Space Ramblings

The Jack McDevitt Problem

The thing about Jack McDevitt is unlike a lot of the hyped up writers like Scalzi, McLeod, Banks, Stross and Steele, he can actually both write well and tell a story (being able to do both is getting to be a rare thing with a split between writers who write poorly but can tell stories and writers who write well but don’t want to lower themselves to actually telling stories, not to mention the always popular writers who can do neither). Any of the books in his Academy series still make everything in Allen Steele’s Coyote universe look like finger paintings.

The problem is that one McDevitt novel may look great, but two look like the same novel, just written twice. Case in point, Eternity Road and Engines of God. Both are great novels on their own with a powerful and moving journey, strongly defined characters and a larger message. But despite their different settings, one in a post-apocalyptic America and one in deep space, both are really the same novel. Don’t believe me? Both follow a strong female character in the far future who with a small group of other characters begins a journey to understand cultural artifacts and recovery their meaning. Along the way many of the side characters die in clumsy and easily avoidable ways, only for the central character to reach journey’s end and discover the larger meaning of her own life and humanity’s too.

Yes those novels are old, but look at Seeker which took home a Nebula, a few years back (but then these days he almost always makes the short list), and it’s the same story again. Again we have a science fiction version of archeology. This time in a mix of Eternity Road and Engines of God, it’s deep space artifacts from an American or post-American culture. Strong female character on a journey to track cultural artifacts, etc, etc and there you have it. The same novel. Again.

I could go on and point out the ridiculously contemporary nature of McDevitt’s futures. Or his general weakness on the Science Fiction front which makes Stephen King’s claim that he is the heir to Asimov and Clarke ridiculous. (The only thing more ridiculous is Stephen King getting to decide who the logical heir to the grandmasters of Science Fiction is. Can we get Fred Pohl and Larry Niven to decide who the heir to Stephen King is?)

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