It's a real honor to talk with Jack McDevitt, one of the grandmasters of SF, about his new novel, STARHAWK. Jack's the creator of the Priscilla Hutchins and Alex Benedict novels, numerous other stand-alones and shorts, and the Nebula Award-Winning author of CAULDRON.
STARHAWK is a prequel of sorts to the Priscilla Hutchins series. If you haven't read Jack McDevitt before or met "Hutch," STARHAWK is the perfect place to start.
WCB: When did the idea for Starhawk, your latest Priscilla Hutchins novel, turn up?
JM: William, after Priscilla made her first appearance, in The Engines of God, I hadn’t expected to see her again. My original plan had been to avoid sequels. But I’ll admit that I became enamored of the character, as I did of Alex & Chase, so I guess it was inevitable that she would come back. She returned in Deepsix, and I haven’t been able to let go since. When it reached a point where she’d appeared in six novels and several short stories, it just seemed that a launch point was needed, something that would explain how she became who she is.
I’m not sure where the idea for the central plot came from. Oddly, it wasn’t there when I started writing the novel, but it appeared gradually as I worked with the character. As an example of how that developed, the last section to be written was the prologue.
WCB: How did “Hutch” first appear to you? What was she doing?
JM: The character who became Hutch was inspired by an A.E. Housman poem from “A Shropshire Lad.”
Housman writes of an experience he had watching troops march past in London, going off probably to the Boer War. A moment comes when one of them glances toward the poet and their eyes lock. Housman records his
‘My man, from sky to sky’s so far,
We never crossed before;
Such leagues apart the world’s ends are,
We’re like to meet no more;
‘What thoughts at heart have you and I.
We cannot stop to tell;
But dead or living, drunk or dry,
Soldier, I wish you well.’
Priscilla was born with those lines. The soldier was replaced by a statue thousands of years old, found on Iapetus by an early automated flight. The statue is of an alien being, obviously female though not human, and it is clearly a self- portrait, which is determined from footprints. The prints lead to the top of a nearby ridge, where the creature obviously stood admiring Saturn, and which, because of tidal lock, would remain frozen permanently in the same section of sky.
Housman is replaced by a female astronaut named Terri who is on one of the early manned missions. Terri recognizes something in the eyes of the statue. Later, she follows the tracks to the top of the ridge, and sees where the creature stood, transfixed by the spectacle of the ringed giant. Like Housman, she makes an emotional connection.
In the prologue to The Engines of God, Priscilla repeats Terri’s experience. Her reaction: ‘The universe is a drafty, precarious haven for anything that thinks. There are damned few of us, and it is a wide world, and long….What had brought her so far from home? Why had she traveled alone? Long since gone to dust, no
doubt. Nevertheless, I wish you well.
WCB: Your books raise questions about the universe that aren’t easily answered. Without spoiling too much, is there one or two puzzles yet-to-be-solved at the heart of Starhawk?
JM: I’m going to leave that to the readers to decide.
WCB: During this year’s WorldCon, you said something at a panel about looking up at the stars and thinking that, “surely all of this wasn’t just made for me.” Has Hutch had similar thoughts?
JM: That question takes us back to Hutch’s first appearance. By ‘me,’ we’re referring to the human race. And she’s much too smart to think that something so immense could have been put in place specifically for one species hanging out on a single world so far from some other worlds that light would require billions of years to cross between them. The stage is too big.
WCB: A running theme in all of Priscilla Hutchins’ adventures is the importance of space exploration. Would you talk a bit about your hopes (and perhaps hers too) for the future of space travel?
JM: Unfortunately, manned flight is probably limited to the solar system. Again, the distances are too great. We can dream, but I doubt we’ll ever be able to transport people beyond Pluto’s orbit. Unless we get extraordinarily lucky, and it turns out that FTL is actually possible. And I can’t help thinking that we might be better off that intelligent aliens probably can’t reach us. I hate to think how we’d react to the appearance of a million-year-old civilization, even if they were friendly. How would we feel, e.g., if they lived a thousand years?
WCB: You are well-known for your Academy Series (Priscilla Hutchins) and Alex Benedict novels, and you’ve alternated between them for over a dozen books. Do Hutch and Benedict fight for your attention? Is one of them more persuasive?
JM: I like being able to move from one set-up to the other. It helps keep my mind fresh. I don’t think I’d be comfortable doing a single series of novels. Or maybe another way to put it: The narratives would be more likely
to become repetitious.
WCB: What’s next for Priscilla Hutchins?
JM: I have no idea, William. I left her, after Cauldron, facing a situation in which we were backing away from space travel. I should probably go back to see how she deals with that.