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Outbound by Jack McDevitt
Review by Ernest Lilley
ISFiC Press  
Date: Nov 10, 2006 / Show Official Info /

The collection is broken up into five themes: Local Abberations, Deep Space, Cosmic Cocktails, The Big Downtown (a theme in one story), and Shots in the Dark (Essays). I've mostly read his deep space novels, though I was pleased to find a few stories in here I already knew, including one ("Ignition") that I actually commissioned for my Future Washington anthology.

Three of the first block of stories deal with various consequences of realizing AI in the near future. "The Candidate" puts George Washington in a presidential race, "Henry James, This One's For You" channels what must surely be every publisher's hope and every editor's nightmare, and "Combinations" gives the author a chance to engage us with a game of chess, which is fun since we only deal with the personalities involved and never have to face the fact that we're chess idiots ourselves. Not that I have any issues.

"Date with Destiny" and "Windows" both deal with political realities, though the first is a bit contrived for me, and the second proves his comment that he's lousy at naming stories. "Nothing Ever Happens In Rock City" is a nice exercise in showing what the world of science looks like from the outside, and even though I'd read it before it was fun to revisit, not a bad sign.

On to Deep Space, "The Mission" retells a classic SF tale, that of astronauts that come back to a ruined Earth, but from the next generation's standpoint. "Melville On Iapetus" like "Ignition" later in the collection, is a story written about someone trying to figure out what a statue means, this one on a moon of Saturn, the other buried under the Potomac. "The Far Shore" is the author's take on the lone stranded astronaut story, alone but for radio broadcasts from Earth to keep him company, and "In The Tower", my favorite in this block does indeed have an alien monster in it, but one that Pogo ("We have met the enemy and he is us.") would have felt at home with.

Cosmic Cocktails are quirky little stories with an O'Henryesque twist at the end. The first of these, "Whistle" says a lot about much of McDevitt's writing. It's thoughtful, has a pill of bitter irony in the middle, and leaves you feeling wistful. The author has earned a right to those feelings, considering that he served in the Navy during the late fifties and early sixties and sweated out the Cold War up close, even if he was never shot at. "Valkyrie" is a tribute to those who fight, and a sort of literary prayer that it means something. "Ignition" which I've mentioned before, was written for an anthology about Washingtonian Futures, and while it's a fair story, I'd rather have had "The Candidate" in the collection. Coming to grips with AIs in politics appeals more to me that dealing with repressive theocracies. "Lighthouse" is another adventures in science story, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Looking over the array of short pieces, you quickly get a survey course in Jack's interests. AIs, SETI (preferably by human crewed starships, but not always), Chess, Not having the world blow up. Those sorts of things. You also get some terrific essays by the author about writing, reading and living in this future. In fact, I think that his essays are every bit as good as his fiction.

Barry N. Malzberg's (non)introduction, which spans several pages and during which he lists all reasons he won't be writing one, says that McDevitt is "a good guy, a good writer, occasionally a great writer." To which I initially bridled. "Occasionally?" But Malzberg has one of the keener minds in SF, and he's right on the mark here. McDevitt's stories are very, very consistent, and only occasionally great. I think they're held back by his ferociously reasonable approach to things, and if he would let himself go just a little more he might hit great more often.

Though Jack grew up in the north, or at least in Philadelphia, he seems to have taken his adopted South's themes of things and chances lost to heart. While I agree we can be grateful that the good old days of boldly outgoing SF are decades behind us, I think that the author's sense of reality robs his endings of a certain amount of satisfaction. We rarely get victories, and are often happy to settle for understanding. The universe is a cold place, true, but I think the author misses some of the warmth to be had around the campfire. That may well not be a fault, but a statement, and though it leaves me occasionally disquieted at the end of his tales, I'm not about to give up his fine writing and deep space vistas just to be constantly reassured that the cosmos cares.

"The Big Downtown" is my favorite story, maybe because it runs counter to that assessment. It's classic noir mystery, though set a bit forward in time, and the tough PI already has enough cynicism without the universe adding any. Maybe that's why I like it. If you start out expecting the worst, anything you get is an improvement. It's a pity that ISFiC Press is only running off a thousand copies of Outbound, a collection of "sixteen stories and eight essays by Jack McDevitt." You can get yours at the usual places, though you may have to put in a special order. On the other hand, if you're any where near Windycon 33, where Jack will be GoH and the book will be released, you really should go get a copy and make him sign it for you. That is, if you like science fiction.

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