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Jack McDevitt Appreciation

Published March 5, 2010 in Conventions , Writing - 1 Comment

I’m reading Jack McDevitt’s novel Cauldron, another installment in the Priscilla Hutchins series, and I’m enjoying it—as I have always enjoyed Jack’s work.

Jack recently asked me to write an essay about his work for his guest-of-honor appearance at Con*Stellation 2009.  I’ve reprinted it below.  If you haven’t read any of Jack’s work, you should—he’s one of the best science fiction writers working today.

JACK MCDEVITT: An Expose’ for members of Con*Stellation 2009

Jack McDevitt is a showoff.  That’s the first thing you should know.

He doesn’t mean to be, and he certainly doesn’t let it go to his head, although by his continuous output of absolutely splendid fiction over the years, Jack has quietly and unequivocally proved that he can do just about anything in science fiction — and do it well.  And he has earned the quiet envy of many of his fellow authors, including myself.

I first encountered Jack’s work with The Hercules Text (1986), part of the prestigious line of the new Ace Specials.  Anyone chosen to be included in that lofty line was immediately saddled with high expectations in the community.  Now that more than two decades have passed and more than half of the other “Special children” have shuffled off the genre stage, Jack forged onward, showing the rest of us how it’s done.

In 1988 I encountered Jack again with his short story “The Fort Moxie Branch” in the much-lauded anthology Full Spectrum 1 (which also included one of my early short stories); “Fort Moxie” was nominated for the Nebula Award.  Jack’s sophomore novel effort, A Talent for War (1989) took him to a different section to the galactic canvas and introduced his continuing character Alex Benedict [also Polaris (2004), Seeker (2005), The Devil’s Eye (2008)].  Jack is best-known for his Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins series of novels [The Engines of God (1994), Deepsix (2001), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), Odyssey (2006), Cauldron (2007)].

Not one to be typecast, though, Jack has also written several excellent standalone novels— Ancient Shores (1996), Eternity Road (1998), Infinity Beach (2000), and best of all Moonfall (1998), which I read in bound galleys and still consider to be one of the best cosmic disaster novels ever written, on par with Lucifer’s Hammer and far superior to the big-budget films Deep Impact and Armageddon, both of which were released at approximately the same time.

But don’t get the impression that Jack waves his word processor over such enormous galactic empires that he loses track of the people.  His novels may be set in the context of galactic empires and multiple solar systems, but he manages to tell entirely personal tales centered around a few exceptionally well-drawn characters.  It’s like a bright pinpoint of light in an echoing cavernous room implying immensity and intimacy at the same time.

So, he’s got both the science fiction part down, and the characters . . . which should be enough for any writer.  But Jack also tells gangbuster stories, intriguing and meaningful novels that are real page turners that explore every aspect about an idea, while leaving some of the Big Questions open for the reader.  Jack is not a precious, artsy writer; his prose is clear and vivid, sweeping you along and often making you forget that these are just words on a page.

Yet, even with such a transparent and unpretentious style, Jack has somehow managed to endeared himself to the critics and to the awards community.  He has been nominated more times for major science fiction awards than I could ever count, and he won the Nebula Award for Seeker.

As I said, he’s a showoff.

But Jack McDevitt doesn’t let the awards and critical acclaim go to his head.  He is also a fanboy down to his bones, appearing not just at Con*Stellation but at numerous science fiction conventions throughout the year.  He reads science fiction.  He loves science fiction.  He even holds cherished memories of old superhero comics, and he was one of the avid first readers of my 1940’s-era Justice Society of America comic series from DC, and of my Superman/Batman novels Enemies & Allies and The Last Days of Krypton.  And he’s not ashamed to be a fan, either.

A man who can accomplish so much and so well might be content to rest on his laurels, withdraw from “the rest of us,” buy an expensive cigarette holder and discuss the merits of impossible-to-pronounce varieties of imported wines.  But not Jack McDevitt.  He is also a great person, self-effacing, gentle, interesting and interested, a man who worked for years in the patent office, always quick to return a favor, and a pleasure to be around.

Once again, he shines in so many areas that he has to be a showoff.  But don’t let that color your impression of Jack.  I’m sure he’ll be on his best behavior during the con.  Get to know him.  You’ll be glad you did.

—Kevin J. Anderson