Book Review – Firebird by Jack McDevitt

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

This is the sixth Alex Benedict Novel. I’ve read them all so obviously I find them entertaining. This one is no exception. Chase Kolpath again plays Watson to Alex Benedict’s Holmes. He’s not a detective though. He’s an antiquities dealer. His critics have less kind descriptions for him. He actually seems to be a seeker of facts with a distinct reluctance to leave unanswered questions. I like him.

When it comes to science fiction, I don’t think I’m hard to please. Present a hopeful and believable future world with likeable characters doing admirable things and chances are I’ll like the story. Unfortunately much of the recent trend, at least in traditionally published science fiction, has been to move to the dark side with apocalyptic tales often featuring vampires, zombies, demons, or angels. Such books seem to try to shock the reader with graphic accounts of violence or sex rather than entertain them or prompt them to think. Fortunately Jack McDevitt does not follow this trend. His stories are more reminiscent of the golden age of science fiction (e.g. Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein).

I won’t try to summarize the plot in this short review, partly because other reviewers have already done so, and partly to avoid spoilers. I’ll just tell you what I especially liked and disliked about the story.

I tend to like works of speculative fiction that explore “big” issues. This book does. The most obvious are: What is sentience? Can artificial intelligences be sentient? Do they have rights? Or to put it in more mystical religious terms, can machines have souls?

I like the characters. They are presented in such a way that they have a “real” feel to them with both strengths and shortcomings. A case in point is the central character. Alex’s critics often accuse him of being a profiteering grave robber and it is not an entirely inaccurate description. But he is also a man of high intelligence and integrity. When he feels something is right, he puts his effort, his money and his reputation on the line to support it.

I also like speculative fiction that steps back and looks at mankind from a “big picture” perspective. You get that with these books. The setting is about 9,000 years in our future and we see that humanity is exploring the galaxy and is thriving. Many of the things we find so meaningful or important today such as nations, politicians, wars, and fashions simply don’t matter anymore. Many have been totally forgotten. From this broad perspective, we can see that these are footnotes to human history, not the drivers of it.

I also like the positive image of mankind in general that it presents. There is one scene in which an AI points out humanity’s flaws, its penchant toward intolerance and violence. Chase silently acknowledges these facts but reminds us that, despite these things, humanity has progressed both technologically and culturally. In another scene when resources are needed to mount a risky rescue mission, Chase has little trouble finding volunteers willing to spend their time and even risk their lives to accomplish it. (Sorry for the lack of details but I want to avoid spoilers.)

So what didn’t I like? Not much really but there is one thing that seems anomalous about the setting. The human culture 9,000 years in the future almost feels old fashioned. There have been obvious technological advances. There are starships capable of superluminal flight. People have much longer life spans. But there is also a mildly sexist attitude exhibited in some of the character interactions. There are also things that are very much like television shows and celebrities that are more reminiscent of the 1950’s than even the social media and on demand content available today. The religious institutions of today are also shown to survive with seemingly little change. One would think that the distant future would be a little more different given how much such things have changed in the previous 9,000 years.

That’s pretty much it. I enjoyed the book. It kept me reading until very late at night. I recommend it with the qualification that you read the other five first.

About Dave

A reader and writer of speculative fiction. See my website for more information on me and my writing.

Posted on December 4, 2011, in 5 Star Reviews, Book Reviews, Science Fiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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