Standard Candles, Jack McDevitt

Tachyon, 1996, 248 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-9648320-4-6

As a marginal Jack McDevitt fan, imagine my surprise as I browsed through the Science-Fiction Book Club’s latest catalogue and discovered a mention of the previously-unknown title Standard Candles. A trip to later, I had found out that this was McDevitt’s first short story anthology, and that it had been published in 1996 (!) by a small publisher.

Given that I’ve read all of McDevitt’s other books, my surprise was compounded by the complete absence of Standard Candles from his bibliography. Granted, McDevitt’s latest publisher (Harper Prism) doesn’t list other publishers’ books, but still… So I ordered Standard Candles, curious to see what McDevitt had produced in short-form SF.

The SFBC edition of Standard Candles is a slim (248 pages) volume containing 16 stories. Given that one of them is more than fifty pages long, the remainder of the stories in this book are fairly short and can be easily read in one time.

I have a special fondness for single-author collections because they tend to succinctly summarize everything you want to know about an author’s interests, style, strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, in this case, it brought back memories of how, if McDevitt can be great, he can also be insufferably annoying.

For each Moonfall, Engines of God and Hercules Text, suspenseful novels against backgrounds of hard physics, archaeology and SETI alien contact, there’s A Talent for War, Ancient Shores or Eternity Road, disappointing stories that barely explain their own premises and suffer from pointless detours, unresolved events and depressing finales. And so the pattern repeats itself in Standard Candles, in 248 short pages.

McDevitt is not a conventionally optimistic SF writer. His stories are filled with fallen civilizations, sentient stupidity, matrimonial failures and malfunctioning technology. His roots in classical studies inevitably bring us back to boom-and-bust cycles, to uncertain futures and the possibility of total systemic collapse. Even his most optimistic scenarios always include signs that, gee, idiots will always be with us.

Ironically, historian McDevitt often writes Science-Fiction stories in the vein of physicist Gregory Benford, about scientists stuck with very ordinary problems and extraordinary discoveries (“Standard Candles”, “Cryptic”, etc…)

It’s no mistake if this book is classified as being “Science Fiction/Literature” on its dust jacket, especially after reading “Translated from the Collossian” (aliens go around stealing classical literature) and “The Fort Moxie Branch” (about a mysterious library of lost literary gems). Is it a coincidence, however, if these are two of the book’s best stories?

Similarly enjoyable are the two great stories related to chess. “Black to Move” is a chilling (if overlong) story of alien cunning explained in chess terms. “The Jersey Rifle”, on the other hand, is a charming, quasi-comic tale about The Best Chess Player in the World.

There’s nothing charming about most of the book, however. A typical McDevitt conclusion resides heavily on the threat of future Very Bad Things. A welcome exception is “To Hell With the Star”, which certainly ranks up there with the best of the SF wish-fulfillment fantasies. But McDevitt is, by and large, a melancholic, pessimistic writer. Nothing wrong with that, but taken in long sustained doses, it does put a dampener on your day.

Standard Candles is still a worthwhile anthology: McDevitt delivers more often than not, and provided one doesn’t read all the stories one after the other, the dark and depressing tone is a change of pace. More significantly, Standard Candles is a pretty spiffy summary of everything that interests the author, from classical history to hard physics. Fans will love it; non-fans are advised to wait until they’re fans.

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