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Cryptic. The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt

And so it was on a bright shining morning in early Spring that the Lord Accountant did glance from the window in the high tower above the estate he so lovingly tended. He smiled for what he saw was good. Below, on display, were the serried ranks of books. The latest volumes to issue from the mighty printing presses that churned endlessly and ensured a constant supply of text to satisfy the cravings of the masses. “More pages for the dollar. A bigger bang for your buck,” he crooned happily to himself, having been brought up by a grandma whose proverbial wisdom came down to, “Never mind the quality, feel the width.” In the distance, he spied a new 600-page behemoth and knew life was good.

In all the wide world of publishing, the collection is a curious beast. Since all the stories are by the same author, there can be a certain monotony about the writing itself and the themes explored. For better or for worse, authors tend to have their own interests and obsessions, and these show through what they choose to write about. But, the truth is we buy collections because we like the way the author writes. We are seduced by the hope there will be a transcendence in the content to get us through any sense of repetitiveness. In a collection like Cryptic. The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt, the challenge is even greater. There are some 587 pages of fiction in the same volume and, because it is a “best of”, a proportion of the stories are drawn from earlier collections. There are thirty-eight stories to hand. My copies of the three previous collections are in storage, but I think only about ten of these stories are uncollected. None of the stories are original and appear for the first time in print. Reading through the work is therefore a mixture of remembering what happens next and occasionally making new friends.

Writing the review also becomes more challenging. The main reason I was faintly unhappy was so many of the stories were familiar. I wish I could hold my hand up in solemn form and declare reading each story faithfully to the end. Actually, I confess skipping through those I remembered. I cannot conveniently unremember and read “as if for the first time”. So this is a volume for those with poor memories or who come to McDevitt for the first time. In this surging 600-page heavyweight, you will find everything from short, short stories that demonstrate a wry sense of humour to longer works that explore issues of morality or the paradoxes of time. There’s a moderately consistent theme: how do scientists relate to the world, or vice versa.

Having been engaged in research efforts as a younger man, I have struggled with the problems of reconciling the scientific method with the reality of the subjective observer. We all have our cherished beliefs and view the world through the lens of what we take to be self-evident. Even if you make those beliefs explicit at the outset, there can be a continuing subconscious distortion of what we see and choose to report. This is not to decry the scientific method in any way but, simply, to argue its limitations. It may work well in some contexts but, in what we choose to research and the actual methodologies we adopt, religious, political and other considerations will always have roles to play. So, what would the inventor of a time machine say to a pastor who found his faith threatened? And, if you could go back to establish the reality of the past, what would you go to observe and would you report it? And, even if you made the greatest discovery in the scientific world, who else would care? People have their lives to live regardless. Ironically, this can place burdens of responsibility on those who make discoveries. That you might be one of the few to realise the danger in what you have found means you have to deal with it. No-one else is going to understand or care until they are directly threatened by which time it may be too late.

This is not to say that the collection is bogged down with high-minded debate. McDevitt is never anything but accessible in the writing style and exploration of ideas. But there is a tendency to pick targets and take aim. With a title like “Cryptic”, you would expect meanings to be concealed to some extent. Sometimes the results hit the bull’s eye. The set-up and storytelling combine into a singularly pleasing whole, often capped with a “twist in the tale” ending that provokes thought and/or a smile. I will not play the game of picking favourites. There’s much to like here and, with the wide variations in the taste and sensibility of you, the readers, I leave it to you to find your own “best”. With thirty-eight stories from one of the top writers in the science fiction field (three of the stories are collaborations), there’s a lot of good to excellent material to explore and some interesting aliens to meet, albeit sometimes only in the carved form.

For further reviews of Jack McDevitt, see Time Travelers Never Die, The Devil’s Eye, Echo and Firebird.

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