Nearly every story in Standard Candles left me with some thought-provoking ideas, the type of sense of wonder which stays with me much longer than most other kinds. What good is it writing about such things as aliens and alien worlds if they are only stage settings for colorful battles, violence and killings? McDevitt realizes it is much more interesting to explore and think about them. In some ways, he is the philosophical heir to Poul Anderson whose stores always contained more than was apparent on the surface.
The title story “Standard Candles” was ostensibly about the search for astronomical constants, but really it examined one man’s obsession with science and how that affects his relationship with other people. “Translations From the Colosian” told of two humans who visit an alien world whose inhabitants were obsessed with art and culture. Watching one of their classic plays, they are struck with its incredible similarities with Sophocles’ Antigone, too much so, in their opinion, to be a coincidence.
“The Fort Moxie Branch” introduces a library a run by people who are either from the future or from another world entirely, and whose purpose is to save classic works of literature which were otherwise lost. Classical texts by Sophocles and Tacitus, but also works by Shakespeare (which apparently he considered too dangerous to stage), Melville (not good enough to publish, in his opinion) and Hemingway’s famous last novel. There are also complete collections by unknown authors who were unable to publish their works which were actually much better than the short-sighted publishing industry realized.
“Gus” is the story of a seminary which uses an avatar of St. Augustine as one of its teachers, but the new head of the seminary considers some of its beliefs heretical, even though its beliefs are “pure” Augustinian. But the beliefs of the Catholic Church have evolved considerably in the nearly two millennia since St. Augustine lived. Much of the story consists of conversations between the avatar and the head of the seminary, which are fascinating, but they also explore what it means to be human.
The first line of the story “Ellie” is “If the lights at Bolton’s Tower go out, the devil gets loose. At least, that was the story.” Why that is the story is what McDevitt examines here, combined with a human-interest story which complicates the situation considerably. Although McDevitt’s typical theme tends to be philosophical, he is equally adept with human emotions as well.
When a computer is fed all the data from every famous chess match of the century, and given a mathematical algorithm to determine the greatest chess player of the century, whose name would you expect it to spit out? Bobby Fischer? Jose Capablanca? Anatoly Karpov? Garry Kasparov? Will Ballard? Will Ballard? When that name comes out of the computer, the mathematician responsible for the program seeks out the man to determine who he is, and why he is supposedly the greatest chess champion ever.
“Cryptic” is the story of an astronomical array which formerly was part of SETI until the project was abandoned, a failure. Until the new director finds some buried data which seems to indicate that it had actually found precisely what it had sought, but the data was suppressed, never revealed to the world at large. Why would the most devoted seeker of alien life have possibly done that?
Finally, “Time Travelers Never Die” is the original novella version of McDevitt’s recent novel. I raved about the novel last year, calling it “delightful” in its combination of glimpses into history and a fascinating mystery. The novella is somewhat simpler, eliminating one of the major plotlines, but it is no less interesting.
While McDevitt is my favorite novelist, in some ways his short fiction is even better because it raises thought-provoking concerns. For me, that is what the best science fiction is really all about. You are likely going to roll yours eyes at yet another rave recommendation for a McDevitt book, but I cannot help it. He is that good.