John Charles McDevitt (1935-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
Born 1935, in Philadelphia, PA; Education: LaSalle College, B.A. 1957; Wesleyan University, M.A.L.S., 1971. Hobbies and other interests: Chess, astronomy, history, theater.
Agent—Ralph Vicinanza, 111 Eighth Ave., Suite 1501, New York, NY 10011.
Novelist and educator. Woodrow Wilson High School, Levittown, PA, instructor in English, history, and theatre director, 1963-68; Mount St. Charles Academy, Woonsocket, RI, instructor in English, history, and theatre, 1968-71; Newfound Memorial High School, Bristol, NH, English department chair, 1971-73; U.S. Customs Service, customs inspector in Pembina, ND, 1975-82, regional training officer in Chicago, IL, 1982-85, and supervisor and management trainer specializing in motivational techniques and leadership at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, GA, 1985-95; full-time writer, 1995—. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1958-62, as commissioned officer.
U.S. Chess Federation, Science Fiction Writers of America.
Nebula award nomination for best short story, 1984, for "Cryptic"; Locus Award for best first novel, and Philip K. Dick Award special award, both 1987, both for The Hercules Text; Hugo Award and Nebula Award nominations for best short story, 1988, for "The Fort Moxie Branch," and for best novella, 1996, for "Time Travelers Never Die"; UPC Awards, 1992, for novella "Ships in the Night," and 1994, for "Time Travelers Never Die"; Homer Award, best novella, 1996, for "Time Travelers Never Die"; Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist, Science Fiction Foundation, University of Liverpool Library, 1996, for The Engines of God; Nebula Award finalist, 1998, for Moonfall; Phoenix Award, Deepsouthcon, 2000, for body of work; John W. Campbell Award for best novel of the year, 2003, for Omega.
SCIENCE-FICTION NOVELS; UNDER NAME JACK MCDEVITT
The Hercules Text (also see below), Ace (New York, NY), 1986.
A Talent for War (also see below), Ace (New York, NY), 1989, reprinted, 2004.
The Engines of God ("Academy Universe" series), Ace (New York, NY), 1994.
Ancient Shores, HarperPrism (New York, NY), 1996.
Standard Candles (short story collection), Tachyon Publications (San Francisco, CA), 1996.
Eternity Road, HarperPrism (New York, NY), 1997.
Moonfall, HarperPrism (New York, NY), 1998.
Hello out There (contains The Hercules Text and A Talent for War), Meisha Merlin (Atlanta, GA), 2000.
Infinity Beach, HarperPrism (New York, NY), 2000.
Deepsix ("Academy Universe" series), EOS (New York, NY), 2001.
Chindi ("Academy Universe" series), Ace (New York, NY), 2002.
Omega ("Academy Universe" series), Ace (New York, NY), 2003.
Polaris (sequel to A Talent for War), Ace (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of short stories to magazines, including Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Chess Life, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Twilight Zone, and Full Spectrum. Short fiction has been anthologized in books, including Nebula Award Showcase 2004, edited by Vonda N. McIntyre, Roc, 2004, and Cosmic Tales: Adventures in Sol System, edited by T. K. F. Weisskopf, Baen Books, 2005.
Work in Progress
Seeker, a novel.
Although one of his childhood ambitions was to become a science-fiction writer, John Charles McDevitt did not realize his dream until he was in his forties. Prompted by his wife, Maureen, McDevitt wrote a short story, "The Emerson Effect," which was purchased by Twilight Zone magazine. Since then, McDevitt—who has been writing under his nickname Jack McDevitt—has produced novels that include Moonfall, Infinity Beach, and The Engines of God, many of which focus on the adventures of starship captain Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins. In addition to being included in the short-story collection Standard Candles, McDevitt's stories have appeared in various science-fiction periodicals.
Interestingly, until 1995, McDevitt managed to find the time to write his fiction while working full-time for the United States Customs Service, from 1975 to 1982, based in the small town of Pembina, North Dakota. In fact, his job with Customs revived his interest in science fiction—indirectly, as the author explained to SATA: "It became so routine at one point that I began writing as a diversion." A town with a population of just six hundred, Pembina appears as Fort Moxie in several of McDevitt's short stories and in his novel, Ancient Shores.
Characterized as an author of "hard" science fiction due to his focus on technology, McDevitt is also considered a "humanist" science-fiction writer. His stories typically pose an ordinary person in unusual, sometimes threatening situations which often result from encounters with intellectually superior aliens or powerful governments. As McDevitt has commented: "I don't use antagonists (in the sense of villainous characters) in my writing. Each character thinks he/she is doing the right thing. The conflicts arise from differences in perception." McDevitt also makes occasional use of religious themes in his fiction, exposing his characters to circumstances that challenge their belief systems. Said McDevitt: "I have no [religious] affiliation, but I enjoy creating situations in which characters must confront what they say they believe."
McDevitt's first novel, The Hercules Text, finds protagonist Harry Carmichael involved in a race with cold war Russian scientists to decode information transmitted by extra-galactic aliens from a source in the Hercules constellation. Speculation that the transmission's data could have military applications has caused each government to scramble for the answers. Among the individuals assisting Carmichael in the processing of the information is a scientist and Catholic priest whose involvement with science may have cost him his faith.
McDevitt's second novel, A Talent for War, is set thousands of years in the future, as antiquities dealer Alex Benedict searches for the truth about archaeologist Gabriel Benedict's mysterious death, a death that involved an idolized war hero named Christopher Sim and Sim's mysterious ship the Corsarius. While the ship supposedly was destroyed in Sim's final military engagement, it has turned up orbiting a distant world some two centuries later, and Benedict seems to have discovered why. Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Lisa Lane praised A Talent for War as "a thought-provoking book that will capture the imagination," while Booklist reviewer Roland Green asserted that the novel "features excellent pacing, a wonderfully lived-in world, superior characterizations, and a rare quality of ethical concern." In McDevitt's 2004 novel Polaris Alex Benedict returns to solve yet another mystery, this time about a ship whose captain and crew mysteriously disappear while positioned to view a white dwarf collide with a small sun.
The first novel in his four-volume "Academy Universe" series, McDevitt's The Engines of God, similarly revolves around a people's search for understanding of seemingly inexplicable events, this time the discovery of a mysterious formation on a moon of a world in space. "With plenty of startling plot twists, a heavy dose of intrigue, and an unusual amount of character development for science fiction, McDevitt holds us fast right through to a thrilling finish," maintained Booklist's Carl Hays in a review of The Engines of God. A Kirkus Reviews critic similarly asserted that "McDevitt is at his best award-winning style in this intelligent and wide-ranging novel."
The second novel in the "Academy Universe" sequence, Deepsix focuses on the fate of Maleiva III, a planet that harbors ancient winged predators that have prevented human colonization. Now, about to be absorbed by a gas giant named Morgan's World, Maleiva III—now referred to fatalistically as Deepsix—reveals that it houses a tower structure and other ruins of a former civilization. But is anyone still alive? Due to her archeological expertise, Hutchins is ordered to land on the planet and investigate, but as the planet nears destruction her means of flight are destroyed in an earthquake and escape from the doomed planet appears impossible. Citing his "expert sense of pacing" and his "knack for cliffhanging suspense," Library Journal reviewer Jackie Cassada praised Deepsix as a compelling "story of survival and personal redemption," while a Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "those who like their science hard and their alien adventures bloody" will also enjoy the futuristic tale. Also approving of the novel's energetic pace, School Library Journal reviewer Paul Brink added that McDevitt's "well-rounded characters grow through their adventures, without that growth seeming trite or inevitable."
A group of curious and wealthy space radio buffs calling themselves the Contact Society hire Hutchins to help them explore a mysterious signal but get more than they bargained for in Chindi, the third novel in the "Academy Universe" series. The source proves to be an artificial planetary system where unpredictable and seemingly impossible orbits and some inexplicable alien artifacts, as well as a giant spaceship, ultimately prove threatening to Hutchins and her surviving party. While calling the novel "curiously old fashioned," a Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "first contact is McDevitt's favorite theme, and he's also good at creating large and rather spectacular astronomical phenomena." Also impressed with the intriguing plot, a Kirkus Reviews writer concluded that Chindi's "cliffhanging resolution" is "well up to McDevitt's previous high standards," while Booklist reviewer Green praised the book as a "lovingly detailed exploration of interstellar reconnaissance and alien contact."
Bringing to a close the "Academy Universe" series, the 2003 novel Omega focuses on a mysterious cloud formation that is capable, through lightning, of destroying, at random, artificially built structures and the life-forms that created them. The first of these omega clouds was sighted thirty years ago; now another one has been spotted, and it appears to be headed toward a small, bronze-age civilization that has just been discovered on a distant planet. While Academy scientists attempt to determine the purpose of the omega clouds in the hopes that they can stop their destructive capabilities, operations director Hutchins is ordered to save the threatened population but avoid detection. "The cloud's implacable threat keeps the action tightly focused," noted a Publishers Weekly critic, adding that Omega showcases McDevitt's skill at "imagining strange challenges—and at picturing humans coping when things don't work out as planned." The author "forges out of ethical dilemmas a plot as gripping as any action fan could want," added Green in Booklist, while in Library Journal Cassada wrote that Omega combines "hard science, gripping adventure, and engaging characters" in a "taut tale of suspense."
While continuing to add to his "Academy Universe" series between the mid-1990s and 2003, McDevitt also continues to author standalone novels, such as Ancient Shores, Moonfall, Infinity Beach, and Eternity Road. Published in 1996, Ancient Shores focuses on events set in motion by an ordinary man's discovery of a quite remarkable artifact. In the story, a North Dakota wheat farmer, while clearing a field, unearths a sea vessel that appears to be in perfect condition. Scientific tests reveal that the boat has been constructed of unknown materials that will never decompose, a discovery that has tremendous implications for a global economy that relies heavily on obsolescence. "A large cast of colorful characters, a wry overview of society's extreme behavior in the face of the unknown, and a surprise ending make this irresistibly compelling reading," asserted Booklist reviewer Carl Hays.
Taking place on Earth eight centuries after the twenty-first-century plague ended the first human civilization, Eternity Road relates the story of archaeologist Karik Endine's quest to locate a place called Haven. Although none of his fellow Illyrians believe it exists, Haven is said to hold the answer to questions regarding the mysterious "Roadmakers," the engineers of a series of mysterious concrete runways. Endine and a few followers enter the wilderness in an attempt to locate Haven, but he returns alone, claiming that he alone survived barbarian attacks. When Endine finally dies, silversmith Chaka Milana goes though her effects and realizes that Endine had indeed found the place he had been seeking on that fateful expedition. In order to discover why his father denied his discovery, Chaka starts her own expedition eastward into the unknown in an "absorbing" novel that a Publishers Weekly reviewer compared to such classic backward-looking science fiction as Farenheit 451 and Brave New World.
McDevitt's 2000 novel Infinity Beach focuses on Kim Brandywine, who lives on the luxuriously terraformed planet Greenway. Receiving information about her missing clone-sister, who disappeared in the Severin Valley decades before along with several other space researchers, Kim is prompted to begin an investigation. However, Kim's sister's disappearance and probable death was linked to a tragedy-haunted space yacht called the Hunter and to a deadly mountain explosion in the Valley region, which people now say is haunted by a strange presence. As her investigations reveal that aliens are involved, Kim questions whether contact with aliens will benefit or destroy the comfortable lifestyle her race has finally acquired in a novel that School Library Journal reviewer Pam Johnson praised as a "wonderful mix of science-based fiction, mystery, and romance." Roland Green also cited the novel in Booklist, noting that McDevitt's "exquisitely timed revelations maximize suspense" while his well-drawn characters and "many original touches" also help to maintain reader interest.
Commenting on the human and spiritual elements of his stories, McDevitt commented in Locus: "Anything that's intelligent almost by definition is going to want to explain its existence. That gets you into the area of myth, into religious cycles. I would expect that if you could go back far enough with any intelligent species, assuming there are others, you'd find religious systems. The real question might be, what becomes of the religious systems, in time? Maybe you toss those over the side. If science is the new religion, science fiction is maybe the new mythology. I think science fiction is a more noble effort at resolving some of these issues than religion ever was anyhow."
Characterizing science fiction as the ultimate "what-could-possibly-have-happened-here?" story, McDevitt explained his initial motivation for writing in the genre to Alien Online interviewers Rob Rowntree and Lisa Negus: "I have a lifelong passion for SF. And there were things I wanted to see up close. I wanted to be able to watch a white dwarf from nearby, to follow the action while a binary system encounters a third star, to ride along while archaeologists unearthed an alien civilization, maybe to be present when we actually encountered a set of neighbors. We live in a remarkable place. I wanted to have a hand in looking around. (Even if it was a fictitious hand.)"
Biographical and Critical Sources
Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Booklist, February 15, 1989, Roland Green, review of A Talent for War, p. 977; September 15, 1994, Carl Hays, review of The Engines of God, p. 118; April 15, 1996, Carl Hays, review of Ancient Shores, p. 1425; May 15, 1997, Roland Green, review of Eternity Road, p. 1567; April, 1998, John Mort, review of Moonfall, p. 1307; February 15, 2000, Roland Green, review of Infinity Beach, p. 1091; February 15, 2001, Bryan Baldus, review of Deepsix, p. 1122; July, 2002, Roland Green, review of Chindi, p. 1833; October 15, 2003, Roland Green, review of Omega, p. 399.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1994, review of The Engines of God, p. 1032; March 1, 1996, p. 342; April 15, 2002, review of Chindi, p. 533.
Library Journal, May 15, 1997, Susan Hamburger, review of Eternity Road, p. 106; April 15, 1998, Jackie Cassada, review of Moonfall, p. 118; February 15, 2000, Jackie Cassada, review of Infinity Beach, p. 201; March 15, 2001, Jackie Cassada, review of Deepsix, p. 110; July, 2002, Jackie Cassada, review of Chindi, p. 127; November 15, 2003, Jackie Cassada, review of Omega, p. 101.
Locus, December, 1994, p. 65; February, 1995, pp. 4-5, 74-75.
Publishers Weekly, April 21, 1997, review of Eternity Road, p. 65; February 23, 1998, review of Moonfall, p. 56; January 31, 2000, review of Infinity Beach, p. 86; February 26, 2001, review of Deepsix; June 24, 2002, review of Chindi, p. 44; October 13, 2003, review of Omega, p. 62.
School Library Journal, July, 2000, Pam Johnson, review of Infinity Beach, p. 128; August, 2001, Paul Brink, review of Deepsix, p. 209.
Science Fiction Chronicle, June, 1997.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1989, Lisa Lane, review of A Talent for War, p. 166; December, 1994, p. 288.
Alien Online, http://www.thealienonline.net/ (October 22, 2004), Rob Rowntree and Lisa Negus, interview with McDevitt.
Jack McDevitt Home Page, http://www.sfwa.org/members/mcdevitt/ (December 18, 2004).
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