Book review: Echo, by Jack McDevitt

24 09 2016

There are a great many SF writers whose work I enjoy, across subgenres encompassing hard SF, space opera, and so on. Among living writers of ‘sense-of-wonder’ SF, I don’t think there’s anyone whose writing I admire quite so much as that of Jack McDevitt. I first encountered his The Engines of God about twenty years ago, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

McDevitt’s books may lack the dizzying, detailed inventiveness of worldbuilding of, say, Iain M Banks’s Culture novels, or the busy sparkle of character interplay that helps propel Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. But I’m not aware of any other SF writer who quite has McDevitt’s mastery of story. Particular favourites of mine are Slow Lightning (which, in the US, is titled Infinity Beach), Ancient Shores, and, latterly, the Alex Benedict series.

Alex Benedict is a dealer in antiquities, in a time far enough in the future for ‘antiquity’ to encompass not only our own present day but also several thousands of years of interstellar spaceflight. The novels are narrated by his resourceful assistant Chase Kolpath. I haven’t been reading the books in sequence: I have a recollection of having read the first book, A Talent for War, many years ago, and I’ve since read the most recent titles, Seeker, Firebird, and Coming Home. But I’ve skipped the intervening titles, and have only now turned my attention to Echo. (The lack of adherence to sequence doesn’t, I think, matter: each book is largely self-contained, although it would be a pity, I think, to read Coming Home before Firebird.)

echo-cover-art

In Echo, Alex learns of the availability of a stone tablet covered in indecipherable hieroglyphs. The tablet is particularly intriguing because the woman offering it is the owner of a house formerly belonging to the late researcher / explorer Somerset (‘Sunset’) Tuttle, whose life’s quest was to find any signs of alien intelligence scattered among the Milky Way’s vastness. Conventional wisdom holds that, had Tuttle’s search proven successful, he would certainly have shouted it from the rooftops; instead, his legagy is seen as one of futility and failure. And yet the tablet’s markings don’t match those of any known human language, nor do they seem to be of (the sole, long-known species of sentient alien) Ashiyyur origin: so did Tuttle, counterintuitively, discover a new race of extraterrestrials, and keep the fact a secret? It seems likely that the tablet holds the answer, but when Chase goes to collect it from the homeowner, she’s informed that it has been given away to another party. Alex tells the gazumpers that he’s prepared to pay handsomely for an artefact which he was, initially, expecting to receive gratis—the homeowner just wanted the thing off her lawn—but he’s met with misdirection, with threats of violence, and, finally, with the news that the tablet has been irretrievably dumped at sea. Just what does the tablet signify, and why has it become, for several people, a matter of life and death?

McDevitt’s ‘Alex Benedict’ novels have a tendency to define, from the outset, the parameters of the unfolding story, and then to subvert those parameters in ways that can, in some instances, leave the author breathless. (Firebird is probably the archetypal example of this, but Echo also does it very well.) My main criticism of the series is that it seems to involve the reasonably straightforward extrapolation of a kind of liberal midwestern US society to the interstellar civilisation of several millenia hence, something which, to me, appears too simplistic to be plausible; but that said, McDevitt’s characters are well-drawn and intriguing, his worlds are impressively busy, his pacing is excellent, and he’s a mastery of SF immersion through such offhand techniques as Heinlein’s ‘the door dilated’: in Echo, for example, when Chase has finished reading a magazine, she turns it off, and when it’s cold outside she turns up the heating on her jacket. (My other criticism would be that, damn him, it’s almost impossible to read McDevitt’s best stuff slowly: he has an enviable knack for producing pageturners.)

I’ve purposely refrained from sketching out too much of the book’s plot, because the Benedict books are constructed, primarily, as big-picture-SF mysteries, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to give away crucial details. This leaves me rather constrained with how best to sum Echo up, but I can say that I was wholeheartedly impressed by how McDevitt put it all together, I was thoroughly swept up in the story’s slipstream, and I’m glad, on reflection, that it didn’t end up the way I thought it was going to. If you haven’t read McDevitt’s stuff, you’re missing something good.

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