Jack McDevitt’s latest novel, Firebird (Ace, 2011), is the sixth adventure following Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath. Alex is a well-known antiquities dealer and Chase is his pilot and assistant.
After agreeing to look into the value of some objects that once belonged to the famous physicist Christopher Robin (who allegedly disappeared near his home and was presumably lost in the ocean), Chase and Alex uncover a series of events that Robin was investigating himself: sightings of unidentified spaceships that appeared out of nowhere and then faded away. Their investigation takes them to a number of worlds, including in which one of the worst disasters in human history took place. The world is dangerous now, those who visit don’t return. But Alex and Chase brave that world in search for answers. What they ultimately find–the why Robin disappeared, why the strange ships have been appearing and disappearing throughout history, will take your breath away. And what they do about it makes for one of the most nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat climaxes I’ve read in a long time.
Firebird is the best Alex Benedict novel yet and it just goes to show that as good a writer as Jack McDevitt is (see my review of Time Travelers Never Die), he keeps getting better. This novel presses all of my science fiction buttons: it’s got a fascinating mystery, big cosmological events, black holes, lost spaceships, artificial intelligence. While the story itself, told as always from Chase’s point of view, focuses on the mystery, it can’t help but reveal new facets to characters I have grown to think of as friends. At times, the tension is high between Alex and Chase and we get a glimpse of how they came together in the first place. We also learn more about the AIs in this distant future, and the subject of the novel allows for intriguing discussions of philosophical questions: religion, intelligence, and what it means to be sentient.
Jack’s keen sense of humor comes through brilliantly at times, as in this brief exchange between Chase and Belle, the ship’s AI:
I thought it would be a good idea to change the subject. “What books were you talking about?” I asked.
“Oh. Chan’s Write On, for one.”
“Which is what?” I asked.
“It’s a book about why you cannot learn to be a professional writer by reading books on the subject.“
As always in the Alex Benedict novels, the chapter is headed by a fictional quote from someone in the history of the universe in which Alex and Chase live. My favorite quote was from Chapter 35, in part because I appreciate the philosophy and in part because I thought it tied in particularly well with the overall theme of the novel:
Intelligence and compassion are the heart of what it means to be human. Help others where you can. That is clear enough. But a Creator may well want us to open our eyes, as well. If there is a judgement, God may not be particularly interested in how many hymns we sang or what prayers we memorized. I suspect He may instead look at us and say, “I gave you a brain, and you never used it. I gave you the stars, and you never looked.” –Marcia Tolbert, Centauri Days, 3111 C.E.
The conclusion of the novel is absolutely breathtaking. I found myself on the edge of my seat, the same as I might be for a suspenseful movie or a close game seven in the World Series. Everything around me disappeared and I was completely and totally part of the novel. And the epilogue, down to the very last line, was so touching it nearly brought tears to my eyes. It is, in my opinion, one of those rare books worthy of a 5-star rating.