Sunday, April 19, 2009

This Man Listened to His Wife

I don't read much sci-fi, but in the last year I've read several novels by Jack McDevitt. Specifically, I got hooked on his Academy series, which mainly follows Priscilla Hutchins, a pilot of superluminal vessels. Similar themes and motifs run throughout McDevitt's novels, the main theme being that of first contact with an alien race or the artifacts left behind by them. McDevitt takes what I call a realistic approach to first contact: if there is anyone else out there, surely the odds are against us finding them or them finding us and even more so, the odds are almost nil that both races would be in existence at the same time given the vagaries of the universe, of the creation of life, and of evolution.

McDevitt excels at raising all the big questions one expects in any good science fiction story, and not unlike Dostoevsky, offers multiple views of every philosophical question raised by the narrative. The philosophy also never detracts from the overall sense of adventure in his stories: the universe is an enormous, wonderful, incomprehensible, and oft-terrifying place.

Thanks to wikipedia, I came across this little tidbit on McDevitt. Apparently, he wrote a short story that was well-received while attending LaSalle University. I don't know if at the time McDevitt wanted to write for a living or not, but certainly it must have been a possibility in his mind. Then, however, he read David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens's prose so intimidated him that he gave up his own writing. Some twenty-five years later, his wife encouraged him to try fiction again, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of the ones I've read, my favorite McDevitt novel is Omega, which I believe works as a stand-alone even though it's technically the middle story in a series.


Nick Hughes said...

Sci-fi? Philosophy? Germantown?

I'm sold.

Brian O'Rourke said...


I do think you'd like him, though there seems to be an argument from some of his readers that his most recent stories are just rehashes of his earlier works.

Chindi reminded me of Rendezvous with Rama, but not in a bad way.

And yeah, McDevitt's a Phillies fan. I think he still lives in the area, too. What are the chances of getting him on a podcast?

seanag said...

Nick Hughes is awfully young to be hanging out on the blogs, isn't he? His photo indicates that he probably shouldn't even be able to type yet...

I don't read much sci-fi either, though I like it a lot when I get to it if it's well-written. But McDevett is very popular around these parts. I'll have to try and put him on my ever expanding list, although I think John Scalzi will be ahead of him in that genre. I've been meaning to get to Scalzi,particularly Old Man's War, for over a year now, and this young guy came in over the weekend and was cursing his friend for introducing a Scalzi book to him, because he was supposed to be studying and couldn't get back to it till he had read all of his stuff. I'm a sucker for testimonials like that.

That is such an interesting and sad story about the Dickens effect. It is so easy to do that to yourself as a writer--it doesn't have to be a master like Dickens who aids and abets you in your negative self-assessment, either. It could be just some random comment that deflates your self-confidence in some crushing way. I've heard all kinds of stories like this.

Just write your stuff, people! You just can't know where it will reach, who it will touch or anything else in advance. But luckily, you don't need to.

Oh, and thank god McDevitt got married, huh?

seanag said...

What's odd is that I just went over to Declan Burke's blog and read his latest crime writer interview with Mark Billingham, in which Billingham said this:

"I think John Connolly is a unique voice (he’ll be REALLY mad at me for saying that) and his are always books that I will rush to read. I’m going to plump for the first, EVERY DEAD THING. I read it while I was struggling with my first book, and I almost gave up trying because EDT was so bloody good.See what I mean?

The full interview with Billingham, which is fun to read, is here.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Hey Seana,

Nick's a child prodigy, as they say.

I've never heard of Scalzi, probably because I don't read as much sci-fi as I'd like, but I'll definitely check him out. I too love testimonials like that. According to wikipedia, he did what horror writer Scott Sigler is doing: he started out by offering his book for free in online installments.

And it's crazy to think McDevitt almost never wrote novel, considering how he has quite a following.

I enjoyed Burke's interview of Billingham. I'll come clean and admit to being a lurker of Crime Always Pays.

seanag said...

Lurker, huh? I thought I'd seen you post there. Anyway, I already assumed you were a fan of his blog. Some of these bloggers just seem to go together.

Brian O'Rourke said...

I may have posted once or twice, but not enough to qualify as "commenter" quite yet.

It's a shame that there's so much great fiction out there and only 24 hours in a day. I've been meaning to check out Burke's stuff for a few months now, and haven't gotten around to it yet.

It doesn't help that I'm getting ready to start querying my next manuscript, either.

Which reminds me--have you dusted off that work in progress yet? :)

Nathanael Green said...


Is this in preparation for your own sci-fi piece you mentioned before? If you're beginning to query right now, does that mean you've figured out what the next novel will be?

seanag said...

The Big O is really good. But of course the querying does take precedence...

And no, I haven't done anything about it. However, it has been quite a crazy month, and looks to continue to be so. My v word is "Juilly", which may be an indicator of what month I may actually have time to work on major projects again. Unfotunately.

But I do appreciate the nudge.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Yo Nater,

No idea what the next project will be. Lots of ideas, as per usual, but I'll just have to see which of them has some momentum. Inertia can be a writer's best friend or worst enemy, right?

By the way, I liked your post on rejections.

Brian O'Rourke said...


Just a friendly nudge :)

Also, I just read your K Street post and I too had no idea what that meant.

seanag said...

On the one hand, I'm relieved, because such a casual reference to K Street implies that everyone has heard of it except me. Well, I've heard of it, but had never bothered to nail it down. Didn't help that I was mixing it up with that Obie winning musical 'Avenue Q', either.

On the other, though, as a lawyer, I think it is high time you learned about K Street. You might even get a high paying job there, where, after a couple of phone calls in the morning, you could call it a day and get straight back to writing.

Brian O'Rourke said...


Not a bad idea, though my presence in Washington would actually make the place worse, if that's possible.