A Voice in the Night by Jack McDevitt
Jack McDevitt is one of the numerous authors whose work I know because my dad said, “Hey, read this!” In McDevitt’s case, the “this” was The Engines of God. Having thus been introduced to recurring protagonist Priscilla Hutchins, I read several others of McDevitt’s novels and I’ve always enjoyed them. So I was interested to pick up this book of short stories to see how McDevitt does them.
Overall, I think I prefer McDevitt’s work at novel length; I think it’s because he does well with accumulation of detail over the course of a story. But A Voice in the Night (2018) does have several stories that I enjoyed.
The collection doesn’t have one unifying theme, but there are several themes that appear more than once. There are two stories (“Maiden Voyage” and “Waiting at the Altar”) about Priscilla Hutchins, the protagonist of the aforementioned The Engines of God and its sequels. We get pretty good evidence that McDevitt is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes stories, since several stories reference the great detective and/or are Holmesian pastiche (“The Adventure of the Southsea Trunk,” “The Lost Equation,” and more); there are several stories along the lines of Asimov’s Three Laws stories that examine an aspect of artificial intelligence (“Combinations,” “Lucy,” “The Play’s the Thing,” and others), and others which are, at their core, pleas to continue funding for NASA (“Cathedral” and “Excalibur”).
There are also a number of alien-contact stories, some in which SETI picks up a message (“Searching for Oz” and “Listen Up, Nitwits,” which might be the most appropriate title for a “SETI hears a voice!” story ever) and others in which the contact is with the protagonist alone (“Good Intentions,” “Ships in the Night”). The last two are notable because the former is my favorite story in the collection and the latter my least favorite.
In “Good Intentions” the narrator, himself a science fiction author, is recruited to provide the script for a science-fiction-inflected murder mystery weekend convention. The script itself is interesting; the reaction of the participants to it adds another layer of interest, and the reason the narrator was commissioned in the first place turns out to be a key to the whole thing. This one gave me the most to think about and also had the best comic moments, many related to the travails of being a science-fiction author with an audience to please and a deadline to meet.
“…what makes you think there’s an AI [involved in the mystery]?”
“Well … I’ve read your work.”
“Ships in the Night,” on the other hand, is comfortably A Voice in the Night’s longest story and boils down to a midwestern hardware store owner getting life coaching from an alien. I was rather taken with the beginning, but by the end I felt like the narrative choices being made were taking the easier and more conventional option every time.
Overall, if you are a fan of McDevitt’s work I think you will enjoy this collection; if you are not familiar with it, I think you would do better to start with The Engines of God or The Hercules Text.