Deerfield, IL: ISFiC Press, 2006; $30 hb; 352 pages
reviewed in New York Review of Science Fiction 232, December 2007
It is hard to work out the appeal of these stories. They are very appealing, but not in ways that are easily definable, indeed not in ways that we are supposed to find appealing as part of today’s brusque, brisk science fiction. Barry Malzberg, in the introduction to this collection, calls McDevitt a ‘consolidator’: ‘a sound, a dedicated, a severe traditionalist; he is moved as am I … by the science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s which framed his own first passionate encounter.’ Which makes him sound old-fashioned; as if we should turn to McDevitt for our latest hit of Asimov or Heinlein or Van Vogt. McDevitt himself, in the several essays included with this collection, repeatedly cites Ray Bradbury, particularly the Martian stories, as both the origin of his own love affair with science fiction and the ultimate standard towards which he strives in his writing. In a list of a dozen sf stories that he used as an English teacher to ‘start a fire under my students’ in the 1960s, all were old even then. Which makes him sound old-fashioned; as if the science fiction that inspires and shapes his work faded out sometime in the 1950s. And his stories rarely stray from the most standard sf tropes – aliens, alien worlds, the future, space. Which makes him sound old-fashioned.
And yet the pleasure we take in reading these stories is not the warm, comforting recognition of something old and familiar, unchallenging, safe. Yes they celebrate the traditional virtues of science fiction. McDevitt is unabashed about this; as he says: ‘the joy that comes from a well-constructed science fiction tale results from watching people struggle with the implications of discovery. Or technological advance.’ Note the term ‘well-constructed’; McDevitt is a technically proficient writer of the type that believes prose should be transparent. There are no stretches of vivid writing, no prose that draws attention to itself, he is not a writer whose bon mots will be quoted in years to come; rather people will be saying ‘do you remember that story in which …’. For the stories are superbly constructed, the various plot devices dovetail precisely, the machinery is well-oiled. You may not always see where each story is heading, but once it gets there you can look back at the satisfying inevitability of the process. This is storytelling as craft rather than art (his essays are full of commonsense but still valuable advice on the craft of writing), but a well-crafted story is a rare and delightful thing.
Craftsmanship is a writerly talent that is perhaps not as highly valued as it once was (something else that can make his work seem old-fashioned), but it is also part of what makes these stories so appealing. By the end of each story you know what it was about, why it worked the way it did, what we were supposed to take from it. All of this is pleasing in a story, but that does not mean that they are ingratiating, comforting, easy. When McDevitt talks about the ‘struggle with the implications of discovery’, the emphasis is very much on the word ‘struggle’. Time and again his stories are about the penalty his characters pay for what we call progress. There is a cost involved in the struggle, and we do not emerge from it unscathed. Above all, his stories remind us of our smallness, our frailty, in the face of tomorrow, and that is a far from comfortable place to be. ‘The universe is a precarious, cold environment for anything that thinks,’ he says in ‘Melville On Iapetus’, the story which above all seems to encapsulate what I’m struggling to express about McDevitt’s fiction. This is the story that sets out the ground he would later explore in the Academy novels beginning with The Engines of God. It is a simple story of a human expedition to one of the moons of Saturn that finds a statue of an alien creature standing on the frozen surface. Commonly in science fiction the alien, whether presented as a friend, an enemy, or something incomprehensible, at least says: ‘we are not alone’. But in this story the alien becomes a symbol of aloneness, and it is this which gives a slight tale its very moving tone and quality.
There are other aspects of ‘Melville On Iapetus’ that warrant our attention. For a start, the narrator is a woman. In fact, the narrators of the majority of these stories are women. He makes no big deal about it, they also happen to be explorers, spaceship captains, hard-boiled detectives, scientists on the verge of an earth-shattering discovery, but it is one thing that clearly sets him apart from the tradition Malzberg invokes. Which isn’t to make any claim for McDevitt as a feminist writer, but at least he has come a long way from the casual sexism that marred so much of the ‘golden age’ in science fiction.
Secondly, the title invokes Herman Melville, it concerns a statue, and in the introduction McDevitt reveals that it was inspired by a line in A.E. Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’. This whole collection is suffused with invocations of literature, sculpture and painting. In the longest story here, ‘The Big Downtown’, which deftly manages the trick of merging hardboiled detective with near-future sf, the whole mystery revolves around an enigmatic painting of an alien. In ‘In the Tower’, perhaps the most successful evocation of atmosphere in the collection, a woman’s quest for the truth about her former lover starts and ends with a disturbing painting. Plenty of other science fiction writers have used artworks as plot devices, but few have been so consistent in doing so, or have so convincingly used art as a way of speaking to the spirit, the humanity, of their characters. McDevitt’s fiction can most readily be characterised as hard sf, but it is the hard sf of an artist not a scientist.
No, not an artist: an archaeologist. Archaeology is the metaphor that informs practically all his best work, not just the novels like The Engines of God but, one way or another, most of the stories collected here. Even if no actual archaeological discovery is involved, most of these stories turn upon an object from the past that illuminates the present. In his introduction to ‘The Mission’ McDevitt calls on William Faulkner and Willa Cather whose works are ‘rife with a sense of something priceless that has gone missing’, and that is precisely the mood he captures time and time again. In ‘The Mission’ itself a boy in a hand-to-mouth post-apocalyptic settlement dreams of mankind’s last space adventure, only to find its remains all around him. In ‘The Far Shore’ a shipwrecked spaceman indulges in a form of imaginative time travelling when he finds himself able to listen in on radio broadcasts from 1940s America. Similarly in ‘Whistle’ scientists find themselves able to listen in on music from a distant system on the verge of extinction (and again, as in ‘Melville on Iapetus’, the alien is used sympathetically to symbolise our frailty, our aloneness in the face of the void).
Sympathy is perhaps the word that best sums up the appeal of these stories, we read in them the humanity behind the hard sf. A humanity expressed in the anti-war stance of ‘Valkyrie’ or ‘Date With Destiny’, in the religious doubts implicit in ‘Act of God’ and ‘Ignition’, in the political scepticism of ‘The Candidate’ and the scientific scepticism of ‘Henry James, This One’s for You’. These are, perhaps, old-fashioned virtues just as McDevitt’s craftsmanship is of the old-fashioned kind, but in the end there is nothing old-fashioned about these stories, or the impact they achieve.