Jack McDevitt offers up two enjoyable reads –his latest novels Echo (2010) and Firebird (2011). They feature the intrepid archaeologist/mystery solver Alex Benedict and his assistant (and narrator) Chase Kolpath.
I’ll tell you upfront these books are recommended for those who like good novels. They’re well-written. Like a good mystery, they provide you with enough misdirection to keep you guessing. I hesitate to say these are pure science fiction novels, despite being set several millennia in the future with spaceships. They each function more as a mystery: the main characters are trying to unravel a puzzle. There is a lot of on-the-ground sleuthing. When the action gets into space, then I think things get exciting.
In the far human future, people wonder if they’ll ever find aliens in the universe. Granted, in McDevitt’s future, one alien race has already been found. But one isn’t enough, it seems.
Echo deals with a mystery artifact: is it alien-made, or is it from a lost human colony? A deeper mystery unfolds in the last third of the book, as Benedict and Kolpath stumble on a few human survivors of a world mysterious for having “primitive” technology (gas street lights and suspension bridges). So why are hired killers after the heroes, and why did a well-regarded space pilot and businesswoman commit suicide? It all gets figured out in the end, though there’s a shocking bit of gratuitous news (my opinion) at the end of the volume.
I liked Firebird a bit more. It explores a flying-dutchman-in-space concept. It’s a bit more science fiction than its predecessor. When the main characters attempt a rescue, it has some heartbreaking consequences for some of the people involved. That’s good science fiction, in my opinion. You take an idea of something that is beyond our present experience, and you place real human beings in the way. Good sf makes you think: What would I do? What would the moral response be?
Neither of these is a perfect book. My main complaint about Mr McDevitt’s sf novels is that they seem too much like modern America with a way, way overdone media coverage. Curious that characters know some aspects of “ancient history,” like Billy the Kid, but thousands of years into a computer era, whole human space colonies can somehow get lost.
For good writing, I can ignore little things like that. His novel Seeker won the 2006 Nebula for best sf novel. Same characters. Another good read.