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WesternSFA
Firebird
by Jack McDevitt
Ace Books; $24.95; 375pp
Release Date November 1, 2011

Jack McDevitt, by far, is for me the most satisfying read in science fiction currently. His novels always deal with fundamental issues of morality. In his science fictional universe, there’s more than the ease of FTL travel and the strangeness of aliens and the beauty of the universe. His characters always have fundamental moral issues to grapple with and he makes it wonderfully entertaining because he uses Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath as his avatars. Alex and Chase, who have been the core of five previous novels, are antiquities dealers. They specialize in finding the strange and unusual detritus of centuries, even millennia past. If the item exists: they have a good idea on where to go to find it---even if it’s at the edge of our galaxy.

The issue this novel grapples with is: what is sentience? Can an artificial intelligence have a soul? Of course, other authors have taken on this subject (I can think of Tanith Lee’s “The Silver Metal Lover” as an example). McDevitt wraps his premise up with such compelling emotional thrust.

An ideal world, thousands of years ago from the current date, had been on a collision course with a dust cloud which would destroy the world’s environment. Everyone who settled on the planet knew this would happen---but it was hundreds of years in the future. So they ignored it. Because Villanueva was a paradise.

Needless to say, when the dust cloud began to get too close everyone panicked and tried to go off world---and of course they didn’t all make it.

The people left behind died. And the world went silent.

Except for all the AIs (Artificial Intelligences). The machines that ran schools, directed traffic, built buildings, ran stores, etc. As one character said, “No one turned out the lights” when the last person left/died on Villanueva. So all the AIs were left to fend for themselves—and because the power grid was virtually indestructible—the machines did not stop not even after thousands of years.

But a lot of them went nuts---and so after a few very nasty run-ins with curious people visiting the remains of Villanueva—the planet was declared off limits.

And the AIs were left to stew in their impotence, to go haywire or - even more tragically - to fight to remain sane in a world with no fresh input. No humans and very little contact with the worlds beyond.

Until Chase and Alex get involved and arrive on Villanueva while in the process of solving a mystery. They actually rescue an AI named Charlie who had been an assistant at an elementary school.

His return to the Confederacy (The current galactic-wide planetary organization) kicks up the dust: Does Charlie exist as a machine given to simply responding to stimuli or is he free-thinking and capable of having a soul? Are humans just anthropomorphizing a machine as they do with their cars, etc?

As this debate wrangles on, Alex and Chase continue to seek the answers to their mystery: What happened to infamous physicist Christopher Robin? Did he simply disappear one night when left off in front of his home, or did he really disappear---into some kind of trans-dimensional warp? Christopher Robin’s field of study was considered mostly beyond the pale by other physicists—but Alex and Chase bring to light that Robin was dealing with black holes, time displacement and specifically spaceships that disappeared on what should have been a simple journey from here to there. And even more interesting: reappear out of nowhere and disappear after a few hours unable to communicate. These mysterious ghost ships have been seen all over the Confederacy—and mostly are believed to be aliens. (In McDevitt’s Confederacy, aliens are a very rara avis: the humans have only met up with one race in thousands of years of space travel: The Mutes.)

Robin had come up with a way to track the path of ships that disappeared (usually mixed up by crossing the trajectory of a black hole) and calculating when they might reappear again—so these perpetual time travelers could be rescued from their endless travel through time.

But timing is everything and trying to pinpoint exactly where in space the missing ship will appear is difficult and compounded by the fact it may remain visible for only a few hours. And if there are forty or more people on this ship—a rescue because next to impossible unless 20 or more ships are available.

At the end of this wild ride: AIs are becoming less and less machines and are being accorded more and more rights as individuals. Arguments continue on whether they have souls.  As for the time travelling ships—the rescuing of these lost travelers becomes feasible---and the ending is very emotional. ~~ Sue Martin

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