Jack McDevitt: Firebird

Firebird is volume six of Jack McDevitt’s “Alex Benedict” series of archeological mysteries in a Science Fiction setting, a series that found its formula in its second volume and has stuck to it very closely since then. This novel, too, chugs along smoothly and comfortably along the rails laid down by previous volumes in the series –  some things, however, are different this time round, and if Firebird doesn’t exactly deviate from the established formula it does expand on it somewhat.

This is most notable in the novel’s portrayal of its main protagonist, antique dealer Alex Benedict – we’ve been told  that the is a very controversial figure in previous volume, but so far he has been presented as either unjustly maligned by envious colleagues or misunderstood by the general public; it is only now that we get a closer look on some of his more dubious business practices which might give some justification to his reputation and which even Alex’ business partner and the series’ narrator Chase Kolpath is uncomfortable with. And there even is some self-doubt as the novel progresses, which gives the character some much-needed depth.

Another change is that this time, while there still is the initial client who kicks things off with her request, she is not in the least bit mysterious, and there are no antagonists this time who send out assassin’s which Alex and Chase then need to avoid. Firebird is very low on action and focuses on the mystery instead (which is about the disappearing spaceships that have been a recurrent theme in the series since its first volume), and since this is what McDevitt does best the novel benefits considerably from it, making it the best instalment in the series for quite some time.

Another recurring also gets extensive treatment here, namely the AIs, but this I found to be very problematic. As I already wrote in my post on Echo, I am not convinced of McDevitt’s concept of Artificial Intelligence at all, because it’s too anthropomorphic – his AIs are basically humans who happen to live inside a box. In Firebird, Alex Benedict makes a stand for them receiving equal rights with humans, on the ground that AIs are basically just like humans. And that is where things become really problematic from an ethical point of view – because the attitude that someone has to be “like us” to be deserving of equal rights while it’s okay to deny them to anyone who is different from and other than us is highly questionable, and nowhere near as progressive as McDevitt seems to think it is.

The novel’s most glaring problem, however, is a very weird choice of names: It seems hardly credible that McDevitt never read or at the very least heard of Winnie-the-Pooh, so one can only wonder what moved him to call the disappeared physicist whose traces Alex and Chase follow in Firebird – Christopher Robin, of all possible names. For anyone who ever read the books or watched the movie (and one can assume that to be a vast majority of Firebird’s readers) this can’t help but conjure up rather unfortunate associations which fit neither McDevitt’s character nor his novel.

With all its issues, this volume still marks a return to form for this series, and after I had been almost ready to give up on it, I’m now actually looking forward to the next volume which promises some interesting developments in the wake of what happened in Firebird.

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