What I’m Reading: Jack McDevitt – Echo

Like all novels in Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series (of which Echo is the fifth), this is basically an archeological mystery novel dressed up as Science Fiction. The core of the mystery that drives the plot might seem genuinely SFnal, but it really is a McGuffin and could easily be replaced by the search for a lost civilization, the lost continent of Atlantis, or anything else with a sufficient air of the elusive and the numinous (even the search for the Lost Ark), and the methods used to pursue that search will be very familiar to every reader of mystery fiction – and even if occasionally it is the avatar of a dead person that is questioned rather than a living being does not really affect the basic approach.

More importantly, even though the story takes places in the far future many thousands of years from now it never really feels that way, because everyone thinks, acts and speaks just like we do today. McDevitt’s future seems to rest on the premise that humanity is essentially the same everywhere and at every time, a premise anyone with even a passing knowledge of cultural history will find exceedingly improbable. Seeing how the comparatively paltry advances in knowledge and technology over the last two hundred years have influenced our way of thinking, it seems safe to assume that humankind spreading among the stars, artificial intelligence and faster-than-light travel would not make some impact on humanity’s mentality, but McDevitt does not even attempt to imagine this, and instead opts for just transplanting our cozy contemporary way of thinking a few thousands years into the future.

Still, and even though I consider this a major shortcoming (not to mention intellectual laziness),  if one accepts its limitations and does not expect more depth than it delivers, the Alex Benedict series has a certain quaint, old-fashioned charm about it that I at least find hard to resist, and in spite of a lot of eyebrow-raising and occasional eye-rolling I rather enjoyed the previous installments. As I did Echo which is basically more of the same. It is very much business as usual for Alex Benedict and his pilot Chase Kolpath (who even in her fourth outing as a narrator I have problems to think of as female – one gets the feeling that McDevitt does try hard to bring her across as a woman, but it never rings quite true. I suppose characterisation is just not his strong point): There is a central mystery (this time involving the possible discovery of a second alien race) the pursuit of which has them traveling through various star systems and escape various assassination attempts to finally arrive a place forgotten by everyone where everything is resolved, and as always in a way that is rather a bit disappointing (for characters and readers both). I quite liked how the people searching for new aliens were terribly blasé about the ones they already know, like children who got bored with their old toy and now want a new, shinier  one. I am not sure that this is intentional on McDevitt’s part (at times it almost feels as if he had simply forgotten that there already is an alien race in the universe or the series or – more likely – like he had that plot idea about the search for an alien race he wanted to do and then squeezed that into the Alex Benedict universe even though it did not quite fit), but if it is, it is nicely observed.

It is all quite formulaic, but in this case this is not necessarily a bad thing – McDevitt delivers what his readers have come to expect from him, and while Echo will not likely shake anyone’s world it provides the  reader who can squint enough to overlook its faults a few hours of solid entertainment.

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3 comments

  1. McDevitt is one of my favourite authors. I find his novels the most believable ones – “authentic”, if you like. He takes the plot slow, he gives a realistic feeling for distances and travel times, and his science is – in the context of the novels – acceptable.

    I disagree on your assessment of a “shortcoming”, probably because I know ALL of his work. AI is omnipresent in the novels and takes an important role in people’s lives. They talk with AI’s all the time, they recreated “avatars” (ha!) of dead persons.

    We currently live in a world that has Apple’s SIRI for a year now, and people talk to(!) their iPhones routinely and am not the least surprised to get contextual answers. I think humankind can interact with AI’s without changing much. We are pretty good at adapting.

  2. Well, to be honest, I have my problems with the whole concept of AI in general, and in particular with the assumption that it would in any way work like a human mind does – which is pretty much exactly the case with McDevitt whose supposed AIs are more like human brains in a box. A concept I personally find infinitely more convincing because it is not in the least bit anthropomorphic is Karl Schroeder’s Artificial Nature that plays a big part in his Virga novels (which are among the best Science Fiction in recent years, in my opinion).

    As for McDevitt in general, I think he basically is a middle-of-the-road author and what he writes is Cozy SciFi (in analogy to Cozy Mysteries) – his novels are solid, entertaining comfort reads, not shaking anyone’s world or pushing any boundaries, but the reader knows what to expect and can trust him to deliver exactly that, nothing more and nothing less. Not a bad thing at all (I did what I read of him), but not really exciting either.

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