McDevitt drops us right into the culture of far-away planet Rimway, and assumes a ready familiarity with its culture, history and ecology.
I'm certainly hoping there will be a Book Seven, and it won't be too long a wait.