(2010) Jack McDevitt, Tor (US), £6.99, pbk, 367pp, ISBN 978-1-937-00700-3
Echo is the latest in the Alex Benedict series of futuristic, off-world, amateur detective stories. The hardback was initially published in N. America at the end of 2010 and the paperback at the end of 2011, so copies have really only begun to be circulated in western Europe this year.
Set a eight thousand years in the future on the world of Rimway, antiques dealer Alex Benedict gets an offer to clear a stone tablet from a garden. On this tablet there are strange, undecipherable runes carved. However before he can collect the piece someone else takes it. Alex would not have paid too much attention were it not for the runes being of an unknown script and this gets Alex and his assistant, Chase Kolpath, digging.
The story is told from Chase Kolpath perspective. They find that the tablet's former owner (Sunset Tuttle) had spent a lifetime searching the Galaxy just beyond the human sphere of influence for intelligent alien life before he died. (In McDevitt's Benedict universe only humans and one other intelligent species are currently known in the Galaxy.) The implication is that Sunset Tuttle had actually found an alien civilisation but decided to keep the discovery a secret for reasons unknown. If Tuttle had found an alien civilisation then the news impact would have been tremendous: in McDevitt's future there has been thousands of years of human interstellar space exploration, many worlds colonised and now thriving. Yet apart from one other civilisation there seems to be nothing else out there.
The mystery of the slab might have been impenetrable but Alex and Chase manage to track down the thieves but not before the latter make a show of disposing of the slab into the depths of the sea. At first it seems that all Alex and Chase have to go on are the photographic record of the slab as well as any connection the thieves might have had with Sunset Tuttle. Then there is an attempt on Alex's life…
As with many authors' detective series you get to know what the writer will be giving you. With Agatha Christie it will be a private sleuth and a myriad of suspects with equally likely alibis. With McDevitt's Alex Benedict stories there will be an SFnal mystery, an erroneous motive (at first), and an attempt on the lives of our protagonists or at the very least some physical attempt to dissuade them from their investigations before the true motive, for whatever is going on, is revealed.
Now, McDevitt is a straightforward writer that delivers an easy-to-read story at a cracking pace using a good number of standard SF tropes (in this case principally artificial intelligence and space travel). As such most of his books are excellent beach reads or fine for hectic working days on the commuter run, and as such are to be hugely recommended.
Having said that, in the main with McDevitt you do not go to him for detailed analysis, and/or plot integration of the SF tropes, or for that matter fully rounded characters. In the main this is not what this author does, though he has also penned a couple of minor classics. What he gives you is a cracking good, gung-ho yarn, and there is nothing at all wrong with that and here Echo is no exception.
However if you do want more than that then you are likely to be disappointed. For example, with regards to tropes and their integration to plot and characters, that this 8,000-year future has space travel McDevitt takes as it being more or less like many people today having an air pilot's licence and who can drop their current career one-day to ferry passengers between star systems with a commercial travel line the next. The author's presentation of technology development is also somewhat facile, and so we get an AI uncharacteristically for, and unnecessary to, the plot set-up expressing human feelings (and the human not reporting it is inexplicable given the AI controls a spacecraft is doubly perplexing!). I could go on but will not because I do not want to undermine or put you off what is a reasonable read, but I will give you one final example. At one point our protagonists are on an alien planet having left their spaceship temporarily deserted in orbit save for the AI. All well and good, but then when they end up stranded on the planet the orbiting AI can only communicate for several minutes as the ship passes those on the ground with each orbit. This begs the question as to why the AI did not put the craft into a geosynchronous orbit above our stranded protagonists so as to have a permanent communications link? The answer sadly is that this break in communication was necessary for progressing the plot. This is a shame as with a bit of thought the author could have reconciled matters.
So what we have with Echoes is a fine, undemanding, romp of an adventure read, and at that level this is a very worthy book that will serve both younger readers well as well as those that want something light to read between more substantial works. But please do not think that this sort of thing is all that McDevitt can do: McDevitt has won SF Awards including major genre prizes such as the Nebula and Locus. Do seek out his more significant novels, and here I might perhaps recommend you checking out his Hercules Text (1986) set in the present day and concerning the detection of an alien signal. Meanwhile, if you like light adventure reads as part of your varied diet then Echoes will fulfil that need nicely.
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