Jack McDevitt is an American science fiction author whose novels frequently deal with attempts to make contact with alien races, and with archaeology or xenoarchaeology.
JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is multi-award-winning best-selling author, Jack McDevitt. Welcome, Jack.
Jack McDevitt: Well, thank you, Jean, pleasure to be with you.
JMW: And it’s a pleasure to have you. Congratulations on receiving the 2015 Heinlein Award. I can attest that books like Coming Home make me want to live in a universe where faster-than-light travel to distant stars is a fact of life. Was that your original goal in writing science fiction?
Jack McDevitt: To live in a world that’s light years away? I don’t . . .
JMW: To live in a world that . . .
Jack McDevitt: . . . know. No, I’m not exactly sure that I had a specific goal other than to do what I love doing, which is toying around with other worlds or possibly future worlds and know what life might be like if we change the technology a little bit. What happens, for example, if we get a refrigerator that talks to us?
JMW: I don’t know that I want to find out, but I do like the option of being able to travel to other worlds and explore.
Jack McDevitt: Yeah, unfortunately, the only way we’re gonna be able to do that, I think, for a long time, maybe forever, will be through fiction. Faster-than-light technology, from everything I’ve read, seems to be not generally considered possible by physicists. And until I hear of something that sounds a little more rational than running through wormholes, I think I’m gonna sit on the . . . yeah, we better just do it in a literary manner.
JMW: Oh, that’s a great plot device, if nothing else.
Jack McDevitt: Oh, yeah. Well, it’s the only way you can do it. When I was growing up, which is a few years ago, we thought maybe there would be some life that was . . . well, science fiction toyed with the ideas of life in numerous places throughout the solar system. Burroughs had living creatures on Venus and Mars. Some of the moons like Jupiter’s might’ve been alive with things. Buck Rogers was all over the solar system. But then, we discovered the realities, which is this cold, hard, and not really a place you wanna hang out for the most part.
JMW: Yeah, it’s so disappointing. The revised and expanded version of your first novel, The Hercules Text, is being released this month. How did it feel revisiting the story after all these years?
Jack McDevitt: It was interesting. I had to go back and fix some things, change some stuff. I should admit that when I . . . that was my first novel, and I handed the manuscript dated that originally I was invited by Terry Carr to do one of the Ace Specials. And I was fairly new to science fiction at that time and I asked, “What’s an Ace Special?” And he explained it, “We go to invite you to do a novel, and we think maybe you might have a decent future.”
JMW: Always nice to hear.
Jack McDevitt: Yes. And I said, “Fine.” I said, “How long do I have?” And he said, “How long do you need?” And I said, “Well, two years would be good.” And he’s like, “I’ll give you six months.” So I wrote The Hercules Text. At that time, I was working for the Custom Service in Chicago. I was the regional training officer. So I was writing on trains going back and forth to work. My kids were all Little League-sized at that point. I was writing at ball games. I was writing during my lunch hour. And I got the thing done. I sent it to him. And then I waited on pins and needles, as they say, for his reaction, which did not come. Months went by, and I finally, I made some excuse to call. I asked him how his sister Eleanor was or something like that. I don’t remember exactly. “And, by the way, Terry, what did you think of the book?” And he said, “Well, it’s not a dog.”
And he told me something I think that was very basic that I should’ve realized at that time. I had don’t want to go into the entire story by any means, but let me just say that the big news that these characters have which required a huge decision on their part, meant that they were putting the world in danger. But also there was a potential for enormous advance. So what the main character did was hide the information he had. And Terry Carr told me, he said, “What you do, you do not drag the reader through 400 pages and then turn out the lights. You got to give them a climax.” So the version I have now has a climax, very much so. There is a confrontation with the President of the United States, and more than that I don’t wanna say.
JMW: Oh, hey, they can read the book, right?
Jack McDevitt: Absolutely.
JMW: What was the most important thing you learned as a writer during the intervening years between the time you first did The Hercules Text and revising it? Was it that piece of information about “Don’t turn out the lights”, or were there other things as well?
Jack McDevitt: Well, there were actually a number of things, but certainly that was number one. That was the thing that really . . . and I should mention, by the way, that the first version of The Hercules Text, the one that wasn’t a dog, still managed to win a Philip K. Dick Special Award. So it’s not as if it was this complete disaster, but it needed improving.
Jack McDevitt: But I think the thing I really learned . . . I do workshops periodically, and when I ask people in workshops . . . well a lot of times I start off by saying, “What does a writer do? What’s he trying to do?” And usually, most people will tell you that he’s trying to tell a story. And of course, that’s dead wrong. We are not trying to tell a story. We are trying to create an experience. And if you’re gonna talk about what goes wrong in a piece of writing, the simple answer is anything you do in your writing that causes the reader to remember that he’s only reading a book and that he’s not really standing on that cliff with the rain pouring down on his face while his girlfriend who has just told him that she’s through, “Not your fault, Larry, but it’s over.” And she’s walking away from him and his heart is broken, you want the reader’s heart to be broken as well.
There was an instance in the Sherlock Holmes stories in which Conan Doyle decided he wanted to do something more important than Holmes, so he killed off Sherlock Holmes. Pushed him over a waterfall. Jack McDevitt: People got annoyed, showed up at his place, and yelled at him in large numbers. Well, I guess they thought that was going to discourage him, but all that did was teach Doyle that what a great writer he was. If he could get people that excited about his characters, he knew he was in business. He still didn’t figure out the rest of it though. That was only Sherlock Holmes that was critical. He brought Holmes back, but unfortunately, he spent most of his time writing other stuff that nobody reads anymore.
JMW: Yeah, but it gives academics something to do. They need to eat, too. I found it interesting that just as you’re rereleasing this book, we’re getting reports of strange radio bursts from deep space. Did you follow those stories when you were doing the rewriting, or was that too late in the process?
Jack McDevitt: No, actually I did most of the rewriting for a version of this book that appeared a few years ago in a compound volume with A Talent for War. And all I did for this version was just sort of fix the language a little bit, to make it a little bit tighter. And that’s why I didn’t change a great deal from that secondary version, because that secondary version worked fine. I tried to update it a little bit, too, bring it into the middle of the . . . well, not the middle of the 21st century, but into the 15th year of the 21st century.
JMW: It’s further along, yeah.
Jack McDevitt: Yeah.
JMW: Changing tack, I’d like to talk a little bit about your Alex Benedict series. How did you come up with the idea of basing a science fiction series around the future search for 20th-century artifacts?
Jack McDevitt: Well, that wasn’t the way it started. The way it started was simply a historical mystery. Alex Benedict lives about 9,000 years from now. A very peaceful..organized. We’re organized. The human race is at peace. We’ve only found one set of aliens anywhere. Of course, we got into a war with them, but that was as much our fault as theirs. They make us nervous because they could read our minds, and that means you had to be careful what you think when you’re around them. But yeah, it was a pleasant place, and I wanted it set up . . . what I wanted Alex to do was to spend his time resolving historical mysteries.
And I’m saying this as if that’s the way planned it from the beginning. The Alex Benedict, there was only gonna be one book. That was gonna be a stand-alone novel. And there was a mystery about what had happened to a war hero during a war that had happened 200 years earlier. And the thing became a problem for Alex and he gets curious about what really . . . this guy is supposed to have been killed, but there’s evidence that maybe there’s something strange that happened somewhere. And he tracks it down and gets at the truth.
And as far as I was concerned, that was it. Alex Benedict was gonna go no farther. And I guess about 12 years later, I had another book that involved a group of people who go out in a starship called the Polaris. Actually, there are three starships that go out to watch an interstellar incident. A black hole is about to go through a star. It’s gonna destroy the star. There’s a solar system out there, a planetary system. Fortunately, there’s no life in that system anywhere.
There are actually three ships that go out. Two of the ships has a group of scientists. The Polaris has a group of VIPs types that want to watch as well. And they go on out there. The block hole rolls in, so they turn on all their cameras and take lots of pictures. And it goes through the sun like a . . . I stole a line from The Scientific American, “And it goes through the sun like a baseball through dust,” okay? And the sun explodes and everything goes to pieces. Two starships with the scientists return home and the Polaris sends a message, “Departure imminent.” And nothing further is heard from them. So they sent out a rescue, another vehicle. They figured they must’ve gotten in trouble or something. They send out another vehicle. And when they find the Polaris, they discover that everybody who was on board is gone. But the spacesuits are still there. The lander is still there. Even if they had a lander, there’s no world they could’ve gone to. There’s no planet in that place anywhere that’s remotely close to being habitable. There are no aliens anywhere in the area that are known. So what happens with them? Now, all this happens several hundred years earlier. No, no, no, I take that back, 30 years earlier.
Jack McDevitt: I’ve forgotten exactly what the connector is. I think there’s a piece of a cup from that Polaris starship that shows up. Alex collects antiques and then sells them. There’s a cup that turns up and they get wondering about what really happened on board the Polaris, so he gets involved in trying to find out what it’s about.
JMW: Yeah. Well, no spoilers to say he has another reason for wanting to know that.
Jack McDevitt: No, you’re thinking about Alex’s uncle?
Jack McDevitt: No, that’s not the Polaris. That is the . . . what is that? I forgot the name of the ship, but it’s the one that shows up in Coming Home.
Jack McDevitt: And that’s an ordinary transport vessel. Well, that disappeared, too.
Jack McDevitt: I can understand your confusion.
JMW: I’m sorry. My bad. We’re coming up on time here, so I do wanna give your readers a little taste of what are you working on now. And is there anything you’d like to add? Free question here.
Jack McDevitt: Okay. The book I just finished, and which will be out in November, is a sequel to Ancient Shores. Now, Ancient Shores was a book written 15 years ago. It’s set in North Dakota, in which a group of people discover that there’s a Stargate that’s probably about 1200 years . . . I’m sorry. I think it is several thousand years old, come to think of it. And it’s sitting out on what is an Indian reservation, on the Sioux Reservation at Devils Lake. But it’s still functional. Once they remove, it’s buried, and once they get it out from under all the rocks and everything, this thing takes power from sunlight and wind and you could go to a number of places from it, just walk in there and push the button and you go out somewhere.
Now, that’s the original set up. And the question became, who put it there, and why is it there? And I never answered that question. I did it again, like I did with The Hercules Text. So the second book, which is called Thunderbird, is the sequel. And it answers the questions of who is responsible, how it happened, and what’s really going on.
JMW: Cool. Well, anything that you’d like to add?
Jack McDevitt: I love writing science fiction.
JMW: That’s marvelous. Thank you so much, Jack.
Jack McDevitt: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Jean. It’s nice to be with you.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.