If you read a lot of mysteries, then you already know what a MacGuffin is.
A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is “a plot element that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction”. The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Common examples are money, victory, glory, survival, a source of power, or a potential threat, or it may simply be something entirely unexplained. (Wikipedia)
There are MacGuffins in a lot of science fiction novels, too, and in Jack McDevitt’s latest novel, Echo, the MacGuffin is a stone tablet engraved with indecipherable characters, found abandoned in a yard on a human-colonized planet thousands of years in the future. At this time, our endeavors throughout space have uncovered only one other intelligent alien species, the Muties. So if the tablet wasn’t engraved by us or by the Muties, then . . . there’s someone else out there. (By coincidence, this story is breaking right now…)
The origin of the tablet is the mystery that propels Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath, antiquities dealers and accidental adventurers, into deep space, and Echo offers us a classic, if not near perfect, MacGuffin — mysterious, impenetrable, and deeply evocative of the unknown.
Echo is space opera for the 21st century — a Star Trek that’s much less militaristic and where the wonders of future technology are less technobabble than they are the normal workings of everyday life. Homes come with AI valets who answer the comm, read your mail, turn your lights on and off, and do research for you on the interstellar Web. The superluminal starships in McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series — as in his Priscilla Hutchins series — are also operated via AIs, and require a minimum amount of crew to maintain their operational integrity.
This is a space-faring future where we have attained the stars, and the Milky Way is just a galactic neighborhood.
McDevitt, as a writer, is clear and precise, and his prose is polished and clean. Stephen King has called him “the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.”
He’s wrong. McDevitt is a far better prose writer than Asimov ever was, but not yet as visionary as Clarke.
Echo is McDevitt’s 2010 novel — he gets one published once a year, and each one is welcome. But if his books have any one single problem — especially nowadays — it’s that they have become very comfortable, like a mystery series one comes to depend on for the usual murders, thrills, chills, and satisfying and moral conclusion.
This disappoints me a great deal. I see in McDevitt’s sentences a James Lee Burke of science fiction just waiting to burst out. Why Burke? He’s a noir writer, and his descriptive passages bring magic into our mundane, crime-ridden world.
Burke creates a world that comes alive through his tactile sense of description. McDevitt writes with almost scientific prose, and is short on evocative description.
He writes SF Noir.
I could be wrong, but I think that a novel a year actually hinders McDevitt’s growth as a writer. Don’t get me wrong — having an annual McDevitt story is wonderful. But for all his awards and accolades, I think McDevitt has an epic science fiction tapestry inside of him that could far surpass Asimov and Clarke, if he could nurture it properly. His most recent novels — Chindi, Omega, Polaris, and the non-series Time Travelers Never Die — are impeccably written and great space operas. But on a conceptual level they feel . . . minor. Good stories, but somehow missing hugely dramatic heart. Scale.
I’d love to see McDevitt write a huge, sprawling, self-contained epic, whether one book or four.
Echo is a MacGuffin — just the latest MacGuffin from Jack McDevitt that keeps us rolling with each novel. I think it’s time for his next MacGuffin to lead us to realms unknown, galaxies undiscovered, alien races undreamed of and magnificent destinies unexplored.
McDevitt is, I think, better than he knows — and much deeper and richer than his recent books.
Jack, I say: Time to bring it on.