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McDevitt, Jack

Entry updated 22 April 2024. Tagged: Author.

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Working name of US author John Charles McDevitt (1935-    ), who began publishing sf with "The Emerson Effect" for Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine in December 1981, coming to prominence with "Cryptic" (April 1983 Asimov's), a tale whose theme – First Contact between humans and the Alien races who are sending messages across space – was elaborated in his first novel, The Hercules Text (1986), which won a Locus Award. Despite the occasional descent into Cliché in his plotting and his politics (even as early as 1986 the vision of the USA coming close to war with the USSR over ownership of the information in the signals lacked extrapolative vigour), McDevitt manages in this tale to concentrate very effectively on the human dimensions of the conundrum posed by the existence of a Communication whose contents, when deciphered, might well devastate human civilization from the shock of this First Contact; and the Roman Catholic viewpoint of one of the Scientists involved in decoding the message is presented with an obvious sympathy that does not hamper the storytelling, which involves threats of violent skulduggery.

The sequence which evolved from this tale – the Alex Benedict series, which also comprises A Talent for War (1989), assembled with a revised version of The Hercules Text as Hello Out There (omni 2000); plus Polaris (2004), Seeker (2005), which won the Nebula award in 2006, The Devil's Eye (2008), Echo (2010) and Firebird (2011) – moves into a galactic venue nine thousand years hence. In A Talent for War, which is similarly set within a religious frame, the young Alex Benedict must thread his way through the unsettled hinterlands dividing human and Alien space in his search for the secret that may retroactively destroy the reputation of a human who had been a hero in the recent wars. In later volumes, Benedict becomes a highly convincing representative of the noirish detective hero whose traversals of the archaeologies of Western America (or, in this case, of the inhabited galaxy aeons hence) lead not only to a solving of crimes or other mysteries but also, and more importantly, to a recuperation of lost worlds (see Ruins and Futurity). This is perhaps most evident in Seeker, the best organized tale of the sequence, where Benedict's hunt for the long-hidden underlying causes of the disappearance millennia earlier of the lost colony of Margolia (see Time Abyss) becomes a lesson in the impossibility of acquiring any comprehensive narrative of the past in the kind of expanded future we might imagine: for it is not only that the past becomes Mythology in many ambitious Space Opera universes, but that the past is inherently beyond our tools of understanding. Despite the easy old-boy style of the tale, the final lesson of Seeker is that the human species – there is no hint of the Singularity in McDevitt's moderately distant future – is not designed to comprehend itself or the universe it inhabits. The late introduction to the series of a First Contact scenario, in Village in the Sky (2023), does not ultimately lighten an overall sense that we are strangers in a universe beyond the comprehension of humans.

McDevitt's second sequence – the Academy/Priscilla Hutchins series comprising The Engines of God (1994), Deepsix (2001), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), which won a John W Campbell Memorial Award, Odyssey (2006), Cauldron (2007), Starhawk (2013) and The Long Sunset (2018) – is perhaps rather more easy on the reader during the movement of its narrative arc from Near Future near space into a Hard SF galaxy full of solvable conundrums (see Thought Experiment); the lead protagonist, Priscilla Hutchins, is in this case literally an archaeologist, and in the later volumes of the sequence is privy to the solution of a number of problems left previously unresolved, rather damaging to the Sense of Wonder evoked by the taxing marvels described in the earlier instalments. The Long Sunset in particular seems gingerly to anticipate a galactic Long Night.

Several individual novels are notable as well. Ancient Shores (1996) traces the Discovery of a buried ancient civilization, including relics of a highly advance Technology, imperishable metals (a familiar Icon from 1950s sf), and Matter Transmission via Stargates. Eternity Road (1997) is set in a genuinely beguiling Ruined Earth America, a millennia after the holocaust; duly, a Keep containing scientific secrets is found far up the Mississippi River, and lessons are learned about the deep past, though the new world continues. Moonfall (1998) is a complicated Disaster tale involving the destruction of the eponymous Moon. Infinity Beach (2000; vt Slow Lightning 2000) is a tale of Entropy: spread among the stars, the human race has clearly become as marginal to the long narratives of history as is the protagonist of the tale to most of its action; only when she becomes, as so often in McDevitt's work, a kind of detective spelunking the gnomic backstory of the race, does the book take fire. The Cassandra Project (2012) with Mike Resnick, set in the Near Future, speculates on the existence of an early unrecorded Moon landing; the tale's appeal may be restricted (for contemporary readers) by the presence of an extremely rich entrepreneur who holds elected governments in contempt. But it has clearly been McDevitt's intention throughout his career to contemplate human excesses with some reserve. He composes ostensibly positivist tales in clear for readers looking for release, as demonstrated in his light-fingered ease with Time Paradoxes in Time Travelers Never Die (2009); but the contemplative reticence underlying his work should never be ignored. He is perhaps the most adult of all writers of adventure sf.

McDevitt's short work has been variously assembled, perhaps most usefully in Standard Candles: The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt (coll 1996) and in the massive Return to Glory (coll 2022), the latter containing tales ranging from 1981 (his first story, see above) to the year of this publication. [JC]

see also: Philip K Dick Award; Robert A Heinlein Award; SETI.

John Charles McDevitt

born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 14 April 1935



Alex Benedict

  • The Hercules Text (New York: Ace Books/New Ace Special, 1986) [Alex Benedict: in the publisher's third Science Fiction Special series: pb/Earl Keleny]
  • A Talent for War (New York: Ace Books, 1989) [Alex Benedict: pb/Darrell K Sweet]
    • Hello Out There (Decatur, Georgia: Meisha Merlin, 2000) [omni of the above two: The Hercules Text revised to fit sequence: Alex Benedict: hb/Bob Eggleton]
  • Polaris (New York: Ace Books, 2004) [Alex Benedict: hb/John Harris]
  • Seeker (New York: Ace Books, 2005) [Alex Benedict: hb/John Harris]
  • The Devil's Eye (New York: Ace Books, 2008) [Alex Benedict: hb/John Harris]
  • Echo (New York: Ace Books, 2010) [Alex Benedict: hb/John Harris and Maureen McDevitt]
  • Firebird (New York: Ace Books, 2011) [Alex Benedict: hb/John Harris]
  • Coming Home (New York: Ace Books, 2014) [Alex Benedict: hb/John Harris]
  • Octavia Gone (New York: Simon and Schuster/Saga, 2019) [Alex Benedict: hb/John Harris]
  • Village in the Sky (New York: Simon and Schuster/Saga, 2023) [Alex Benedict: hb/John Harris]

Academy/Priscilla Hutchins

  • The Engines of God (New York: Ace Books, 1994) [Academy/Priscilla Hutchins: pb/Bob Eggleton]
  • Deepsix (New York: Eos, 2001) [an "Advance Readers Ed" was released in 2000, but may comprise a differently labelled ARC: Academy/Priscilla Hutchins: hb/Chris Moore]
  • Chindi (New York: Ace Books, 2002) [Academy/Priscilla Hutchins: hb/Edwin Herder]
  • Omega (New York: Ace Books, 2003) [Academy/Priscilla Hutchins: hb/Danilo Ducak]
  • Odyssey (New York: Ace Books, 2006) [Academy/Priscilla Hutchins: hb/Larry Price]
  • Cauldron (New York: Ace Books, 2007) [Berserkers: Academy/Priscilla Hutchins: hb/Larry Price]
  • Starhawk (New York: Ace Books, 2013) [Academy/Priscilla Hutchins: hb/Tony Mauro]
  • The Long Sunset (New York: Simon and Schuster/Saga, 2018) [Academy/Priscilla Hutchins: hb/John Harris]

Ancient Shores

individual titles

collections and stories

works as editor


previous versions of this entry

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