Jack McDevitt

Altair Australia Books



Ships in the Night

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Ships in the Night is Jack McDevitt's second collection.  The first, Standard Candles, was published in 1996 by Tachyon Press, a small press from San Francisco.  The follow-up has now been published by Altair Australia Books, a small press from Blackwood, Australia.  Unfortunately, what this means is that neither book is likely to be seen by large readerships, which is a pity, since McDevitt's short stories, while perhaps not as well known as his novels, are well worth reading.

Ships in the Night opens with the Nebula-nominated "Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City," which tells of a small town in which nothing ever happens, except in reality it is simply a matter of the inability of the narrator to see anything out of the ordinary.  It forms a very sharp contract to Arnold Whitaker, the protagonist of the title story, "Ships in the Night," with which McDevitt closes the collection.

"Time's Arrow" is McDevitt's take on time travel.  His inventor looks at the issue in purely theoretical terms, even as he is making practical experiments.  The story, which is told from his friend's point of view, is reminiscent in some ways of Wells's The Time Machine, although it shares few specific similarities.  While Wells's time traveler was interested in the far future, McDevitt's is more interested in viewing historical events, yet cannot appreciate the ones he actually sees.

McDevitt's wag the dog story, "Report from the Rear," is a cynical look at war reportage. First published in 1998, the reader can see clearly its relevance in a time when newspapers are questioning their own reporters coverage of the current war in Iraq and the events leading up to the war.  The piece is short, but powerful given the importance of a free and unfettered press in a democratic country.

Set at a lunar observatory, "Blinker" examines the question of human involvement in space exploration against the use of robotic and remote controlled installations.  When the outgoing head of the observatory and his replacement are touring the otherwise deserted facility, they find themselves cut off from the rest of the moon with their atmosphere leaking out.  Everything indicates that the observatory would be best handled by computers, but McDevitt is enough of a romantic that he sees the need to have humans do their own exploring and work.

"The Tomb" looks at a world in which Rome broke up following Constantine's defeat at Milvian Bridge.  McDevitt's story is influenced as much by Percy Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" as the Roman Empire is lost to the inhabitants of this world who look upon the works of Rome and see nothing but ruins and decay.  A Northerner spending the night among the ruins of a Roman city finds himself face to face with a scholar from the end of the world who is able to spread some light on the strange tomb in the center of the city and the runes which tell the story of the lost civilization.

"Ships in the Night" introduces Arnold Whitaker, a small town hardware store owner who has found his niche in his home town of Fort Moxie, North Dakota. Unlike the main character of "Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City," when strangeness begins to happen to him, in this case a voice from no-where, he takes notice.  Despite taking place on earth, "Ships in the Night" most fully captures the spirit and sense of wonder which inhabit so many of McDevitt's novels.  His characters are interesting and believable and the situations they find themselves in appear straight out of the golden age of science fiction.

The stories demonstrate McDevitt's ability to invoke a sense of wonder.  In his novels, this is shown time and time again, until the ideas are almost overwhelming.  In his short fiction, McDevitt focuses on just one idea and is able to devote his full attention to it.  Readers who remember their golden age of science fiction with fondness would do well to read McDevitt's works, both his novels and his short stories.

Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City Report from the Rear
The Far Shore Oculus
Good Intentions Last Contact
Time's Arrow Midnight Clear
Dead in the Water Blinker
Windrider The Tomb
Deus Tex Ships in the Night

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