The Author Comments: Odyssey

Eventually, it had to come to this. I was still in grade school in 1947 when the UFO phenomenon hit the nation. Until the flying saucers made their appearance, my newspaper reading was limited to sports pages and Dick Tracy. By the end of the year, I was devouring the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News. I guess it was inevitable that eventually I'd write about them.

I've never entirely understood why we so desperately wanted the objects to be alien ships. High-tech visitors from outside would clearly have constituted a major threat, but we didn't seem to care. Still don't. When people ask whether I believe in UFOs, they are inevitably disappointed with a skeptical response. Sometimes I think that disappointment stems from their wanting me to support an idea which is really important to them. A wish that someone out there would demonstrate by their existence that civilizations can survive. Or it might be the sense that we could learn a few things from a species that's been around the galaxy a bit. Or maybe even a confirmation that we're not alone. But I think it's something else.

There's a romantic aura to this entire UFO business. It's more than simply wanting to sit down with intelligent aliens over pizza. It's the sense of mystery that pervades the cosmos. A passion for the darkness. It's why aliens are always something of a disappointment when they walk out into the lights in our books and movies. What would we be if physicists really did have all the answers? What would we be like if somehow we came into possession of a universal chart that laid out everything in existence, where the civilizations are, what their history has looked like, how Einstein and the quantum world can be drawn together, the nature of the mind-body connection, the absolute final truth about our position in the universe —.

I'm not sure I'd want to live in such a world.

Gregory MacAllister, the no-nonsense editor who disapproves of college professors, bishops, politicians, and most other authority figures, is a central figure in the struggle over whether the 23rd century Academy is an expensive luxury during difficult times, and should be shut down. Mac made his first appearance in Deepsix. Readers who saw the acknowledgements for that book will have realized that the character is modeled after H.L. Mencken.

Mencken was instrumental in getting Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes during the evolution battles, and I thought it would be appropriate to give Mac his own version of the celebrated Monkey Trial. During the proceedings, Mac acquires a critical insight regarding the apparently incoherent behavior of the mysterious lights in the sky.

The potential risk from the Origins Project, by the way, is not simply made up. Some physicists have argued that super colliders might indeed pose the threat outlined in the book. Unlikely, they say. But possible.

If there's really anything to it, and the universe is still here after 14 billion years, I think it argues that we may indeed be alone. But that's another plot for another time.

— Jack McDevitt
November 18, 2006


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