|An Interview with Jack McDevitt, Part 1|
|conducted by Patrick Smith|
Jack McDevitt presumed his writing career had been scrubbed on the launch pad when, as a high-school freshman in South Philadelphia, he sent a manuscript to Anthony Boucher at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Although Boucher was gracious in his reply -- anyone who's suffered the ignominy of the form rejection letter can appreciate what a compliment the veteran editor paid to the aspiring writer with his handwritten encouragement -- the sting of rejection didn't sit well with the 14-year-old McDevitt. After dabbling with short fiction and journalism in college, he didn't write another word for a quarter century.
Still, with more than 25 nominations for the science-fiction profession's top honors, including a Philip K. Dick Special Award for The Hercules Text in 1986, a Campbell Award for Omega in 2005, and a Nebula win for Seeker in 2006, his reputation in the field is as a pro's pro. Since that first success, McDevitt has published more than 20 books -- six installments in both the Alex Benedict and Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins series (a seventh, Starhawk, is due out in November, as well as another Benedict novel in 2014), seven stand-alones (including The Hercules Text, Eternity Road, and Time Travelers Never Die), and more than 75 short stories, 38 of which are collected in the luminous Cryptic: The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt (2009). In 2012, he published his first collaborative novel, The Cassandra Project, with SF veteran Mike Resnick.
McDevitt's humanistic writing reflects the wonders of a world first discovered in the theaters and bookstores of South Philadelphia during the frenetic 40s and 50s, the sensibilities of a kid obsessed with science-fiction, weaned on Robert A. Heinlein, the Saturday serials, Thrilling Wonder and Startling Stories, and Superman. His novels and short stories are direct links to science fiction's Golden Age and the work of Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke (Stephen King has called McDevitt "the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke").
"The universe we live in is such a wild place," McDevitt says, explaining his lifelong affliction with science fiction. "It's one of those things that, once you're hooked, you never recover from."
Here, McDevitt discusses his childhood in Philadelphia, the work of H.L. Mencken, Jean Shepherd, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edward Gibbon, the state of education, his passion for baseball, the lure of archaeology and history, and the difficulty of predicting the future, among many other topics. This interview took place in Brunswick, Georgia, on June 28, 2013.
When I was about twelve years old, Mencken was near the end of his life. The first time I heard of him was in a Life magazine story that quoted some of his lines. I thought, this guy is really funny. I told my folks how much I liked him, and they got me his Chrestomathy. They never would have done that if they'd had any idea what he wrote -- the world is full of idiots, they're all morons. Everybody but me.
I loved his work. My life changed when I started reading him, and I've never really gotten past it. My son gave me the two-volume set recently, and I'm back to reading him. It's been a charge. I've used him as a character in the Priscilla Hutchins novels -- not Mencken, but there's a Mencken character running loose.
There are two people I really wish I'd met in my lifetime. Mencken is one of them. The other is Jean Shepherd. Shepherd was a genius, one of a kind, a radio broadcaster in the 40s and 50s. He had a late night show, and he would get on the air and talk about what it was like growing up and how he wished he had X-ray eyes so he could see through girls' clothes. That sort of thing. But what a storyteller. Shepherd wrote The Christmas Story, which was made into the famous movie in the early 80s.
You mentioned in a lecture at Bainbridge State College a while back that you weren't sanguine about first contact anymore. But you've spent 33 years writing about first contact. How do you reconcile the two? There's a telling passage in The Engines of God, the notion that the universe is vast and we'd like to think there's something out there, but these two or three civilizations -- the little contact that we've made so far, according to your Hutchins and Benedict series -- might be all we'll ever know.
The reality is, of course, we don't have even that. First contact seems as far-fetched now as it ever did, despite the number of habitable worlds we've discovered growing geometrically the last few years.
I was invited to a conference a few years ago, a combination of SETI and NASA, with the theme "Why haven't we heard anything?" People from all disciplines talked at a very high level about why we're surrounded by this vast silence. The title of my remarks was "Invent the Printing Press and Look Out." That is, once you start developing technology, it might be that civilizations only have a 700 or 800-year run before they blow themselves up or wipe themselves out in some way. My suspicion there might be some reality to that idea has grown stronger over the past few years.
I grew up with the notion --- and I think most people do -- that progress is the natural order of things and will continue until we have all the stuff that science-fiction writers can imagine. At least all the stuff that's possible, which probably doesn't include faster-than-light (FTL) travel, but that's another issue. And that the progress is always a good thing. But I don't believe that anymore. For somebody who sat in front of a television set when I was 15 years old and watched the United States detonate atomic bombs, I should have recognized from the start the dark side of progress. You have bright people who develop the technology and the idiots, the politicians, who use it. And the rest of us just sit there and watch until it blows us up. We certainly make it a lot easier for terrorists. As long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, somebody's going to use them at some point, and it's going to ignite a general conflagration. We can't get rid of the nuclear weapons. How stupid is that? It's to everybody's benefit to get atomic bombs out of the world, and we can't do it. I'm not confident then, that we'll ever find a civilization that has managed to get out of its own way.
"Not going to happen," my dad said. "Rockets have to have something to push against. Rockets won't work in outer space." But he lived to see it. Remarkable. He was born before the Wright Brothers' flight in Kitty Hawk. In one lifetime, he witnessed mankind land on the moon. That's how fast we're moving.
I was vaguely annoyed with Flash Gordon, because he had this great rocket ship -- which, by the way, had no airlock and no washroom; I don't know how you go to Mars with no washroom -- but anyhow, he had this great rocket ship with a whole galaxy to explore, and all he did was get involved in fights. I thought, Boy, I'd love to have one of these rocket ships where I could travel and look around. Why don't you go somewhere and look at stuff, instead of fighting with this guy who looks like one of my uncles?
That started me with science fiction. It's one of those things that, once you're hooked, you never recover from. I discovered Heinlein a few years later, the pulp magazines of the late 1940s -- Thrilling Wonder, Startling Stories. At twelve years old, I brought home these magazines with gorgeous, half-naked babes on the covers. My folks were very religious. I know my mother did not approve of such magazines, but I think she realized it was important for me to be reading. So she looked the other way and pretended to be occupied when I came in the house with them.
My mother was a reader, but a number of times when I started writing, she'd ask me why I wasn't writing westerns or history novels, something significant. I thought I was doing something significant. But the world doesn't agree with that.
After I got started with science fiction in the theaters, I picked up a copy of Robert A. Heinlein's Future History, one of the first paperbacks I remember having seen, 1947 or 1948. I sat in the dentist's office one day, scared to death -- trips to the dentist then really hurt -- and I got completely lost in a story where the guys are trapped in a rocket that's leaking air. I don't remember all the details of the story anymore, but that and "The Green Hills of Earth" . . . I never forgot those stories. I was hooked forever.
Periodically, I get invitations to talk to non-science fiction audiences -- veterans or library groups. One time I went over to Jekyll Island to speak to a group, and a young woman approached me. I told her who I was, and she leaned into the next office and said, "Harry, the Buck Rogers guy is here." So you deal with that. Whenever I go to a non-science fiction group, I always get the same questions. Do you believe in UFOs? Where do you get those crazy ideas? That kind of stuff.
A lot of times, when it's a non-science-fiction group, somebody comes up afterward and starts a conversation that goes something like, "I don't read the stuff myself, but my nephew does . . ." The implication, of course, is that the nephew does other crazy things as well, that he's really kind of a strange kid. I'll just sit there and not give the response I'd like to give, which is, "You know, you've really missed the boat. It's a shame you're too old to understand. You're not going to make it anymore." But I can't imagine my life without science fiction any more than I can imagine it without music, baseball, or chess. Those things are all essential aspects of being alive for me.
The universe we live in is such a wild place, and most people miss that. Now, we're pretty sure that our universe is just one bubble in a whole bubble of universes. Most of us react as if we're the center of the universe -- South Philadelphia or Brunswick, Georgia, or wherever we happen to be -- so I'm surprised sometimes with teachers who miss an opportunity to encourage kids to feel the sorts of wonder that science fiction can impart.
When I'm at a seminar or a conference, I'll suggest, "Say you have a child and the physician tells you that, by manipulating genes, you can have a child with an IQ twice what he might have otherwise. Would you agree to do it?" The vast majority of people you pose that question to will answer in the negative, for all kinds of reasons. Maybe those reasons are valid. But I'm not sure I want to deny high intelligence to a child if that's a possibility.
In a quiet moment, you think about those years, about playing those games. And you'd give anything to go back for one day to play again with those same guys. Some of them aren't even alive anymore. Just one more afternoon with those guys . . .
Our team was a lot of fun. Until a big argument broke out -- I don't remember what it was about, of course -- and the team broke up over it. A few of the guys got angry at the captain of the team. We picked up a few people to replace them, but it was never the same after that.
I used to tell my students when I taught high school, "You're having a hard time right now, with me up here babbling about English, but the day's going to come when you'd give anything to get back to this day, this very moment, to be here again with your friends."
In A Talent for War, you use the character of Christopher Sim to explore the vagaries of politics and warfare. The history that comes down to subsequent generations after the war in that book is eventually revealed for what it really is -- a myth -- further enriching (while at the same time undermining) the history that comes down to the story's present. I feel that way about baseball. The narrative is what's important. Even football, which has surpassed baseball in popularity on television, doesn't have nearly the same history.
It's left me with a lot of issues to wrestle with. What does Earth look like in 8,000 years? I decided that the civilization Alex lives in is pretty decent. I'm not going to do what almost every other writer does when he or she looks at the future of Earth and sees only a dystopia. Life's good. Earth has been through a Dark Age and some things have happened, but everyone lives well. You can either relax and live a leisurely life without working or work at whatever suits you.
But some issues are difficult to deal with. For example, what do they do for sports? Does baseball survive? I can't imagine baseball going away (although it might be ruined with all the money they pay these guys), dying off in the streets. I try to figure out what life would really look like in 8,000 years.
Starhawk is a prequel, Priscilla Hutchins at the very beginning of her career. She does something emotionally wrenching, makes decisions more difficult than anything in any of the other books. In a lot of ways, it's a tough book for Hutch. At one point, she's even on the wrong side of the fight.
That's not fair, of course, not a productive way to consider the issue, because of course it would be interesting to know where it's possible for life to develop. Where life can develop, is it likely to show up? The assumption we make is that life appeared on Earth almost as soon as it was possible for it to appear, suggesting that when conditions are right, it happens. But it could have been just a coincidence. We don't know.
Why, in the wide universe, don't we hear anything? You could argue -- and I'm not enough of a physicist to be able to deal with this stuff, and I get different opinions from very smart people all the time -- that any life intelligent enough to communicate with us would have to be fairly close by. Broadcast signals dissipate. So maybe they wouldn't hear anything, unless they were in the path of a directed signal of some sort.
Patrick A. Smith is professor of English at Bainbridge State College (GA) and an associate editor at Bookmarks Magazine. His books include "The true bones of my life": Essays on the Fiction of Jim Harrison, Tim O'Brien: A Critical Companion, and the edited collection Conversations with Tim O'Brien, as well as interviews, articles, reviews, and stories in magazines and journals. Conversations with William Gibson will be published in 2014.
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