From the Outer Rim #4: ECHO by Jack McDevitt

If you read a lot of mysteries, then you already know what a MacGuffin is.

MacGuffin (n.)

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.

The Fuzzy Line between Science Fiction and Fantasy

The line was once sharp and clear.

Science fiction was based on science fact, and provided a story that extrapolated outward from hard reality. Think 2001. Planet of the Apes. The novels of Isaac Asimov, Jack McDevitt, Greg Benford. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. And although it’s more commonly lumped in with horror, the first generally-accepted work of science fiction was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Fantasy was made up of supernatural, otherworldly tales, without a scientific or realistic basis. The Lord of the Rings. Conan the Barbarian. Michael Moorcock’s Elric tales (which I consider far superior to Tolkien). The novels of Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, H. P. Lovecraft.

The line began to blur with media. Radio, movies and television. To reach a mass audience, it was believed you had to dumb the product down. Go for action; forget smarts.

In the pulps, the Shadow was a crimefighter who used technology, illusion and deductive reasoning to bring evildoers to justice in his quest to prove that, “Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows…”

On the radio, The Shadow had the hypnotic and supernatural “power to cloud men’s minds.” He also had a sidekick, Margo Lane.

They dumbed it down.

In the books, Tarzan was an English Lord who was raised since birth by apes. He taught himself how to read English using his parents’ books, learned French, married Jane Porter and ran a huge plantation in Africa.

In the movies, Tarzan could barely utter more than monosyllables, he kept Jane in a treehouse and fought everything that crossed his path.

They dumbed it down.

Star Trek was as intelligent as ’60s sci-fi could get. Then it grew up, birthed an intelligent next generation, and that gave subsequently gave birth to a more evolved galactic battlestar.

The real dumbing down occurred in 1977, when a movie nerd made a little movie that was a fantasy wearing science fiction trappings. It was the spirit of the pulps — space opera — combined with a contemporary imagination…but not much science. It was Star Wars, and it was good storytelling.

Now we have a new Star Trek, a huge success, and a lot of fun — but was it really smart? Is it really the next generation of intelligent science fiction?

Here. You be the judge.

As for me, I’ll be reading McDevitt and Moorcock, Burroughs and Stoker — writers on both sides of that once-distinct line.

Remember the Sci-Fi ’70s?


I hate the term sci-fi — it’s a holdout from the days of hi-fi and has a juvenile connotation to the public at large — but most people won’t know what I mean by F & SF, so sci-fi it is.

Here are a couple of vector art pieces I found on i09, a daily sci-fi (damn it) blog. They’re by artist Dusty Abell, and you can find more of his work on They bring back a lot of fun memories; even though I was mostly in my teens during this time period, if it was sci-fi, I watched it, even if it was sandwiched between Archie and Scooby Doo.

Abell is obviously a fan and has drawn these from the heart. Unfortuantely, I don’t remember all of them. In the version below, I circled the figures or ships that I don’t recognize. Please let me know who or what they are if you remember them.

And here are the heroes of ’70s Saturday Morning shows…

Most of them I can’t place at all, except for Isis, Capt. Marvel (Shazam) and Land of the Lost. I think the Wonder Twins are right in the center, but I never watched that show, so I don’t know for sure.

Have fun reminiscing. Me? I won’t be entirely happy until Johnny Depp remakes Dark Shadows . . .

Big freakin book

Of interest over at i09, a great blog all about things science fictiony, is this article about why SF and fantasy novels have become longer over the the last forty years or so. Of even more interest to me is the accompanying photo:

Maybe it’s a throwback to when I started reading comics, and Batman and Robin would fight the Joker or the Riddler while performing an acrobatic ballet across typewriters the size of houses, or throw a hoodlum into a human sized blender; but I love the idea of giant books that one could just step into and enter worlds of wonder…

If you have any idea where this photo was taken, please let me know.