TT: Jack McDevitt: Guide to Cosmic Wonder

ALAN: Recently I came across Cryptic, a collection of short stories by Jack McDevitt. It was a bit of a surprise – I think of him more as a novelist rather than as a short story writer, and I’m not sure I’ve even seen any of his short stories before. He’s a friend of yours, isn’t he?

A sampling of McDevitt's Wonders

A sampling of McDevitt’s Wonders

JANE: I’d like to think so.  We met Jack when he was GOH at Bubonicon back in, I think, 1999.  He had such a good time, he came back a year or so later.  Then we spent time together when I was GOH at Oasis in Florida back in 2005.  I think those may be the only time we’ve met in person, but we stay in touch.

But then, as you and I know, physical proximity is no longer a requirement for friendship!

ALAN: Oh, indeed. In my opinion, physical proximity is over-rated. You have to take far too many showers.

JANE: Ick!

As you may remember, I interviewed Jack for my Wednesday Wandering back in December of 2014.   I think a lot of his enthusiasm for what he does, as well as his sense of humor, comes nicely across there.

What did you think of his short stories?

ALAN: Reading the stories as a whole, one after the other, I felt quite strongly that McDevitt shares with Arthur C. Clarke an almost mystical appreciation of the awe and wonder of the universe. Even in the slightest pieces (and some of them are very slight), there is always the feeling that lying just out of sight behind the words is something numinous, something wonderful. At times the feeling is elegiac. To me, this is the true purpose of science fiction, this is the whole of the law. The stories reinforced my conviction that Jack McDevitt is a writer who deserves to be better known that I suspect he is.

JANE: Well, certainly I’d like Jack’s books to be on every SF reader’s shelf, but although he is not a household name, his works have frequently been nominated for various awards, including the Nebula and Hugo.  He’s won some major awards, too.

Seeker won the Nebula Award.  Omega won the Campbell Award (not the award for best new writer; the one for best SF novel in a given year).  He was also the 2015 winner of the Robert A. Heinlein Award.  This last is given to science fiction and technical writings which inspire the human exploration of space.

ALAN: I think the awards prove that his talents are well recognised by his peers, but his name seldom if ever comes up in conversation among SF fans and his books don’t seem to sell particularly well. I think that’s a pity. After I finished the short story collection, I went and re-read The Hercules Text. It was his first novel and I remember buying it simply because it was the book that Terry Carr chose to open his new “Ace Science Fiction Specials” series. I’d never heard of McDevitt at the time, but Terry Carr’s recommendation was enough for me.

JANE: I can’t speak to Jack’s sales, but I agree that his stories are worth re-reading.  Did you find this was the case with The Hercules Text?

 ALAN: Oh indeed, it’s a wonderful book. The basic premise is that the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence has succeeded and we have a message from the stars. We will never be able to communicate with the aliens – the message has come from more than a million light years away and presumably the senders of it are long since dead. But we have proof positive now that we are not alone.

The novel goes on to explore the implications of that knowledge, partly by means of the scientific advances that are made possible by our understanding of the content of the message, but mostly by examining the psychological impact of the knowledge on the protagonists. It’s a deeply thoughtful novel, very concerned with trying to define our place in the universe. I loved it.

JANE: I haven’t read The Hercules Text and now I see I need to find a copy.  I can’t precisely recall which of Jack’s novels I read first.  I do know it was in anticipation of his appearing at Bubonicon.  Whenever possible, I try to read at least one work by a Guest of Honor.  It makes doing panels with them so much more interesting.

Anyhow, I think it was Eternity Road, which at that point was a stand-alone.  It’s atypical McDevitt in some sense in that it’s post-apocalyptic, rather than set in a future of our world that has managed to happen without major disaster.  However, it shares McDevitt’s recurring interest in searching for knowledge, and the belief that the search will also help the seekers learn about themselves.

ALAN: I tend to prefer stand-alone novels rather than series novels, and I think my favourite novel of Jack’s is Ancient Shores in which a farmer and his son discover a boat buried on their North Dakota farm. It seems that this boat may have been used to sail on a pre-historic lake that existed in the area more than 10,000 years ago…

JANE: I like Ancient Shores, too!

These days, most of Jack’s novels feature either Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchinson or the team of Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath.  Do you have a preference for one or the other?

ALAN: I actually like both of those series, which sort of contradicts what I just said about preferring stand-alone novels over books that are part of a series. However, in my defense, the first books of each series (Engines of God and A Talent for War respectively) did once exist as stand-alone novels, and that’s when I read them. It’s just that Jack found more things to say about the characters and the themes and so, like Topsy, the stories just grew.

On balance, I think I prefer the  Priscilla Hutchinson books because they concern a universe that once teemed with intelligent life. However by the time humans arrive on the scene the aliens are long gone. All that remain are their abandoned artefacts.

The exploration of that theme somehow just gives me the spine-shivers. The awe, the wonder and the mystery are brilliantly evoked. And there’s a sense of great loss underlying the whole thing. Wonderful stuff!

JANE:  And yet they’re solidly grounded, too.  Jack gives glimpses of an entire future history through small news items included in each chapter.

Like you, I enjoy the “Hutch” books but, if I had to pick, I’d slightly favor the Alex Benedict books.  They include a mystery element that appeals to me, usually centered around something that Alex has come across in his work as a dealer in antiquities.

Often the search is not simply for an item, but for the truth behind a historical event or person.  I’m a sucker for these.  Jack has said that he’s not interested in stories motivated by fighting a villain, he’s interested in problems – and sometimes these problems are very big indeed.

ALAN; I agree with Jack. Villain fighting doesn’t do much for me. All too often the authentic sense of wonder vanishes into the dull minutiae of combat.

JANE: Since you mentioned A Talent for War, let me go into it with a little more detail.  In this novel, Alex’s uncle is lost when the spaceship he’s travelling on simply vanishes.  Alex inherits not only a fortune, but a mystery.  His uncle (an avocational archeologist) had been researching Christopher Sim, a war hero from 200 years before.

When his uncle’s house is broken into and his files searched, Alex realizes that someone does not want the research to continue.  What can be important about a 200 year old secret?


ALAN: Yum, indeed!

JANE: I grabbed another Alex Benedict at random off my shelf, because I wanted to show how these quests don’t become boring.

In The Devil’s Eye, Alex receives a message from a celebrated writer, Vicki Greene, asking for help.  When they follow up, they discover that Greene’s memory has been wiped – at her request.  She doesn’t even remember why she’d contacted Alex.

But before her memory wipe, she arranged for Alex to be sent a large sum of money.  Alex doesn’t need it, but the challenge is too much for him to pass up.

Sheesh!  I have a reading list a mile long and now I’m going to have to re-read at least A Talent for War.  See what you get me into?

ALAN: Guilty as charged. But don’t expect me to be repentant…

JANE: Don’t!  I started re-reading this weekend and have been very much enjoying.

 But going back to what you said earlier, whether he’s writing a series novel or a stand-alone, Jack’s characters always are awake to the marvels around them.  Although his novels are very solidly grounded in believable events, to me, they are a great illustration of what “sense of wonder” is all about.

ALAN: We’ve both just used that same “sense of wonder” phrase. I wonder if we can come to grips with exactly what we mean when we say it? Next time, maybe?

JANE: Absolutely!  “Wonder” what we’ll come up with?


2 Responses to “TT: Jack McDevitt: Guide to Cosmic Wonder”

  1. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I’m sold. I’ve just ordered one of the books you two discussed.

  2. DrWeb Says:

    Reblogged this on DrWeb's Domain.

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