Visions of Paradise

Friday, November 12, 2010


I guess I should start any review of a book by Jack McDevitt with a disclaimer: he is my favorite current writer, whose books inevitably get a rave review from me. I selected Seeker as my book-of-the-year, and Echo is the next book in the same Alex Benedict series. Nor am I alone in my admiration for Jack McDevitt; his novels have been nominated for 9 Nebula Awards, and Seeker won the award in 2006.

The premise of an Alex Benedict novel, including Echo, is relatively straight-forward: Benedict is an antiquities dealer in the far-future, when much of the Orion Spiral has been settled by humans for many millennia. Along with his assistant Chase Kolpath, who is the narrator of the books as she writes her memoirs of Benedict’s adventures, they invariably get involved in a historical mystery involving some ancient artifact which they are trying to authenticate.

The novels in this series contain several aspects which often fill me with sense of wonder: a colonized sector of space in which worlds have different cultures and backgrounds; a sense of history far beyond our era; and a non-genre historical mystery. Add to this McDevitt’s ability to write a fast-paced, enthralling novel with characters who are reasonably-well-rounded, if not developed in considerable depth.

Echo also involves one of the great tropes of science fiction: the search for intelligent life other than humans. At the novel’s outset, Benedict finds an ancient artifact which contains non-human writing, and which belonged to one of the most famous seekers of alien life, a man who devoted himself to traveling through space looking for aliens. A few mysteries surround the artifact, including a pilot of space tours who mysteriously resigned her job soon after the finding of the artifact, and who refuses to discuss it with Benedict two decades later. To make the situation even stickier, somebody is very anxious to prevent Benedict and Kolpath from learning the truth behind the artifact, even to the point of attempted murder.

There are a few minor weaknesses in Echo, a few plot details which should not be considered too deeply, and a bit too much of a Sherlock Holmes influence on Benedict’s thought processes, weaknesses which did not appear in earlier books in the series. But they are slight compared to the strengths of this book, and the pleasures it gave me. Echo was the third McDevitt novel I read this past year, and while it was slightly weaker than either Cauldron (the magnificent finale to the Academy series) or Time Travelers Never Die (a wondrous romp through time), it did nothing to hurt McDevitt’s reputation in my mind. I recommend it highly, both for Alex Benedict fans as well as for all future history lovers.


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