ASK A PROPHET | Legendary Science Fiction Writer Jack McDevitt Would Hide From Aliens

The author of 'Odyssey' discusses life extension, setting stories far in the future, and why Stephen Hawking has it right.

In Ask a Prophet, we use our alien probes on the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers. This week, we learned Jack McDevitt has the optimism of a man who believes in a future and the pessimism of a man who knows it likely won’t belong to him. The author of Odyssey, Seeker, and The Engines of God, novels that follow the stumbling path of uncertain history unfolding, he’s the sort of adventurer that goes out looking for the next thing even when it might end up being the last thing. This week, Inverse got the legendary writer on the phone to talk about space travel, the future, and why we should hide from aliens.

How do you go about getting your ideas together in a way that feels plausible in your sci-fi?

I like a mystery in which the resolution doesn’t have anything to do with a bad guy. For example, in the Alex and Chase novels, they are living nine or ten thousand years from now. He’s an antiquities dealers and Chase helps out. He solves historical mysteries and they don’t really have to do with people who deliberately did things wrong, but rather, strange things happen. They have a star ship and they go out and it comes back and they saw something but they won’t tell the government what it is and the government keeps it quiet.

When you think about setting a book ten thousand years from now, how do you go about imagining what the world might look like?

I am inclined to play with a world that’s not too different from ours. Human beings really do not change much. People are concerned with the same issues; they want the same things out of their life. What I try to do is to build a world in which we’ve done most of that. Democracy really works, people have learned to get along, it’s no longer a disgrace to admit that you were wrong about something. If you get something wrong, the only bad thing is to persist in that kind of view.

Is that what you find most interesting about setting books in the future? What’s the main attraction for you?

The fact that they can look back on the past and look at us — at the world we had — and sometimes get things wrong. In fact, they often get things wrong, because so much has been lost. That’s another one of the big things that has happened. Because so much has gone electronic, what we know about history generally is that information used to be more secure because they carved it in stone. Ultimately we put it in books or electronic devices. When the power goes down, you lose everything.

For example, when they come across an ancient book somewhere written by Winston Churchill, Chase looks at it and says, “Winston Churchill… he was involved in the second World War, right?” Alex will say yes and he’ll say, “Which side was he on?” I played around with that. They live on another world, but they come back to Earth to solve a mystery. While they’re there, they go to museums and look around and see what’s left over and they discover that there are only five movies, for example, that survived from our era. One of them was Casablanca, another was Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein. You gotta play with stuff like that. It’s a lot of fun.

Do you do a great deal of research when you’re writing?

I’ve gotten a fair amount of credit for getting the science more or less right most of the time, but I was an English major and I don’t trust my judgement on a lot of things. So instead of trying to look stuff up, I have physicists and other scientists that I can call and I ask them questions, and they’ll answer them for me. I’m not likely to get that right than if I tried to figure it out for myself. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. They always respond, even when I call out of the blue. I always feel indebted to these people because they not only will tell me what I want, but they seem to enjoy it as much as I do.

Where do you find these people? Do you have a lot of friends who happen to be scientists?

A lot of them are friends now, but they were strangers when I first called them. What I would do is look up the University of Pennsylvania and go to the Astronomy department and pick a name and make the phone call. They normally respond. It’s a lot easier now that we’ve got the internet. It used to be a little trickier back in the ‘80s and ‘90s where you had to use phone books.

Do you stay on top of scientific discoveries or technological advances?

I try to! I’m not sure I do. For example, my sons are a lot better at computer technology than I am. But I subscribe to most of the major science magazines and I try to stay with it as much as possible.

What’s a recent discovery you’ve read about that gets you thinking?

There are a couple things that fascinate me quite a bit right now. One is the research being done right now on life extension. There is a neurologist who is very big on that, he’s devoted his life to it. He tells me we’re very close to not only extending human life, but reversing the aging process. For people like me — I’m no longer 24 I’m sorry to say — but he says if I can hang on a little bit longer, they’ll be able to fix things so I can go back to being 24. I think that’s a great idea but I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen. It would cause a few social problems if everybody suddenly stopped dying.

Something else I’m especially interested in is the genetic research that they’re doing. What do you do if you’re a parent, you’re pregnant, and the doctors tell you, “We can give you a child with an IQ that’s 100 points higher than you would normally expect.” Would you go with that?

That kind of stuff fascinates me much more than technology like cars that can drive themselves. It’s all interesting, but it’s the kind of stuff that they may be able to do for human beings that I find particularly interesting.

What do you think makes the best science fiction?

When you have a problem that’s not easy to solve. It’s not bad guys facing aliens. Imagine, for example, we talked about genetic research. Suppose you are about to give birth and the doctor tells you we can give you a child who will not age, who will reach maturity and then not grow older, will not fall apart the way the rest of us do. Because of population problems, if we do that, he will not be able to reproduce and you have to sign an agreement saying you will not have more children, but your child will never die. What do you do?

What are some of your biggest influences in your work?

If you talk about writers, I suspect that we’re all influenced by the ones we discover when we’re young. For me that’s Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clark, and Robert Heinlein. They’re the three that just blow me away. The Green Hills of Earth is just a killer of a story. I was an English teacher at one point, and I didn’t think the kids cared about 19th century politics, so I used things like the Green Hills of Earth and Ray Bradbury’s The Martians. They’re just beautiful stories that captured students. Some of the kids who didn’t like reading prior to that, I could tell actually got enthusiastic about books. I’m not suggesting that science fiction is the only thing — you can go with other stuff as well — but it seems to me that what a high school teacher should be doing primarily is infusing a passion for reading. The kids will find Charles Dickens and Henry James on their own if you succeed in doing that. When you try to force that stuff down their throats, they just get bitter and they never come back.

Are there any sci-fi films or TV shows or modern works that you have seen or read recently that you enjoyed?

I remain a Star Trek fan. I’m looking forward to seeing The Martian. I enjoyed Gravity. I don’t normally care much for the “Here come the aliens” type movies. I like some of the modern writers, There’s a relatively new writer in the field, Chuck Gannon, who is very good. Robert Sawyer, the Canadian, is brilliant. Nancy Kress writes one Nebula winner after another. So they’re still there. I’m not sure what it is, but everybody I’ve ever talked to when they ask about favorites, they always go back to when they started or first got turned on to the field. There’s something that happens that doesn’t happen again in later life, not to the same extent.

Do you think it’s feasible that we will encounter aliens in the near future?

It’s funny, when I do speaking engagements for groups that are not science fiction people, one of the most common questions I hear is “Do you think there are aliens are out there anywhere?” The answer is there are probably billions of Earth-type worlds in the Milky Way alone, and billions of galaxies. With telescopes getting better, I think we will discover evidence that there are aliens out there. We’re not going to find them the way we originally thought. When I was a kid, everybody talked about finding aliens on Mars. That’s obviously not happening. But it will be interesting to see if we find alien life on Europa, for example, the frozen seas there under the ice. That’s a distinct possibility.

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about Venus as a place where there are jungles. Of course, Venus is a little warmer than Burroughs realized. But again, when I was a kid, Venus seemed like a distinct possibility. I remember first hearing that they realized that Venus is much hotter than you could have a life force for. I remember how disappointed I was.

Do you think the life we find will be intelligent life or amoeba-like life forms?

Well I don’t think we’re going to find intelligent life anywhere in our system. We might find primitive life, but I think we’re going to have to get outside of the solar system before we find intelligent life. As our technology gets better, I think it’s almost inevitable that we will find something. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find something within the next hundred years. I think another question that’s interesting is, “What do we do if and when we find it?” Do we wave back or do we try to hide? Stephen Hawking thinks we should hide. Don’t let them know we’re here.

Do you agree with him?

It’s certainly safer. You don’t know what you’re dealing with. If we actually made contact and found out about them, in our own history, every time a culture has encountered an advanced civilization, that culture gets wrecked. Suppose we found out that aliens live to be 600 years old or are much more intelligent than we are, they think we’re idiots and they’re right by their standards — imagine what that’ll do to us.

I don’t think we’re very bright. We’ve got a history of doing nothing but making war. What are we doing now? We’re blowing each other up. That is not an indication of intelligence to me.

We’re only been around a few thousand years relatively, so I would think if we met intelligent life out there, we will probably find some that have been in existence for much longer periods. I’m assuming that you get more intelligent as you get more experience. If that’s the case, then I think if we find something, they will likely be smarter than we are.

Since you’ve been in sci-fi for so many years, have you seen it change a lot?

Some things change, some things stay the same. We still love stories about starships, we still love stuff about aliens. we haven’t grown away from things we used to like. Things that made science fiction popular when I was 10 years old are still with us. We’ve gone through different eras; we’ve gone through steampunk and one thing or another. But science fiction basically is about discovery and how we will deal with change. I don’t think that’ll ever change.

I got started with it when I was four years old, and I can’t imagine my life without science fiction. I’m not sure if I would have been very serious about books otherwise. It changed my life, and it wouldn’t have happened without science fiction. It certainly wouldn’t have happened if I depended on the schools that I went to to get me interested in books.

I remember we had one English teacher who spent the days simply reading A Tale of Two Cities to us. And he couldn’t read that well. It was dull. A lot of what you learn, you tend to learn outside of school. I don’t want to get into criticizing schools, because teachers work very hard and there are some really good teachers. But my grade school experience was not something that really encouraged me much, so I was lucky I had science fiction on the outside.

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