Jack McDevitt’s “Alex Benedict” series

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This series is set in the far future (about 9,000 years) when humanity has spread throughout the stars. At this point the human race has formed a political entity called the Confederacy.

Alex Benedict is a dealer in antiquities. However, in this future setting, this could include artifacts from abandoned space stations or from deserted planetary colonies, or previously belonging to famous historical spaceship captains. His company is called Rainbow Enterprises.

He has a female assistant called Chase Kolpath, who is also a spaceship pilot. The first book in the series is narrated by Alex, the others by Chase. The books are written as if to a readership of that time, which I found a little disconcerting, as they seem to be assuming a knowledge of future history. However, eventually all is explained.

Alex and Chase are based on the planet Rimway, but as well as travelling around their own world, their investigations often take them out into space, and to various other planets.

The books follow a pattern to some extent (although not always strictly). Alex and Chase receive a clue (generally an artifact) to some historical mystery, the solution to which will be financially rewarding. They follow up the clue with some difficulty, and get some obstruction, as if someone doesn’t want them to find out the secret. They persist, and there is an attempt to kill them; often other people get killed in the process. Finally they confront their opponent, and survive. They discover the secret, and become famous as a result.

The technology of the time includes some of the things you would normally expect for science fiction stories of the far future: faster-than-light spaceship travel, and interstellar communications. And skimmers – small aircraft, with antigravity, that everyone has, in a similar way to cars of our own time.

Aliens: One species of aliens has been encountered by the human race – the Ashiyyur, colloquially known as Mutes. This species is telepathic, and do not speak, although they do have a written language. Humans feel revulsion at the Ashiyyur’s appearance, and also with the sense that their minds are being read. Since humans cannot detect the Ashiyyur’s telepathic communication, the Ashiyyur use speech-generation devices to talk to humans. There was a war between the humans and the Ashiyyur 200 years ago. Currently there are minor hostilities and border skirmishes. Over the series, Alex and Chase become friendly with some of the Ashiyyur.

Some additional features of this series:

  • virtual reality technology. This enables a person to experience simulations of past events – either recordings of actual events, or artificially constructed ones. It also enables someone to visit a real location remotely, and interact with people at that location. Alex and Chase often visit company offices and people’s homes using this technology, rather than going there physically.
  • AI’s – artificial intelligences – sophisticated automated systems with personalities. AI’s run homes and businesses, and vehicles, including spacecraft. Many of the AI’s in businesses also include the projection of a holographic human form.
  • avatars. The above technologies can be used to generate a simulation of a real person, using recordings taking during their life. This means Alex can interview a copy of a person after the real person has died. This technology can also be used to simulate historical people, by gathering all that is known about them, and making assumptions about the rest.

Books in the series:

A Talent for War (1989)
Alex receives word that his uncle Gabe had been on the spaceship Capella, which failed to return to normal space from a hyperspace journey. Since Gabe has been declared dead, Alex is the beneficiary of Gabe’s will. Alex returns from the world Rambuckle, on which he had been based, to Rimway, his original homeworld, and the house he had previously lived in with his uncle. This house becomes his office as well as his home.

Alex and his uncle Gabe had been somewhat at odds. Gabe had been an archaeologist who believed in handing over his finds to museums. Alex’s interests are also in archaeological finds, but instead has made a business of it, selling his artifacts to collectors. (Over the series, Alex often experiences similar antagonism towards him as an antiquities dealer, sometimes becoming quite hostile.)

His uncle had left him information about a venture he had been working on. It had something to do with Christopher Sim, a war hero from 200 years before. (His ship had been the Corsarius.) And it also involved more recent events relating to the spaceship Tenandrome. However, before Alex had arrived at his uncle’s house, the house had been burgled, the necessary file stolen, and the house AI, Jacob, had his memory wiped.

Alex meets Chase Kolpath, who had worked for his uncle as assistant and pilot, and they arrange that she will continue to work for him in a similar capacity. The two of them investigate the information Gabe had left.

Christopher Sim had been a spaceship captain at the time of the Resistance – the war against the alien Ashiyyur, 200 years previously. It was his leadership which resulted in the war being won, and the Confederacy formed. However Alex and Chase discover inconsistencies in the historic record.

In more recent times, the Tenandrome had returned from a trip into the nebula called the Veiled Lady, but seemed to be hiding something.

There are more attempts to discourage them: another burglary, a war spaceship simulation goes wrong while Alex is experiencing it by virtual reality, and a bomb is planted on a skimmer which almost costs Chase her life.

Finally they find the answer in a cryptic 200-year-old poem, which leads them to a location in the Veiled Lady. And they discover that the accepted historical facts are wrong, and they find a significant forgotten technology.

Polaris (2004)
[Chase, as narrator, mentions a few times that 12 years have lapsed since the events of “A Talent for War”. However, the author seems to have forgotten this when he wrote later books, and assumed only a lapse of 1 year. “The Devil’s Eye” is supposed to be 4 years after “A Talent for War”. “Coming Home” is supposed to be 11 years after the disappearance of the Capella, which occurs at the beginning of “A Talent for War”.]

60 years ago, the spaceship Polaris had been found deserted, with no clues to what had happened to the captain and the six passengers. The passengers had all been VIPs in the scientific world.

The Department of Planetary Survey and Astronomical Research (commonly called “Survey”) is putting on an exhibition and sale of the Polaris artifacts, and Alex and Chase (in exchange for certain favours) are invited to a reception where they are given first pick. They purchase several items, most of which they will sell on to their clients. However, a bomb goes off in the building, destroying all the remaining artifacts. Fortunately the reception attendees all survive, although some have injuries.

Shortly afterwards there is a burglary at Alex’s house. (This is the first since the events of “A Talent for War”, 12 years before.) And some of his clients have had someone querying them about their Polaris artifacts. It soon becomes clear that someone is searching through the artifacts to retrieve something they don’t want anyone else to find.

As Alex and Chase follow a suspect in their skimmer, they are shot at, and their skimmer ends up in the sea. Then later, the antigravity pods on their new skimmer is sabotaged, and they find themselves ascending up into the sky. Chase has to go outside the craft to fix it while it is in midair.

Alex and Chase spend a lot of time investigating the events of the disappearance of the occupants of the Polaris, and those people’s backgrounds.

On a trip offplanet, with Chase piloting Rainbow Enterprise’s company spaceship Belle-Marie, they discover the ship’s AI has been reprogrammed to fly into a pulsar – a collapsed star with intense radiation and magnetism. There are some tense moments, until Chase uses an ingenious method to avoid falling into the star.

Finally clues lead them to a remote spacestation, where they have a confrontation with their attacker. And they find out the secret – however this time there is not much they can do to make it known.

Seeker (2005)
A woman brings a cup to Rainbow Enterprise to have it valued. It has the emblem and name of the spaceship Seeker. This was a ship which transported colonists from Earth in the 2600’s AD, nine thousand years in the past. The emigrants, who were fleeing from Earth’s oppressive regime, were called Margolians, but the location of the planet they were travelling to (referred to as Margolia) was secret. And no trace had been found of it in the thousands of years since.

Thinking there might be more such artifacts, Alex and Chase investigate, and discover that the cup had belonged to a married couple, Adam and Margaret Wescott, who had worked for Survey as researcher and spaceship pilot, but had later been killed in an avalanche at a ski resort. This was 31 years previously. Apparently they had found something of value during their mission, but had not declared it to their employers. Had they in fact found the Seeker? And if so, would this provide clues to the location of the lost colony, Margolia?

Alex and Chase try to follow up various leads – people who had known the Wescotts, and records held at Survey, but without much result. Then they discover that the Wescotts’ old Survey ship had been handed over to the Ashiyyur, for their Museum of Alien Life Forms. Maybe the ship’s log has some additional clues. Chase has to travel into Mute space to find it.

As frequently happens in this series, someone tries to kill them during their investigations. While in space, an unmanned craft tries to ram their ship, and later, a shuttle which they were supposed to be on blows up.

But Alex and Chase survive, and as usual make some impressive discoveries.

The Devil’s Eye (2008)
Alex and Chase had been visiting the ruins of Atlantis on Earth. (Yes, the lost city was found under the Atlantic Ocean toward the end of the third millenium AD.) They are about to return home when they receive a recorded message from Rimway, from Vicki Greene, a famous horror novelist. Vicki asks for Alex’s help, but without specifying what the problem is, and ending with the cryptic but scary statement, “God help me, they’re all dead.”

When they arrive back in Rimway, they enquire about Vicki, and learn that she had voluntarily undergone a mindwipe. This procedure is usually used on criminals. It erases their memories, and enables them to start new lives. So it would be no use talking to Vicki, as she would not remember what the problem was. However, her psychiatrist tells Alex that before the mindwipe she had been given a lineal block by some unknown person – this process involves mental conditioning which prevents the subject from talking about or acting on something.

Alex and Chase discover that Vicki had visited the planet Salud Afar. Her mood had changed from lively to depressed after visiting the planet. So they decide they must also go to Salud Afar, and retrace Vicki’s footsteps.

Salud Afar is beyond the rim of the galaxy. In the night sky, besides the haze of the galaxy, there is only one star – Callistra. Some people refer to it as the Devil’s Eye.

Salud Afar also has lots of locations with strange stories – ghosts, werewolves, cyborgs, scientific labs doing strange experiments. Vicki had done the rounds of these, enjoying the stories, and probably picking up ideas for her next novel. So Alex and Chase visit the same locations.

On one of their trips on the planet, they hire a skimmer. But the skimmer goes out of control, and they fall into the sea. Someone doesn’t want them to discover what Vicki had found out. (Sabotage of skimmers seems to be a favourite technique of the bad guys in this series.)

Then they learn of something which had occurred 33 years before. A religious group was dedicating a monument on an asteroid some distance out from the planet, when suddenly their broadcast stopped. When the authorities investigated, the group had disappeared. Alex and Chase feel sure Vicki would have visited the asteroid. And she must have discovered some pending catastrophe.

But then they find themselves pursued by the planetary security service. It must have been they who had silenced Vicki, and who are now trying to do the same with Alex and Chase. They have to elude Security and get to the asteroid.

Echo (2010)
Alex and Chase see an ad for a stone tablet (somewhat like a gravestone), which the owner, Madeleine Greengrass, wants to dispose of. The tablet had been a lawn ornament in her home when she had bought it. It has unfamiliar markings on it, so might be of historical interest. Chase arranges to collect it.

However when she goes to pick it up, she discovers that someone else has collected it first.

Alex and Chase learn that Ms Greengrass’s house was previously owned by Somerset (“Sunset”) Tuttle, who had died 35 years before. Tuttle was famous because he had spent his life travelling the stars looking for alien civilisations – but without ever finding one. Had he in fact found an alien civilisation, and is that where the tablet came from? But then why hadn’t he told anyone?

They learn that the tablet was to have been delivered to a woman called Rachel Bannister. She turns out to have been Somerset Tuttle’s girlfriend. But when they ask her about the tablet’s origin, she refuses to tell them. And apparently she has destroyed the tablet.

Alex and Chase do research into Tuttle’s and Rachel’s lives in the years prior to Tuttle’s death. Rachel had been a pilot employed by World’s End, a company that organised space tours for the wealthy, which took its passengers to see spectacular-looking stars and planets, as well as having lots of parties on board. But something had upset Rachel about that time, and she had resigned from the company.

They talk to people who had known Tuttle and Rachel, but don’t make much progress. The people either don’t know anything, or are not talking about it. World’s End does not keep records of trips that long ago, and the routes are constantly changing.

And Rachel is becoming distressed that they are still investigating. Chase wonders whether they should give up.

There are the usual attempts on their lives. A model pagoda which is delivered to the house sucks the air out of the ground floor, and Chase ends up in hospital. And a viaduct collapses when they are crossing from an island restaurant to the mainland, and Alex nearly goes over the falls. And there are more attacks to come.

Then they hit on an ingenious way to find out about Rachel’s last trip. They hold a competition, where travellers send in their holographic recordings of space holiday tours they have taken. They hope that they will get one for the relevant trip, and that their friend, Shara Michaels, from Survey, can analyse the starfields in the background. And what might they discover?

Firebird (2011)
Rainbow Enterprises is approached by Karen Howard, the sister-in-law of Professor Christopher Robin, as she has inherited his papers and possessions when her sister (Professor Robin’s widow) died. She wishes to engage them to sell these possessions.

Chris Robin is famous because he had been an eccentric physicist, and he had disappeared mysteriously 41 years before. His fields of interest were on the fringes of science, and had included alternative universes, and the possibility of travelling to them, black holes, spaceships which had disappeared and never reached their destinations, and other unidentified spaceships which had appeared and disappeared mysteriously, without answering the attempted communications from space stations.

He had been brought back by skimmer to his home on Virginia Island by his friend and pilot Eliot Cermak, following a trip into space. However Robin seems to have disappeared before entering the house. Maybe he was drunk and fell into the sea. But then what happened to his luggage and his notebook? (Or could he have travelled to alternative universe?) When Cermak returned home, there had been an earthquake, and Cermak disappeared in the process of rescuing people.

Alex and Chase decide to investigate Robin’s disappearance, and his activities leading up to it. They discover that he would take various trips into space, apparently as scientific research. He had purchased four second-hand yachts (small spacecraft) as part of his experiments, and had apparently abandoned them in space. The last of these was called the Firebird.

Alex and Chase find evidence that Robin had been to the planet Villanueva. This planet had been populated centuries before, and then had entered a dust cloud, and everyone who was unable to leave the planet had died. However their AI’s had survived, and become hostile, and attacked and killed any people who landed. Alex and Chase manage to make several landings, and to find evidence of Robin’s activities, but barely manage to escape from the AI’s on one occasion.

They conclude that Robin had been investigating spaceships which had disappeared. This is of special interest to them, since Alex’s uncle Gabe, (who had also been Chase’s previous employer, of whom she had been quite fond,) had been on such a ship. Could Robin have discovered the reason for the disappearances?

Coming Home (2014)
A woman called Marissa Earl contacts Rainbow Enterprises. Her grandfather, Garnett Baylee, had died some years before, but the family have recently found an electronic device in the house. This object is a Corbett transmitter, the earliest version of a device for sending messages through hyperspace, made in 2711, in Canada.

Garnett Baylee had been a famous archaeologist. His main interest had been in the Golden Age, the early centuries of space travel, prior to the coming of the Dark Age, in the Fourth Millenium. He would have known the Corbett transmitter was valuable, so why did he leave it just lying on the shelf?

Alex thinks Baylee might have found the lost Apollo Artifacts – the space travel relics of the Golden Age, that had gone missing during the Dark Age. But if so, why didn’t he tell everyone?

Alex and Chase travel to Earth, to investigate. They travel around to the various locations the artifacts were thought to have been, and interview people who had known Baylee.

One of the locations they visit is the Florida Space Museum, which is now underwater due to the sea level rising because of climate change. They have to charter a boat, and Alex dives down to look at the sunken museum. But then a skimmer fires on the boat. Is someone trying to discourage their investigation?

The other main plot in the story is about the Capella.

At the end of “Firebird”, the secret of the missing spaceships was discovered. Where space had been damaged, by an object with huge gravity, it was possible for ships with the old Anderson drive to disappear into hyperspace, reappearing periodically, but then disappearing again. The people on board would not be aware of much time passing.

The Capella had disappeared 11 years before. Alex’s uncle Gabe had been on board (as stated in the beginning of “A Talent for War”).

The scientists have worked out that it will soon reappear. But with 2600 people on board, it will only be possible to get about 100 people off before it disappears again, for another 5 years.

The best strategy seems to be for many ships to gather in the general vicinity of the expected reappearance (which cannot be predicted exactly), and then the nearest ships will take as many people off the Capella as they can. Also, some of the bigger ships will load inflatable lifeboats onto the Capella, so in 5 years time the remaining occupants will be able to escape into space, and then be picked up.

JoAnn Suttner, who is in charge of the project, also has a proposal for stopping the ship’s engine, which hopefully might bring it out of hyperspace permanently. But this is an untried, risky process.

The discussion rages in the media, with some people wanting their family and friends back as soon as possible, and others arguing for the safer option.

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