Tag: jack mcdevitt

Jack McDevitt Discusses Story Drafts

I don’t know how many people read Jack McDevitt’s journal. He updates it twice each month and there is often a lot of good stuff there. In his most recent update, Jack talks about his process of going through drafts for novels and stories. He writes,

The critical thing about a first draft doesn’t have much to do with how smooth the prose is. What it does is allow you to find out whether all the pieces fit. Whether  the characters work, and the logic makes sense.

Later, he points out a second problem that writers sometimes run into:

Sometimes there are aspects of a project that can’t be checked out in advance. You simply have to sit down, do the writing, and leave yourself open to whatever judgment shows up.

In his post, Jack provides real examples of how these two things have impacted his own work. It is a fascinating peek into the way a writer works. Go check it out. And be sure to read through to the end. There is some interesting Alex Benedict news, if you pay attention.

Review: Firebird by Jack McDevitt (5-stars)


Jack McDevitt’s latest novel, Firebird (Ace, 2011), is the sixth adventure following Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath. Alex is a well-known antiquities dealer and Chase is his pilot and assistant.

After agreeing to look into the value of some objects that once belonged to the famous physicist Christopher Robin (who allegedly disappeared near his home and was presumably lost in the ocean), Chase and Alex uncover a series of events that Robin was investigating himself: sightings of unidentified spaceships that appeared out of nowhere and then faded away. Their investigation takes them to a number of worlds, including in which one of the worst disasters in human history took place. The world is dangerous now, those who visit don’t return. But Alex and Chase brave that world in search for answers. What they ultimately find–the why Robin disappeared, why the strange ships have been appearing and disappearing throughout history, will take your breath away. And what they do about it makes for one of the most nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat climaxes I’ve read in a long time.

Firebird is the best Alex Benedict novel yet and it just goes to show that as good a writer as Jack McDevitt is (see my review of Time Travelers Never Die), he keeps getting better. This novel presses all of my science fiction buttons: it’s got a fascinating mystery, big cosmological events, black holes, lost spaceships, artificial intelligence. While the story itself, told as always from Chase’s point of view, focuses on the mystery, it can’t help but reveal new facets to characters I have grown to think of as friends. At times, the tension is high between Alex and Chase and we get a glimpse of how they came together in the first place. We also learn more about the AIs in this distant future, and the subject of the novel allows for intriguing discussions of philosophical questions: religion, intelligence, and what it means to be sentient.

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Writers and writers

I think that there is some kind of transition period between being just a fan of science fiction to being a science fiction writer. At least, that’s the way it is working out for me. Despite having some street cred (3 professional sales), I still look at other writers as if they are, well, Writers. I am not a naturally shy person, but I do get nervous around these Writers, and I know exactly why that it: I still think of them as demi-gods.

Part of it is that while I have some street cred, I don’t have a whole lot and I suppose there is a feeling of inadequacy surrounding that. I think to myself, here is this Science Fiction Writer who has sold dozens of stories, received countless award nominations, published several novels. They are so calm and self-assured about it all. And then there’s me, barely out of fandom with my 3 story sales. How can they possibly take me seriously? And yet, they usually do. They treat me like one of their own and yet they are still demi-gods to me.

I think I am doing better about trying to stand at eye-level with other professional science fiction and fantasy writers, but this whole notion of actually being a writer is sometimes still unsettling to me–in a good way. I’ve always wanted to do this, and I tried and tried and tried, and I was not a very good story-teller when I started out, but I kept at it until one day, I was just good enough. After that first sale, things started to get a little bit easier, and that is almost entirely due to the Writers who have treated me so kindly: Michael A. Burstein, Barry N. Malzberg, Robert J. Sawyer, Allen Steele, Jack McDevitt, to name just a few. These guys are my Babe Ruths and Mickey Mantles, and yet they’ve all taken me seriously as a writer. You would think that would make it easier to approach other writers at conventions, and introduce myself, but for some reason, that imagined wall is still there: they are Writers and I’m just a writer.

I’m hoping to finally surmount the imagined wall this year–or, as Pink Floyd urged, tear it down–but it is not an easy thing to do. I can’t quite seem to place myself at the same level of the Writers whose stories I’ve enjoyed for a couple of decades. But I’ll try.

I wonder if other writers at my stage feel the same way? There is a feeling that the first sale wasn’t a fluke because you had a second sale. And then there was that third sale to one of the Big Three that made you a Full Active SFWA member. To some extent you still can’t believe it. But you’re still tempted to hold up those three sales, dear as they are to you, against those Writers you love so much and think: gee whiz! this one here has sold forty stories; this one more than one hundred with a dozen nominations for various awards. Will I ever be that good? Meanwhile your still struggling to make that next sale. It is a fun struggle, I’ll grant that, but when you see these Writers operate, you can still glimpse the difference between a rookie and a Pro.

I have met other writers, in passing: Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. There are some writers I will never get to meet: Isaac Asimov, Cyril Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, Arthur C. Clarke, Lester del Rey, L. Sprague de Camp. Those lost opportunities, gone forever are what motivate me most to meet those writers that I can meet. I always try to tell them how much I’ve enjoyed the stories they’ve written, how theirs has been an example to me. It comes off sounding mawkish, I think, but sincere nevertheless. And I try never to forget my own motto: that I am a fan first, and a writer second.

My 2010 Hugo and Nebula nominations

I’ve done my nominations for the Hugo and Nebula awards for 2010. There were several good novels and one superbly outstanding one. I didn’t read a whole lot of short fiction from 2010 so some of those categories are blank.  Nominations within each grouping are listed alphabetically by author.

Nebula Nominations

Best Novel

Best Short Story

Hugo Nominations

Best Novel

  • Echo by Jack McDevitt
  • WWW:Watch by Robert J. Sawyer
  • Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

Best Short Story

  • “Hope” by Michael A. Burstein (Destination:Future)
  • “What Will Come After” by Scott Edelman (What Will Come After)
  • “I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You In Reno” by Vylar Kaftan (Lightspeed, June 2010)

Best Related Work


Best Editor, Short Form

  • John Joseph Adams (Lightspeed)
  • Neil Clarke (Clarkesworld)
  • Stanley Schmidt (Analog)
  • Edmund Schubert (Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show)
  • Sheila Williams (Asimov’s)

Best Dramatic Short Form

  • “Course Correction” (Episode 19 of ABC’s Flashforward) by Robert J. Sawyer

Best Semiprozine

Best Fanzine

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

A quick comment on Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear. This is a single book that was split into two books by the publisher. This is not a series. There is no synopsis at the beginning of All Clear. All Clear starts exactly where Blackout left off and it is impossible to read that book and make any sense of it without having reading Blackout. I have therefore nominated the entire book, as written, for the Hugo and Nebula. I don’t know if this is allowed. I inquired on this but I haven’t yet gotten a response. It would seem remarkably silly to me to have to treat these books individually, but we’ll see how things turn out.

ETA: I have since learned that Blackout/All Clear is, in fact, being treated as one book.

Best books of 2010

I read 19 books in 2010 which is a far cry from those early days in the mid-late-90s when I was reading 40 books a year. I know there are people out there who read a lot more and all I can say is: I’m jealous.

The year started out with the fascinating biography of C. M. Kornbluth by Mark Rich and ended (just 20 minutes ago) with the absolutely stunning All Clear by Connie Willis.

Here are my picks for the year’s best reads:

Blackout/All Clear is the finest time travel novel I’ve ever read, and I’ve read plenty of them. I’ll have more to say about the novel (and it is one novel, despite being split into two books) in a subsequent post. Suffice it to say for now that I was absolutely blown away by the scope of the novel, the historical details, and the wonderfully brilliant writing.

Robert Silverberg said he would never write an autobiography but Other Spaces, Other Times is awfully autobiographical–and brilliant. I enjoyed every minute of that read.

Caesar and Christ is the third volume of Will Durant’s “Story of Civilization” and it’s richly detailed picture of life in ancient Rome made for a wonderful summer read for me.

Doomsday Book blew me away and I could barely put it down. The ending was unforgettable and proved to me just how remarkable a writer Connie Willis is.

A few honorable mentions:

There was some pretty good short fiction this year, too, but I’ll write about that in a subsequent post.

Review: Echo by Jack McDevitt (4 stars)

I finished reading Echo by Jack McDevitt on Saturday and like the previous books in the series, I totally enjoyed it. I am a science fiction fan at heart, but even within science fiction, there are certain types of stories that I find immensely enjoyable. Science fiction mysteries are among those stories, and Jack McDevitt is a master of the form. Echo is just another example of this.

The story is the fifth involving the antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his sidekick, Chase Kolpath. At Readercon this year, I sat with Jack in a Koffeeklatsch and he said that Chase was his favorite character to write, the one that he enjoyed the most. It shows in this latest mystery, where Chase and Alex come across an artifact written in a language that no one recognizes and which all clues point to the possibility that a third race of intelligent aliens might have been found–and covered up for some reason.  That’s about all I can say about the plot of the story without giving anything away.

As I said in my review of The Devil’s Eye, one thing I love about these books is how the world in which the characters live feels so real, despite taking place 9,000 years in the future. Jack does some things that makes it believable, at least in my eyes. First, there is a clear assumption that not too much in the way of basic human functioning and society changes. There is no Singularity here, which is a welcome relief. People eat in restaurants, they stay in hotels, they own houses, they travel. It’s the little touches like giving the restaurants names that make the world come alive. There are definitely things that place the story in the far future: the AIs, FTL, air taxis, anti-grav units, but it is also clear that these have evolved into the society over time and are not demonstrations to the reader of fantastic technology, but simply more examples of what Chase and Alex are used to.

In this story, we see both Chase and Alex struggling with the mystery they are following–to a breaking point–and we get some additional insight into both characters that we’ve never really gotten before.

Of course, the mystery itself is typical of Jack–and I mean that as a compliment. It starts by seeming virtually impossible and concludes by both surprising the reader, and making perfect, logical sense. I enjoyed the novel immensely and I’m already looking forward to this time next year when the next Alex Benedict/Chase Kolpath novel, Firebird, will be released.

Science fiction mysteries


I had an epiphany the other day.

There is a certain kind of science fiction story (including novels) that I particularly like. It’s been hard for me to classify what these stories are. In the past I’ve thought of them as space opera, like Isaac Asimov‘s FOUNDATION series or Arthur C. Clarke‘s ODYSSEY series. But I’ve read other types of space opera and sometimes, I don’t come away with the same sense of excitement as I do with others. What’s the difference?

The difference, it occurred to me the other day, is that the stories I like best are science fiction mysteries. Back in the day, these were called “puzzle stories”. It was an epiphany for me in multiple senses because not only are these my favorite type of stories to read, they are also my favorite type of stories to write. (My story, “Take One for the Road”, coming out in Analog in 2011 will be my first published science fiction mystery.)

I enjoy the FOUNDATION stories so much because they are, at their core, puzzles.  I enjoy Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict novels so much because they, too, are puzzle stories. Even a novel like Joe Haldeman‘s THE FOREVER WAR is to some extent a puzzle story. And some of my favorite types of stories involve time travel and those are almost always puzzle stories. Not all science fiction stories are puzzles stories or even intended to be. And it would seem that the trend holds for me. If I got back through the list of science fiction books I’ve read, I tend to rate stories with a greater mystery or puzzle element higher than I do those that lack it. There are exceptions, but the general case is true. For instance, I did not particularly like Vernor Vinge’s RAINBOW’S END. And in looking back on it, I don’t see that as much of a mystery or puzzle story.  On the other hand, I loved Connie Willis’ DOOMSDAY BOOK and there was a definite element of mystery and puzzle-solving in that story.

Other examples:

I didn’t particularly enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s FALLING FREE, Samuel Delany’s BABEL-17, or Ray Bradbury’s FROM THE DUST RETURNED. As I can recall them, none had a particularly strong mystery element. However, I loved Joe Haldeman’s THE ACCIDENTAL TIME MACHINE, Barry Malzberg’s BEYOND APOLLO, and Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, all of which had stronger mystery and puzzle elements.

It is a great relief to discover this for a number of reasons. First, of course, it better describes what I enjoy reading and I can actively go seek this kind of stuff out more easily, now that I know what I’m looking for. Second, it helps me to understand why I don’t enjoy some of the more–shall we say, literary–efforts in science fiction that many of my friends and colleagues seem to love. I was not blown away by THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS or THE WINDUP GIRL the way others were, and I’ve always thought that to be a problem with me. In fact, those books simply don’t match my taste for the type of science fiction I really enjoy. It is a relief to discover that.  It also helps to explain why absolutely love David G. Hartwell’s mammoth anthology THE HARD S.F. RENAISSANCE.  Hard s.f. stories tend to me more puzzle-oriented.

This is not to say that I won’t or don’t read other science fiction or that I won’t or don’t attempt to write other types.  But for pure enjoyment, for slipping back into my vision of a Golden Age, the science fiction mystery is my drug of choice. There have been a lot of good writers in this subgenre over the years and it solves for me another mystery: why I like Jack McDevitt’s book so much:

He specializes in science fiction mysteries and in my opinion, there is no one better than Jack at this art.

Review: The Devil’s Eye by Jack McDevitt (4-stars)

I haven’t finished a book since mid-August, my longest drought on record, and there was no better book to break that drought than Jack McDevitt’s The Devil’s Eye. This is the fourth installment in Jack’s series of science fiction mysteries involving Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath.  Benedict is a trader of antiquities and Kolpath is his pilot and sidekick. Together, they solve mysteries that generally start with the discovery of some ancient artifact that cannot be explained. The stories take place more than 9,000 years in our future.

These novels are pure fun for me and the more I think about it, they are the type of stories that I enjoy writing. (In fact, my story, “Take One for the Road” coming out in Analog in 2011 is probably best-described as my attempt at a Jack McDevitt science fiction mystery.) Jack does an amazing job of taking a seemingly impossible event and pulling together a plausible explanation for it.  In The Devil’s Eye, the event is a memory wipe without explanation, and the results–well, I don’t want to give anything away, but the story along the way has perhaps the biggest scope of any Alex Benedict novel so far.

The story involves political intrigue, travel to the far end of the galaxy, and grand cosmic events, all wrapped up into a tight mystery that keeps you reading to the very last page. The world that McDevitt paints in these novels is one that I wish actually existed.  (The only other time I’ve felt this way is in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation universe.) Alex and Chase are like old friends. One thing I particularly like about this series is that it is a series only in characters. While there is occasional mention of events from previous books, the books are only very loosely connected and the novels themselves stand as independent mysteries, almost like the Agatha Christie Hercule Poroit novels.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Devil’s Eye and I highly recommend it. I’ve already started on the next Alex Benedict novel, Echo, released just last month.