Echo (Alex Benedict)
by Jack McDevitt
Cover Artist: John Harris
Review by Tom Easton
Ace Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441019243
Date: 02 November 2010 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Jack McDevitt has been interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence for at least as long as he's been writing science fiction. In fact, his early Nebula-nominated SETI story, "Cryptic" (1983), lent its name to his email address. His novels have often presented the galaxy as a largely empty place where aliens, if they ever existed, left only ruins for humans to puzzle over. In the Alex Benedict series (A Talent for War, Polaris, Seeker, and The Devil's Eye), the main character is an art and antiques dealer in the far future. With thousands of years of space colonization and development prior to the time of the stories, there are a great many ruins scattered about, many containing choice artifacts for Benedict to sell. Yet that is not really the point of the stories, for Benedict is intrigued by the questions that inevitably surround ancient artifacts, and when he finds a real mystery... well, that's where McDevitt gets his novels.
In the Benedict universe, humans are all but alone. Only one species of ET has ever been found. But one day a woman advertises a stone tablet free for the taking. Photos intrigue Benedict, for the inscription is in no known alphabet. He sends his aide, Chase Kolpath, off to fetch it, but someone else beats her to it and later claims to have destroyed the tablet. They start asking questions, discovering that the house whose yard the tablet had adorned once belonged to Sunset Tuttle, a scientist obsessed with the search for aliens to the point that he had become a laughing stock in his field well before he died.
And thatís when the first assassination attempt happens. The method is intriguing--a package of magnesium powder which, when triggered, sucks the oxygen out of a room--but it doesn't work. Indeed, it just strengthens Benedict's motivation, and soon he finds that the story tracks back to a galactic tour company for whom the woman behind the removal and destruction of the tablet, Rachel Bannister, had once worked; she had also been Tuttle's lover. He and Chase soon learn that others connected with the tour company at the same time also want him to drop the issue and, when questioned, give the impression at least of severe embarrassment and at most of deep and abiding guilt. They also learn that the tour ships would put on great shows for their customers, even deflecting asteroids so they would hit comets and produce celestial fireworks. Lacking that, they would find systems where spontaneous fireworks were ongoing or about to erupt and schedule tours to watch the show. And, yes, the scout who sought out such places is among those showing guilt.
Needless to say, there are more assassination attempts. All are (of course) unsuccessful, and in due time Benedict locates a world, Echo, that seems worth a visit. Given the title of the book (and the number of pages remaining), the astute reader immediately knows that this is where whatever happened happened. All I will say, though, is that Echo is a world of ruins with only a few surviving people. And it does solve the mystery in a very satisfying way.
Satisfying, yes. But also depressing in its commentary on human nature. It's perhaps nice to know that the people who created the mystery in the first place felt guilty about it, but I would love to think that no one could possibly do what they did. Unfortunately, I am nearly as cynical as McDevitt: Sure, they could.
Highly recommended. But then I always say that about McDevitt's books.