kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space opera
Some nine thousand years from now, will star travel be cheaper than intercontinental travel is today? Will dropping in on an orbital station be of no more consequence than visiting the Walmart in the next town? That is the world of Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict novels. Firebird is the sixth in a series that began with A Talent for War, first published in 1989.
Alex Benedict, famous for completing an archaeological investigation begun by his uncle Gabriel Benedict, and now his uncle's heir, is best known as a purveyor of antiques. This makes him unpopular with museum curators, who decry the supposed desecration. This fact adds a twist or two to the plot of this novel, in which Alex and his aide Chase Kolpath investigate the disappearance of a famous physicist, and then uncover a quirk in spacetime that may solve a number of other cases of disappearing starships.
The key idea related to the vanishing starships is that black holes, as they move through space, cause a damage track in spacetime that diverts a starship which attempts to enter hyperspace at or near the track. The ship is whipped forward in time by a few years or a few decades, and thereafter tends to appear for a few hours before vanishing for the same period, over and over. The climax of the novel is a rendezvous with one of the missing starships, and the attempt to rescue the passengers from their time warp. For the passengers, three weeks have passed. For "outside space", seven thousand years. The few passengers rescued are truly the oldest "relics" Alex has ever recovered, but they are living and breathing and speaking an archaic French dialect. An epilogue closes the loop on the rest of their fellow passengers.
Another very interesting idea is that of sentient Artificial Intelligences, or AI's. Everyone has at least one of these, but a planet that was carried through a dust cloud has lost all its biological inhabitants, leaving a world full of AI's to fend for themselves. Some become insane, and even pathologically homicidal when humans visit the world after its emergence from the dust cloud. Since pathology is not allowed by their original programming, this starts a debate about their status as possibly sentient and thus worthy of rights and even citizenship. Of course, Alex winds up in the middle of the mess when he and Chase "rescue" an AI from the lost planet, one who has been overseeing a schoolhouse for millennia and is not only bored out of his mind, but fearing retribution from the pathological AI's for his friendly contact with people. In a few thousand years, if humanity survives, computers powerful enough to emulate a human brain in a space no larger than a real brain will certainly become possible. I wonder if they can be "programmed" to be intelligent, or if instead, training will become the norm?
The book is a pleasure to read. A cover blurb on the hardback copy compares McDevitt's work to that of Asimov. As I recall, Asimov's later novels consisted primarily of dialog. McDevitt is also a master of believable dialog. Other than that, the worlds that he builds differ quite a lot from Asimov's, which is all to the good. We need fresh ideas more than a further exploration of older ones. I note in this Wikipedia article that he'll be 77 this year. That is the prime of life for an author.