Hello Out There

Jack McDevitt

Foreword to the Meisha Merlin Edition

When Steve Pagel first called and suggested that he wanted to publish this volume, I knew immediately that I'd have to update The Hercules Text somewhat. For one thing its computer technology was out of date. More significantly, the cold war scenario that fueled much of the plot had been overtaken by history. And not only in the sense that the superpower confrontation has, if not ended, at least substantially cooled. But our national mindset has also changed. Who today would believe that a major power might seriously consider launching a pre-emptive strike over a question of weapons development, a scenario that was front and center in the original Hercules Text? Somehow it seemed not entirely implausible in 1985.

It's possible that my original perspective was simply deranged. But it didn't feel that way at the time. I can recall vividly the nuclear attack drills in high school during which we descended, in an orderly manner, down to the basement cafeteria and sat under tables, which would presumably protect us when the bomb dropped. At home, left over from my father's days as a WWII air raid warden, we had a bucket of sand for tossing on fires. For some reason we never threw it out. It served as a reminder that terrible things were possible.

I can recall driving between Washington and Philadelphia at the height of the 1962 Berlin crisis. At the time there was major construction going on along the Baltimore-Washington Expressway, and catastrophe seemed so imminent it was difficult not to wonder why we were bothering. The night was thick with the conviction that it was all going to get knocked down later if not sooner.

It didn't happen, of course, a reality for which we can be grateful to a series of US presidents and Russian premiers who kept their heads. It didn't have to be that way.

But now that we're on the sunny side of those unsettling years, the reading public has a different perspective, and so it seemed prudent to go back and reframe The Hercules Text in the light of these happier times. I've done that, and the experience has left me, as the original effort did in 1985, with the suspicion that we do not really want to hear from the stars. No matter how hard we root for SETI. And no matter what the outsiders may have to say to us. Good news is no news.


I haven't touched A Talent for War.

If the novel were being published today for the first time, I'd change the title, which is misleading. Many of its original readers were surprised, and probably disappointed, to discover they had bought a book that was not military SF. A robber in St. Louis, apparently mistaking it as a militia manual, attempted to make off with a copy at gunpoint.

In fact, Talent is my favorite kind of novel, SF or otherwise: It describes an effort to unravel a two-hundred-year-old mystery. In this case, the mystery involves a curious incident in a war waged between the human race and the only alien civilization they've encountered during thousands of years of gliding around the galaxy.

This is probably a good time to mention Lewis Shiner, a writer and editor with whom I came in contact while working on Talent. We were both at the Sycamore Hill Workshop in Raleigh, N.C. And at one point I described to him a critical scene from the novel. The sequence didn't work as I'd planned it and I wasn't sure how to proceed.

His eyes squeezed shut and he thought about it briefly. "You're working on reflex," he said. Then he looked at me and shrugged. "Hold your fire."

Lew didn't like the casual violence that spills out of too many books and films. Not only, I realized, because he thought it was in poor taste, but because characters who indulge themselves with blowing away others tend to be flat. Dull. It's not the way real people behave. Other than the looneys, who are interesting only when they're pulling a trigger. Asimov says somewhere that violence displays not only a lack of decency, but also of imagination.

You'll recognize the scene when you see it. The Shiner version has more power than mine did.

Jack McDevitt
Brunswick, GA
June 24, 1999