Profile of Jack McDevitt

If you want to know what Jack McDevitt is like - really like, down deep and to the bone - you could hardly do better than to read a few of his books. By this I don't mean to suggest that he is particularly like this or that character. Ignore them for the moment. Listen to that narrative voice: intelligent, warm, shrewd, lucid, good-hearted but not sentimental... Imagine what the sort of man who sounds like that, plots like that, thinks like that, would be like. That's Jack.

I credit a lot of this to his being a Philadelphia boy. Jack lives in Brunswick, Georgia now, but he was born and brought up in Philly and went to South Catholic High and then to La Salle University on Olney Avenue. He even worked here as a cab driver for a time. This place is a part of him.

If you know the city, then all I have to say is that Jack has all the Philadelphia virtues without any of the faults. Which is to say that he's what we call a stand-up guy - level-headed, skeptical, hard-working, and ready to lend a hand to a stranger in need. But where your typical Philadelphian will bust your chops as soon as look at you (this is the town, after all, where sports fans boo Santa Claus), Jack is the soul of tolerance and restraints. He knows exactly how big a fool you're making of yourself, but he's too much of a gent to mention it.

You can thank the United States government for Jack's becoming a science fiction writer. Or, rather, you can thank the Customs Service. Jack put in umpty-ump years, working there as a motivational trainer, trying to encourage a supervisory attitude in which managers recognized they were only as good as their subordinates. Do this and this and this, he'd say, and your subordinates will be happier and more content. And consequently more productive. The people at the upper levels of the organization would stare at him in bewilderment and grumble about touchy-feely.

It was an occasional strain, and there was a fair degree of repetitiveness to the work. So, way back in 1980, Jack's wife Maureen (and everything good that can be said about Jack applies equally well to Maureen, who also hails from - guess where - Philadelphia) suggested he try his hand at a science fiction story, just as an antidote to the routine environment at work.

That story would be "The Emerson Effect," I believe. It was the first of a distinguished series of stories including such works as "Melville on Iapetus," "To Hell With the Stars" (the fact that he threw my name into a list of writers whose work accidentally survives centuries into the future has, I swear, nothing to do with my enthusiasm for it!), "The Fort Moxie Branch," "Standard Candles," and "Time Travelers Never Die." If you don't already own a copy of his collection, Standard Candles, I urge you to check it out, so you can admire for yourself his crisp, sure plotting and clean, clear prose.

Jack's first novel, The Hercules Text, appeared in 1986 as an Ace Special, putting him in the august company of such luminaries as William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Lucius Shepard. It was a good book. His second novel, A Talent for War, was better. His third... Well, to be honest, my favorite McDevitt novel changes with each new book. Not long ago, it was Ancient Shores, with that wonderful image of flying along the vanished coasts of the North American Interior Sea. Then it was Infinity Beach, with its terrifying alien threat. Right now it's Deepsix, with its harrowing spit-and-bailing-wire space scoop rescue scene. But I haven't read Chindi yet, and it's been getting glowing - nay, fawning and groveling - reviews. So who knows? Jack simply gets better with every book.

If only all writers did that!

One pleasant side effect of a career that appears to be going pretty darned well is that it enabled Jack to take early retirement from Customs. These days he's a full-time writer and connoisseur of the good things of life, be they baseball, Maggie and Jiggs cartoons, old radio serials, or whatever.

So now you get to hang out with Jack for a weekend. I envy you that. The man is world-class good company. Don't forget to pick up a couple of his books in the huckster room. They're extremely pleasant company as well.

But then, they would be.

Consider the source.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick; first appeared in MileHiCon 34 Program Book

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