Saturday, April 21, 2018

Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt is the Nebula Award–winning author of The Academy series, including The Long Sunset. He went to La Salle University, then joined the Navy, drove a cab, became an English teacher, took a customs inspector’s job on the northern border, and didn’t write another word for a quarter-century. He received a master’s degree in literature from Wesleyan University in 1971. He returned to writing when his wife, Maureen, encouraged him to try his hand at it in 1980. Along with winning the Nebula Award in 2006, he has also been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and the Philip K. Dick Award. In 2015 he was awarded the Robert A. Heinlein Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Recently I asked McDevitt about what he was reading. His reply:
I’m still trying to catch up on reading assignments from my college years, which takes us back to the 1950’s. The writing abilities of people like Hemingway, Willa Cather, Henry James, and Jane Austen continue to blow me away. Two weeks ago, I finished my first plunge into Theodore Dreiser, and, as I’ve done with others, I wondered how it had taken me so long to catch up with him. The novel was Sister Carrie, in which a young woman moves to Chicago to live with her married sister while she tries to find a job. This is somewhere around 1910, a time when employment wasn’t readily available. She’s pretty quickly out on her own, trailed by two older men who, despite occasionally questionable behavior, nevertheless gained my empathy as they wrecked their lives, and came close to ruining Carrie’s. The novel provides a strong sense of what life was like for ordinary working-class people during that time. I’ll be moving on to Jennie Gerhardt and Twelve Men, and to his short stories as soon as I can make time.

I’m about to finish Gordon Prange’s At Dawn We Slept, an account of the Pearl Harbor attack. Unlike everything else I’ve read or watched on the subject, Prange’s book does not limit itself to the attack, and to the American perspective. We get a detailed account of the Japanese point of view, their debates on whether starting a war with the United States is a good idea, the planning that went into the project, and the strategy they used to get a major naval force of carriers and destroyers within striking range of Oahu without being detected.

Prange tracks the diplomatic efforts on both sides to avoid war, though the Japanese appear to make up their minds early that an attack is inevitable. We see the successful efforts, known as ‘Magic,’ to break the Japanese cryptosystem, and the communications breakdowns on our side that result in our being caught flatfooted on December 7. And we get to witness the combat through the eyes of both sides.

The aftermath also plays out in detail. The automatic reaction is to blame Gen. Walter Short, commander of the Army forces on Oahu, and Admiral Husband Kimmel, the Navy admiral in charge. They are not without blame, but there was plenty of responsibility to be passed around. Various military and congressional investigation committees are put together to try to get at the truth. But there are stumbling blocks to managing a rational analysis of who’s at fault. FDR is a popular favorite for reelection in 1944 for a third term, and the Republicans understand their only real chance to take the White House back lies in their ability to lay the blame on him. Also leading to problems, many of the Army and Navy witnesses have no desire to see their own services held responsible.

I’ve read three Dickens novels and have about twenty to go. I’m just starting A Tale of Two Cities. Like most of the others, this is one I’ve been wanting to get to for most of my life. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ is probably the most famous opening lines of any novel ever. I’m only a handful of chapters in, but I’m hooked already.

And finally, I’m about halfway through Einstein’s Greatest Mistake, by David Bodanis. It’s a biography, the first Einstein book that might be described as easily readable, but also informative.
Visit Jack McDevitt's website.

--Marshal Zeringue