Echo

by Jack McDevitt

Cover image

Series: Alex Benedict #5
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: November 2010
Printing: November 2011
ISBN: 1-937007-00-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 367

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This is the fifth book in the ongoing Alex Benedict series, but reading the previous volumes is generally optional. While there are references to earlier events (and indeed I resorted to Wikipedia at one point to refresh my memory of the plot of the the first book in the series), they aren't critical to the plot. They mostly are background for the reactions of other characters to Benedict and his firm.

Echo opens with the now-familiar prologue, giving us a fleeting and limited glimpse into the mystery that Benedict and Chase Kolpath will be pursuing for the rest of the book. This time, it features the explorer Somerest Tuttle, who has spent most of his life looking for intelligent alien life. (In the far future setting of these books, humanity has spread through a large region of the galaxy but has only encountered one other alien race.) In the twilight of his career and life, a friend who works as a tour guide for astronomical tours comes to him with a story about something she saw. What, we don't know, and won't for most of the book. But, whatever it is, Tuttle never goes public with it, which is directly contrary to what everyone would expect him to do with any news about alien life.

Benedict and Kolpath get involved some years later, after Tuttle's death, when a stone slab with unknown markings that was part of his estate shows up on the future equivalent of Craigslist, free to the first person who will haul it away. Benedict finds that interesting enough to go pick up, but then is really hooked when someone else goes to considerable lengths to try to make the slab disappear before anyone can get a good look at it. This, slowly, leads into poking around Tuttle's life and connections, the star tour industry, and the possible origins of the slab.

If you've read any of the previous books in this series, Echo is more of the same, and I mean that in a good way. I think McDevitt is at his best when writing this sort of cross between scientific puzzle, mystery, and non-military adventure, full of people who care deeply about knowing and understanding things and don't like to be thwarted in their efforts. There is McDevitt's trademark halting and red-herring-ridden investigation that succeeds in being engrossing and compelling, plenty of opportunities to guess what's really going on (a bit easier this book than in some others), and a bit of action that I thought was better-handled than the somewhat strained action scenes of The Devil's Eye. The book moves right along, despite multiple reversals in the progress of the investigation, and the final revelation does indeed justify the strange behavior of the various people Benedict encounters.

As with McDevitt in general and this series in particular, there is one caveat: the astronomical details are often interesting, but the world building in general is not terribly believable. Despite supposedly taking place millennia into the future, the society is a straight transplant (projection would imply more change than exists) of middle-class American culture, with bonus air cars, space ships, and slightly better computers. Similarly, alien ecologies suffer from severe Star Trek problems: all the planets feel like copies of Earth with a few minor tweaks. This just goes with the territory, and if you're up to the fifth book of the series, you've probably gotten used to it, but the unrealistic lack of divergence is actually used as a plot point here. That strained my suspension of disbelief a bit.

That said, this sort of extremely familiar social context does give the books an oddly calm, comfortable feeling. It's tempting to describe McDevitt as cozy science fiction. There's a bit of danger, a bit of suspense, but one is fairly certain that everything will work out in the end and the reader will leave the book knowing the solutions to most of the mysteries raised without having to work very hard at understanding the society or the puzzle. If that's what you're in the mood for (and I was when I read Echo), McDevitt delivers reliably.

If you like the Alex Benedict series in general, recommended, as this is an excellent example of the type.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-03-31

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-04-01