The Science of Wonder
Author: Jack McDevitt
These days, my favorite kind of science fiction is the kind that Jack McDevitt
writes in his "Alex Benedict" novels and his "Academy" novels. Starhawk,
McDevitt's latest novel falls into the latter series. We last saw a Priscilla Hutchins
novel back in 2007 in Cauldron. Since then, "Hutch" has appeared in a couple of
stories: "Maiden Voyage" (Asimov's, January 2012); and "The Cat's Pajamas"
which appeared in Armored (2012) edited by John Joseph Adams. In Cauldron,
Hutch had moved on to the twilight of her career with the Academy. In Starhawk,
McDevitt takes us to the beginning of Hutch's career as a starship pilot.
As with all of the Academy novels, Starhawk is a near-future science fiction
adventure. The events in the novel take place toward the end of the 22nd century.
While there is still turmoil in the world, we see the beginnings of human expansion
to the stars. The Hazeltine drive allows faster-than-light travel, and opens up the
galaxy. When the novel opens we get to see Priscilla Hutchins on her check-ride
for her starship pilot's license. Her examiner, Captain Jake Loomis, takes her
through the ropes. During the check-ride, Priscilla and Jake discover the lander of a
starship lost several years earlier. The lander contains the body of one of the
passengers -- and this is where the adventure begins.
Priscilla and Jake then attempt to rescue a group of children from another starship
threatened with a bomb scare. They are successful in the rescue, but only at great
cost. The reason for the bomb scare is a theme that runs through the entire novel. A
corporation, Cosmic, is attempting to terraform a world to make it possible to be
colonized by humans. In doing so, however, there is evidence that they are
destroying the native life on the planet. Factions back on Earth are opposed to this
-- and some of them are not afraid to use violence to make their points and extract
There are at least three great things about Starhawk. First, the sense of wonder it
provides is big. Here we are, roaming the galaxy with ships that have FTL
capabilities. In the backdrop to all of this are the Monuments -- those massive
pieces of alien artwork that will be familiar to fans of the Academy series. There
are super-dense objects, aliens, both more and less advanced than humans, and the
kind of speculation that makes science fiction so much fun.
Second, there is a political undercurrent in Starhawk that echoes much of what we
see today in our own political situation. The big issue of the day in the late 22nd
century is not, say, universal health care, but instead terraforming. The arguments
on both sides, made by the pundits in the novel, give credibility to the world that
McDevitt has created. There are strong arguments on both sides of the issue, but
there are also loud-mouthed idiots just interested in hearing their own voices.
Third, there is the development of Priscilla Hutchins. We get a chance to spend
time with her at the beginning of her career. We get to watch her make the same
kind of beginner mistakes that we all make when we are young and brash. But we
also get to see Priscilla learn from her mistakes, and take the first tentative steps
toward the character we grow to love when we see her later in her career.
There is something else in Starhawk, and it is something that permeates all of
McDevitt's novels: truth. Perhaps more than anything else, the Academy novels
and the Alex Benedict novels are searches for the truth, no matter what that truth
might be. We see this in several forms in Starhawk: the truth of whether or not
terraforming is really dangerous -- as opposed to whether or not we believe it is
dangerous; the truth as to whether or not we are ready to interact with intelligences
far superior to our own; even the truth of our actions, whether we are heroes or
cowards, or, more than likely somewhere in between.
Starhawk provides a truth for Priscilla Hutchins, and it provides a fantastic science
fiction adventure for the rest of us.
Title: Old Mars
Author: Gardner Dozois & George R. R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam Books
Back when I was taking my Vacation in the Golden Age -- that is, reading through
every issue of Astounding Science Fiction from July 1939 through December 1950
(I got as far as December 1942 before I had to take a break) -- I fell in love with
stories on Mars and Venus. There was something charming about these stories. The
science was wrong, of course. There were no artificial canals on Mars, nor were
there dense jungles and deep oceans on Venus. But I loved how the authors'
imaginations could invent such sweeping backdrops for places we had not, at the
Of course, once probes and robots visited Mars and Venus, these visions were
shattered for the stark reality of what we found: a deserted, icy, wasteland on Mars,
and a poisonous inferno on Venus. Stories began to swing back in the opposite
direction, drawing on the science of what we found on Mars, and culminated with
such fantastic sagas as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series.
And yet, I missed the pastoral romance of those old Mars stories. Apparently, I
wasn't the only one. Gardner Dozois & George R. R. Martin missed them too, it
seems, and they decided to bring them back. Old Mars is the result. Old Mars is a
collection of fifteen stories, all of which reimagine Mars as we knew of it back
before we'd ever landed a probe. These are stories in which present day writers
write of Mars as if they were writing of a Mars from the Golden Age of science
Allen Steele's story "Martian Blood" opens this collection in fantastic fashion with
a story of a Martian tour guide, who takes an Earth scientist to visit Martian
aborigines in order to prove -- or disprove -- a theory of human origin. Steele also
quickly demonstrates how Mars is reimagined in the stories in this anthology with
a passage like this one, early on in the piece:
When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was The War of the Worlds --
the 1953 version, made about twelve years before the first probes went to
Mars. Even back then, people knew that Mars had an Earth-like
environment; spectroscopes had revealed the presence of an oxygen-nitrogen
atmosphere, and strong telescopes made visible the seas and canals. But no
one knew for sure whether the planet was inhabited until Ares I landed there
These assumptions, which Steele builds into his story, serve as an example of the
ways that other writers in the anthology have built their alternate version of Mars
as well. Allen's story is both homage to the style and form of old Mars stories, as
well as to the writers who created them. The ghost of Leigh Brackett is hiding there
between Steele's lines.
In addition to Allen Steele's story, the anthology contains stories by Matthew
Hughes, Mary Rosenblum, Mike Resnick, Harold Waldrop, Melinda M.
Snodgrass, and several others.
Harold Waldrop has a hilarious story called "The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls" which
has the ungainly subtitle "A Re-creation of Oud's Journey by Slimshang from
Tharsis to Solis Lacus, by George Weeton, Fourth Mars Settlement Wave, 1981."
The story is about a man trying to recreate the journey of Martial who lived back in
the days when humans were still peering out of caves. Both its humor and its meta-style give it an original feel, while still maintaining that pastoral image of Mars, in
the mind of Weeton, at least. Indeed, we get a sense that Weeton is annoyed by
this, and that part of the reason he makes his journey is to show his audience that
"we" are just as good as "they" ever were.
In "The Ugly Duckling" Matthew Hughes provides another good tale Old Mars,
this one in the form of a man going native. I liked the story because it seemed to
really be about the destruction of culture for corporate gain, balanced against the
curiosity of what that culture was really about. The story also contained a nice
homage to Ray Bradbury's vision of Mars, with lines like, "Back on Earth, he had
seen the long-distance images recorded by the earliest expeditions -- the ones that
had failed, for reasons still unknown."
Old Mars is pure fun, an anthology that a fan of Golden Age-style stories can
immerse in completely, or a fan of modern writers can swallow in manageable
gulps. If nothing else comes through clearly in this anthology, it is that the authors
of these fifteen stories had a lot of fun writing them.
Read more by Jamie Todd Rubin