Firebird (2011) by Jack McDevitt

In 2021, I began a small expedition into science-fiction territory with the Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath series, written by Jack McDevitt, which takes place a hundred centuries in the future as humanity has spread itself across the Milky Way System – accumulating ten-thousand years of history, space-age artifacts and unresolved mysteries. Alex Benedict, "the world's most celebrated antique dealer," earns a living with Chase Kolpath tracking down rare, long-lost artifacts and dragging answers to age-old historical mysteries out of the mists of time. So the series is a distant cousin of the detective story and McDevitt cited G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories as a source of inspiration, while readers compared the series to a Space Opera Ellery Queen.

The series began with the world-building A Talent for War (1989), in which Alex Benedict tracks down a legendary and long-lost warship, but the mystery element emerged in the next two novels. Polaris (2004) is a locked room mystery, of sorts, concerning a scientific expedition that vanished from a sealed space yacht and Seeker (2004) concerns the historical mystery of a lost space colony from the Third Millennium. Regrettably, Echo (2010) turned out to be the first dud in the series undermining the world-building of the previous novels with an ending that wanted it both ways and an epilogue that made everything even worse. So began to wonder if I had gotten all out of the series that was of interest to me and the time had come to abandon it, but then got news a new title was forthcoming, Village in the Sky (2023). It sounded intriguing enough to see if the next was a return to form and perhaps continue with the series after all. 

Firebird (2011) is the sixth title in the series and begins when Karen Howard contacts Rainbow Enterprises to tell them she inherited the estate of her sister, Elizabeth Robin, who was married to Christopher Robin. Karen Howard has some personal items that belonged to her brother-in-law that she wants to put on the market. Benedict and Kolpath are tasked with getting the best price for the collection.

Christopher Robin was a controversial physicist who "explored the fringes of science" like whether consciousnesses can survive death, the multiverse and "thought maybe we were getting occasional visitors from one" – like sightings of unidentified starships that fade out ("ships from another reality?"). So he was someone who "asked questions nobody else dared to ask" and "looking for breakthroughs in areas that are considered beyond the pale by most of his colleagues." But what gave him fame was his mysterious, never explained disappearance. One day, Robin had "come home from somewhere, had gotten out of a skimmer at his front door, and never made it into his house." Nobody knows whether he accidentally fell into the ocean and the body was carried out to sea, got pushed or simply disappeared voluntarily. Maybe the physicist had "walked across a bridge into an alternate reality."

So more than enough angles to drum up public interest and drive up the demand for the Robin artifacts, but, once Benedict begins to dig into the mysteries the physicist left behind, he simply can't let go. Decades ago, Robin witnessed one of these phantom vehicles that have been reported over the centuries and was able to get pictures of it. Curiously, Robin had been present at previous, never explained sighting of another unidentified ship. When they learn Robin had been buying and losing yachts at an alarming rate, it became impossible to ignore. Was he actually trying sending "the yachts into one of these alternate universes he was always talking about" or something else?

A fascinating premise for a futuristic-historical, quasi-mystery, but the mystery of Robin's disappearance and his equally mysterious and secretive experiments become something of a MacGuffin. Benedict and Kolpath eventually figure out what Robin was up to, but the implications of their discovery shifts the story in a different direction with the physicist becoming a bit of an afterthought by the end (ROT13/SPOILER: arire ernccrnevat be trggvat erfphrq, ohg na rdhngvba naq fuvc ner anzrq nsgre uvz). However, it makes an engrossing science-fiction yarn and has a really good subplot centering on the advanced A.I. that's are all over the place. While hunting for clues, Benedict and Kolpath go to Villanueva, "colonized during the Great Migration" and "gone now almost as long as Adam and Eve,” which became a religious settlement that suffered an end-of-days catastrophe – getting swallowed by "a massive dust cloud." The people who refused to evacuate died and only their A.I. systems came out of it unscathed, which somehow remained operative and tidied everything up. But they're incredibly hostile to humans. So the planet is declared a no-go area. Benedict and Kolpath eventually come under attack after landing, but they manage to escape and rescue an Elementary School A.I. (Charlie) who had pleaded to be rescued ("I thought of what it would be like, trapped in an elementary school for seven thousand years"). This has some serious consequences when Charlie asks them to help rescue the other A.I. trapped on Villanueva. Something that damages and stains Benedict's reputation and public image.

So, in the end, Firebird is a much better science-fiction novel than hybrid mystery and therefore misses the appeal of Polaris and Seeker, because it's the historical mysteries that attracted me to the series in the first place. However, I can also see McDevitt needed to go heavy on the science-fiction in Firebird to setup the next two novels, Coming Home (2014) and Octavia Gone (2019), which appear to resolve a plot-thread that was introduced in the first book. Hopefully, they'll prove to be Polaris and Seeker of the second (or is that third?) phase in this engrossing series. But, speaking as a detective fanboy, it's a little tragic that this series was not conceived as a full-blown science-fiction mystery hybrid. So many of the worlds depicted in this series would lend themselves perfectly for all kind of different detective and thriller stories (see previous reviews for suggestions).

To cut a long, rambling review short, Firebird comes recommended to fans of the series, but, if you're only interested in the mystery element, you should (for now) stick with the first three titles in the series.

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