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An Interview with Jack McDevitt, Part 1
conducted by Patrick Smith

© Jack McDevitt
Jack McDevitt
Jack McDevitt
Jack McDevitt won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel, The Hercules Text, and the first UPC prize for his novella, "Ships in the Night." He has been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo. McDevitt has been a taxi driver, a naval officer, an English teacher, a customs officer, and a motivational trainer. Currently, he lives with his family in Brunswick, GA.

Jack McDevitt Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Echo
SF Site Review: Outbound
SF Site Review: Polaris
SF Site Review: Chindi
SF Site Review: Moonfall
SF Site Review: Deepsix
SF Site Reading List: Jack McDevitt
SF Site Review: Infinity Beach
SF Site Review: Infinity Beach
SF Site Review: Moonfall
SF Site Review: Eternity Road

Infinity Beach
The Hercules Text
A Talent for War
The Engines of God
Eternity Road
Hello Out There
  Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor its final destination.
—Jack McDevitt, from his Nebula Award-winning novel Seeker (2005)

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.

When prodded to take up writing again by his wife, Maureen, during a mid-career reassessment as a customs inspector, McDevitt, who had completed a stint in the Navy and spent a decade as a high-school English teacher, published his first story, "The Emerson Effect," in the December 1981 issue of Twilight Zone. The author good-naturedly shrugs off comparisons to fellow customs inspectors Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne ("When I published my first novel, it was covered in the Customs newspaper, which mentioned three Customs officers who were -- their phrase -- 'well-known novelists,'" McDevitt recalls with a laugh. "Melville, Hawthorne, and me.").

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.

(Pointing to the coffee table and a volume from the Library of America series) My favorite nonfiction writer, H. L. Mencken.

Mencken was required reading in an undergraduate history of humor course I took. I was impressed at the number of writers he associated with, the biggest names in American modernism. What a period to have been alive, intellectually. I'm not sure he's still widely read.
You must not have gone to a Catholic college! He never got mentioned at LaSalle (the university in Philadelphia where McDevitt received his bachelor's degree in English).

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.

On the rare occasions that I come across Mencken, usually when somebody quotes him in a news story or a blog post, he reminds me of how vacuous cable's shouting heads are. You can't get away from them. Except with Mencken, there was always substance underneath that sharp edge, something said that needed to be said. When I'm unfortunate enough to witness one of those made-for-cable spats, I wonder do we not have anything else to say? The level of discourse has suffered so that networks can sell more advertising.
Agreed. I just finished writing a sequence for my Alex Benedict novel for 2014, where there's commentary about the characters on their version of the television, 8,000 years in the future.

Alan Ball, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for American Beauty, got his start writing for Brett Butler on the sitcom Grace Under Fire in the mid-90s. He told me that what struck him about working for television -- we were talking about the process of writing a 30-minute sitcom script -- was that it was eight minutes of commercials interspersed with 22 minutes of content. The content wasn't the focus, except to engage viewers long enough to stay in their seats for those eight minutes of commercials. That idea appealed to me because it was especially cynical.

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.

We're getting all this information about terrestrial worlds in the Goldilocks Zone, so it seems as if there should be plenty of life out there. Tom Easton has an anthology coming out called Impossible Futures, a collection of stories set in a future that never happened, and he invited me to do a story for it. I wrote on first contact, when SETI sets up shop and starts patiently listening for signs of life. We're surrounded by civilizations, they discover, information just bouncing back and forth. Pretty much every star around us has a world with a civilization, and it turns out they're all Jack Benny fans. They listen to our signals, and they love Jack Benny. There are a lot of beings quite unlike us out there, but we're basically all the same. There are no aliens. Unfortunately, it looks as if the reality is something far different.

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.

Nuclear weapons aren't used to start conversations, just end them.
How lucky were we that our opponent in the Cold War was a materialist nation and not a country that thought blowing up all the infidels would get them a free pass into heaven.

Sounds like the premise for a Harry Turtledove novel. If one thing changes, everything changes.

So how does a kid growing up in pre-World War II Philadelphia become a science-fiction writer?
When I was four years old -- 1939 or 1940 -- my father took me to the local movie theater on Saturdays. I don't remember what the movies were, but I remember the serials. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were both playing at the time. I absolutely loved the rocket ships. I came out of the theater one night and asked, looking at the full moon over the top of these old row homes, whether we would ever get to the moon.

"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.

And in trying to fuel your enthusiasm for reading, she unwittingly bought you Mencken...
Yeah, my parents never realized what Mencken was.

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.

I had good teachers growing up, so I was passionate about a lot of different subjects. My father taught biology and ecology, my mother was an English teacher.
You were pretty lucky.

I was. That switch is set at a young age. Growing up, I was always encouraged to explore, to be curious and attentive to the world around me. My folks gave me access to books and were open to a lot of different ideas. I'm not sure those are the priorities of parenting anymore. A kid who's never considered the size of the universe until he's 20 isn't likely to start, even with a teacher who encourages that sort of thing. It's a parochial sort of thinking that shuts down curiosity and questioning.
Parents -- and I'm as guilty as anybody -- don't really want their kids to be the best they can be. What they really want is for their kids to be just like them, replicas of themselves. Maybe they think that's the best they can do.

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.

An interesting and difficult philosophical question. We're perfectly happy to study evolution and to make suppositions about where we're headed -- where nature will take us -- but when our scientists start short-circuiting the process, the consequences of science and technology become something different, even frightening. The Frankenstein Effect. What happens when our children aren't like us?
For one thing, you would be a nitwit in the eyes of your child.

My kids are nine and seven. I suspect I already am . . .
I think we all go through that.

Even so, I hope they always enjoy watching baseball with me. We've been to a couple of games this year in Pittsburgh and Atlanta. You have a passion for baseball, too, right? The Phillies?
I loved baseball and played in the summer leagues, but I never got close to qualifying for the high-school team, which was remarkably competitive. Two brothers who were dazzling pitchers -- Lance and Brian McFadden -- both went away to the minors. I couldn't hit them with a tennis racket. They both came back in fairly short order, couldn't make it. That was when I realized I would never be a professional.

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."

That's why I love baseball still. I get the satellite feed for the Pittsburgh Pirates and feel an almost uncomfortable nostalgia when watching those games. I would give anything to be able to play those 40 games a summer. I wonder if there's a connection between baseball -- the long history -- and the mythos surrounding and in some ways even defining the game-and science fiction, reading and engaging with and writing it.

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.

You don't have the compelling storylines in football. Who's the Ty Cobb of football? Or the Jackie Robinson? The book I'm working on now is a Benedict novel. Alex and Chase, 8,000 years in our future, live on a distant world. I had them back on Earth once, briefly, in The Devil's Eye, when they came back and toured Atlantis in a submarine. That's all there is to it. In the book I'm working on now, they return to Earth to solve a mystery.

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.

I wonder if people sat around 8,000 years ago and thought there's a cultural aspect of my life I can't imagine ever going away. How likely would it be that baseball survives 8,000 years? That's 60 times longer than it's already survived . . .
During the Dark Age in the Benedict book, the Internet crashed and everything digital was lost, which would have included most of the books. Sherlock Holmes is gone. The language has an expression -- "Look, Sherlock!" -- that nobody knows the origin of. I've been playing around with that kind of thing.

Like finding a copy of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in Eternity Road (a McDevitt stand-alone in which Twain's book plays a key role).
Right. A few things have survived. There's a scene where Alex and Chase discover a hardcover library with a few books in it, including one of the volumes from Winston Churchill's History of World War II. Chase seems to know something about the name and wonders, "I've heard about this guy Churchill. Which side was he on . . . ?" That's a lot of fun to do. But when you get down to what has survived, it's tricky.

What else is in the library? It would be interesting if, say, next to Churchill, you had a Fifty Shades of Grey, or the body of Jackie Collins' work, or the Harry Potter series. Benedict and Kolpath read those books and think no wonder civilization disappeared . . .
In the Benedict book, I couldn't resist making a comment on science fiction. Do they have science fiction writers 8,000 years from now? If so, what the hell do they write about? I couldn't resist having them find a copy of one of my books. Chase mentions reading this book about a woman star pilot whose name is Hutchins, and she says something like, "I think I'd enjoy sitting and talking with her." Not sure if that's going to get past my editor. We'll see.

You don't want to go all out and have Chase discover one of the Benedict books that she's a character in? Too meta?
Whoa . . .

You've titled the next Hutch book Starhawk. Can you give an overview?
Starhawk will be out this fall. When I turn in a book, it generally takes a year to come out. All kinds of copyediting needs to be done. My deadlines are normally in November, and then the book is released the following November, so the publisher can get it out for the Christmas season.

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.

In the last couple of Hutch books -- Cauldron in particular -- the pervasive tone is pessimism for the future. That lightens to some extent as the story unfolds, but do you feel the weight of emotion when you're writing? Is the dark shading in those books intentional, or are you simply offering readers the story that bubbles up to you from the place where stories originate?
I think that's the mood I was in while writing about that particular topic. What's it been, almost 45 years since we've gone to the moon? Watching the way things have developed since has persuaded me that if we're going to go anywhere or do anything in the galaxy, nobody's government is going to do it. It's going to have to be private. And I'm not sure I see that happening any time soon either.

Even Richard Branson or Elon Musk or some of the other heavy hitters with a lot of dough to throw around?
We'll see. I think a big part of the problem is that there's nothing driving us to go. The stars are so far away. FTL may not even be possible -- probably isn't, to be realistic. Which means we can't go anywhere, relatively speaking. There's nothing exciting in the solar system. I remember a time when we wanted to get a look at Mars to see if there were really canals up there. I was disappointed with what we found. Now we're looking at maybe there was water at one time, maybe something alive at one time, maybe some bacteria. If that's the most we can hope for, who the hell cares?

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.

The Drake Equation would suggest . . . That's generally where these discussions go, isn't it? Or Fermi's Paradox. Where is everybody? If they're out there, why haven't we heard from them?
The universe is 13 billion years old, give or take. I'd imagine that the majority of the stable stars in it are not much older than our sun -- well, a billion years here, a billion there, that's a long time for civilizations to develop. That would suggest either those civilizations haven't developed, or civilizations are inherently unstable. I don't know what the conclusion is. It would be interesting to find out, but I'm pretty sure we'll discover the truth about whether other life exists long before we get around to any kind of serious manned travel. I'm not sure we'll ever have travel anywhere in the solar system beyond "we went to Mars and good for us." By the way, we're not bringing you home. A long way from Buck Rogers, and not in a positive direction.

How many tens of thousands of people applied for the first manned Mars flight? An effective publicity stunt, but I'm not sure the applicants really thought through the implications. When you're sitting on the launch pad waiting to be sent to Mars --and, eventually, to die there -- you'll probably have a much different feeling from hitting SEND on a computer keyboard and imagining that one day you'll be a space traveler.
I would have enjoyed going to Mars, but I would have wanted to come home. The applicants are young and probably still feel immortal, most of them. It's not the usual kind of person who's suicidal and has no life who would apply for such a trip, so most of them are probably pretty smart people willing to take their chances and hope for the best. Maybe they feel it's worth it. I have a feeling that when we get there and look at that same desert we saw through the lens of Mars Rover, it's not going to be very exciting. Go back and take a look at Bradbury . . .

An Interview with Jack McDevitt, Part 2 will appear in our next issue.

Copyright © 2013 Patrick Smith

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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