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Firebird by Jack McDevitt

In Firebird, the latest novel going under the label of “An Alex Benedict Novel”, Jack McDevitt has yet again produced a fascinating scientific mystery for us to ponder. On the periphery are a couple of very neat examples of authorial sleight of hand and a crusade. Who could ask for anything more in a story where people move around more than expected and some are rescued?

We have to start with a small note of explanation for those of you not into classical ballet. For some years, the Diaghilev Ballets Russes had recycled the traditional scores with new choreography. But, in 1910, an original score called The Firebird, was commissioned from Igor Stravinski. As they say in showbiz, this was a big hit and the rest is history. The story brings two previously unrelated myths together. The Firebird itself was a Russian version of the phoenix, and it was drawn into the circle of creatures surrounding Koschei the deathless (as in Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente ). The dynamic hook of the story is the willingness of The Firebird to help a human confront Koschei in pursuit of the one he loves. It’s both a classic love story and a metaphorical battle for freedom as a modern man leads a revolt against the immortal magician who has ruled in this garden estate since time began. In its historical context, the ballet was a harbinger of the Russian revolution in which the people rose up and disposed of the Tsarist family that had ruled for centuries.

Returning to the new novel, one of the major themes is the status of AIs. In this version of the future, humanity has long relied on tried and trusted artificial intelligences to run many aspects of their lives. In pursuit of evidence about the past, Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath visit Villanueva, a planet that has been cut off from the rest of the universe, first because the planetary system passed through a dust cloud and then because the AIs decided not to allow humans to trespass on their world. Ah, so here’s the rub (or wub if you like P K Dick). If these machines have asserted territoriality, does that mean they have evolved to a higher level of intelligence? If it does, should they earn a new status more equal with humanity? In a way, this would have remained a purely hypothetical debate, but our dynamic duo rescue one of the AIs that prefers not to follow in the warlike footsteps of its peers. This proves a catalyst for human society to begin the process of deciding what machine rights should be granted to this AI and to any other AIs that might reach appropriate levels of sentience.

Jack McDevitt laughing when someone asks where he hides his pen

In other hands, this might have become a slightly moralistic crusade, but Jack McDevitt uses the issue very skillfully to undermine the credibility of Alex Benedict at a critical time. Had our heroes not started this hare running, their reputations would have been sufficiently strong for them to argue action on the second important issue. But so great is the political backlash when their enemies rubbish the suggestion humanity rescue more machines, their other requests for help are dismissed by officialdom. Alex Benedict becomes too hot to handle and must rely on less conventional channels for aid.

The Prologue introduces the primary issue for Alex Benedict to investigate. Although the manufacturers of the engines and the spacecraft they power want to maintain public confidence in the safety of their wares, it’s a fact that a tiny percentage of spaceships has disappeared. When a client asks Benedict to handle the sale of items belonging to a physicist who made a name for himself as an investigator of fringe science, it rapidly becomes clear that the man might have been interested in this problem. In trying to follow in the scientist’s footsteps, we have Chase Kolpath doing her thing and digging out interesting nuggets of information. As an aside, I always feel Chase should get equal billing in the labelling of these novels. They are, after all, first-person narratives from her point of view. Following the clues she unearths takes the couple to Villanueva and the aforementioned rescue of the AI. They then realise they must find the titular Firebird, a small ship the physicist bought and then “lost” somewhere in space.

So looking back at the Alex Benedict series, this is easily the equal of Echo which was shortlisted for the 2010 Nebula Award. The sheer inventiveness of the scientific mysteries to solve makes these books great fun to read, blending science fiction and the trappings of a detective procedural with seamless grace. I recommend Firebird to anyone interested in thoughtful science fiction. For reviews of other titles by Jack McDevitt, see:

Cryptic: The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt
The Devil’s Eye
Echo
Time Travelers Never Die

This book has been shortlisted for the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2011.

 

  1. Dennis Michel
    September 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    So… Am I the only one that thinks that after all of these years of crappy Sci Fi remakes, some fresh stories should be injected into the mainstream of film-making? McDevitt’s stories, if done right, could foster a whole new era of Sci Fi movie-making. I have been reading his novels for over a year now, bouncing from Hutchins to Benedict, and have found something very new and special. Don’t know if anyone else agrees, but the last thing I want to see is another ‘Total Recall’ remake.

    -Den

    • September 5, 2012 at 2:41 pm

      Hi

      Some of McDevitt’s stories are good to read and might translate well to the screen, but neither Hollywood nor the television companies have a good track record in translating books into the visual media. In fact, film-makers generally have a bad record when it comes to making watchable films. There’s an incredible amount of rubbish put into the cinemas hoping we’ll pay to see. It’s not much better when we come to books. Sturgeon’s Law continues to apply in all art forms.

      David

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