Author Jack McDevitt shoots for the stars with his new novel, The Long Sunset

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Apr 21, 2018

For nearly four decades, Nebula Award-winning author Jack McDevitt has been delivering asteroid-solid sci-fi novels of exceptional imagination and realism for loyal fans around the globe.

The Georgia-based former naval officer has produced more than 23 novels since his debut back in 1980, and since then he's been nominated for 16 Nebula awards, a remarkable percentage, and more than any other living science fiction writer. His most acclaimed series involve the alluring space archaeologist Priscilla Hutchins and the charismatic galactic treasure hunter Alex Benedict.

Popular titles like Chindi, Seeker, Polaris, Cauldron, The Engines of God, Starhawk, and Moonfall all contain visionary worldbuilding and memorable characters existing in both near and far future universes of ecological disasters, fantastic technology, famed starship captains, mysterious alien artifacts, and long-lost extraterrestrial civilizations. McDevitt's influence on the genre cannot be understated, and his work has the admiration of countless esteemed colleagues and longtime readers.

His latest novel, The Long Sunset, is the eighth book in his Academy Series featuring Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins, the intrepid 23rd-century interstellar pilot whose escapades working for Earth's Academy of Science and Technology blast her on a sequence of thrilling outer-space missions to exotic ports of call.

Here's the official description:

An interstellar message is discovered that could be Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins’ last chance for a mission before the program is shut down for good, as world politics have shifted from exploration to a growing fear that the program will run into an extraterrestrial race both more advanced and dangerous.

However this message is a piece of music from an unexplored area, and despite the growing paranoia Hutch and her crew are determined to make an early escape to interstellar space—but what they find across the galaxy is completely unexpected.

SYFY WIRE spoke to McDevitt from his Southern home about this latest "Hutch" space adventure published this week by Saga Press, where he'll be taking readers on her mesmerizing mission, how the sci-fi genre has changed over the decades, and what's next on his creative platter.

Can you take us on a pre-flight launch into The Long Sunset?

Well, it’s a Priscilla Hutchins novel, and no one needs to have read a previous book in the Academy Series in order to jump into this one. I try to do them all as basically independent. The last Priscilla book, Starhawk, came out four years ago, and it was a prequel story where she was at the beginning of her career. Here Priscilla is pretty much at the end of her career, about 300 years from now. There’s a medical system operating that not only halts the aging process but can reverse it. She’s been an ace star pilot for 25 years but is physically becoming young again. In her era there are interstellar ships being sent out into the universe. Most of the civilizations they’ve found are gone, they died a long time ago, and people are becoming more and more worried about these ships and what happened to them, and thinking maybe they should stop and not give ourselves away, because you never know who’s going to follow you home. Stephen Hawking believed that too.

So they’re shutting down the interstellar program when a super-telescope picks up a signal 7,000 light-years away. It’s visual and shows a waterfall with accompanying music. A few people want to go out and see what it is before the program is being shut down, and there’s a race to the finish to try and get out before they turn it off. And when they finally arrive there are a few surprises in store, like the star is missing!

This is the eighth book in your Academy Series since it began in 1994. Why does the character of Priscilla Hutchins endure, and what do readers enjoy most about her?

When I first started writing the first novel in the series, The Engines of God, it was a book about archaeological finds on another world, and I needed a star pilot to lead it. I tried to design guys that would go in there and make some noise, but it didn’t work. Somehow Priscilla came through the door and she was a perfect fit. She cares about the people around her and tries to make decisions to get people through. When I was 8 years old I saw a Republic serial called Jungle Girl. The main character, Nyoka, was a sweetheart that didn’t take any nonsense from anybody. The bad guy was Clayton Moore, the guy that played the Lone Ranger for years on TV. Anyway, she was really good, and I think she was probably the inspiration for Priscilla.

What are some of the challenges and rewards of keeping a series alive and fresh for readers but also interesting for you as a writer?

One of the things that makes it interesting for me is that you get to use the same names for space stations, starships, and locations. Also, I know who the characters' friends are and know where the restaurants are on The Platform. So it is easier to write when you’re working on a series. Plus you know the characters better and you become very engaged with them. Priscilla is almost a living character in my life. I know more about her than I do about most of the women in my life because I spend so much time in her head. Readers have made it very clear that they really like her.

Since you’ve been writing sci-fi, how has the market changed as readers’ acceptance and interest in the genre has skyrocketed in books, movies, TV, comic books, and video games?

I think people have become more aware of the future, the technology has us all wondering where are we going, and artificial intelligence is right on the horizon, and God who knows what that’s going to bring us. When I started writing everybody’s big thing was going to Mars, and nobody really talks much about that anymore. I don’t pay a great deal of attention to the market, I just write my books and let my agent worry about the details. I think people love books about space travel and with aliens. But you have to find new things to do with the aliens, which I certainly tried to do with this one.

All your book covers feature spectacular covers showcasing exotic spaceships and cosmic beauty. How do you like this striking cover on The Long Sunset, and what was your reaction upon first seeing it?

This one is by artist John Harris, and I think this is as nice a cover as I’ve ever seen on my books. And it’s got that sword in front of the black hole, which tells you a little something about what the book is about. I’ve always trusted my editors to find the best covers. This is my first year with Saga at Simon & Schuster, and my editor there invited me to suggest what sort of cover I’d like, and that’s exactly what they got.

What’s next for 2018 with other books or creative projects?

The next book will be out in August, and it’s a story collection from Subterranean called A Voice in the Night. I think it has 24 stories. The title story is a young Alex Benedict tale, where he’s about 15 years old. When I was a kid I was a big fan of the humorist and radio broadcaster Jean Shepherd. It was funny and brilliant at the same time. He always said how people around him referred to him as a “voice in the night,” and he was just a marvelous entertainer and someone I really wish I’d had an opportunity to meet.  The collection is dedicated to him.

After nearly 40 years of creating characters and stories, how do you keep yourself relevant and inspired?

I remember years ago I was doing a workshop in Canada and the students took me to an air base that had a few World War II bombers. It was a very striking place. There was a room dedicated to all the Air Force people who died during the war, and there was a sign on the wall that said, "They Never Grow Old." You come out of the hall and there’s this old bomber in the hangar. I asked the kids if this suggests a storyline for you. We finally came up with the idea that it’s the last of the interstellar ships. We don’t fly them anymore. So you have a little kid come in and asks, “Why not, dad? Why have we stopped?” And you take the story from there.