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Author Spotlight: Jack McDevitt

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Jack McDevitt to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed,  “The Cassandra Project.”

What inspired “The Cassandra Project”?

SETI has been trying to pick up signs of technological civilizations for more than half a century. I can remember thinking when they first started that it wouldn’t take long. Too many stars out there. (And I’d read too much science fiction.) But here we are, a couple of generations later and we haven’t heard so much as a hiccup. Why not? One possibility is that technological civilizations don’t last long. Maybe anything that can handle a screwdriver eventually heads down the atomic road, from which there might be no turning back. Maybe it happens everywhere. Build a printing press and expect bigger bombs. At least, that was what it looked like for a while.

Now 1960 seems like a simpler time. Technology continues to move along at a good clip and we’re still here. But the world has become increasingly dangerous. Not only because we have more efficient weapons, but because even at its best, technology creates conditions that might inevitably lead to instability. E.g., who in 1960 would have believed that local thugs could gain a voice, organize with other local thugs, and produce a flash mob? Or that televised lunatics could be taken seriously by growing segments of American society? That a technology that theoretically should increase enlightenment could lead to militant ignorance? (Shouting matches and verbal attacks sell better than discussions.) Or that in the Middle East, a mother would proclaim herself proud of a child who’d just blown himself up, along with two dozen innocents?

The problem with increasing technology seems to be that maturity does not advance with it.

Much of your work includes “First Contact” scenarios and strong mystery elements. What is it about those themes that keeps bringing you back to them?

I love a mystery. Not necessarily the whodunnit kind, but the type that leaves us wondering, not who killed the victim, but what in God’s name happened? I’ve always been a devotee of the locked-room murder. It’s the type that’s found most frequently, in my experience, in Gilbert Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. The man who lives alone in a twentieth-floor apartment, with a clear view of the horizon, is found with an arrow in his chest. The British general, now long dead, renowned during his lifetime for his caution and the care he took of his troops, on one occasion and for no apparent reason, leads a suicidal charge against a strongly fortified position, losing three-quarters of his men. Why?

As to first contact, I’ve always been fascinated by the possibility of shaking hands with an alien. I was in grade school in 1947 when the UFOs began showing up around the country. We had a vacant lot at the north end of our South Philadelphia street, and I can remember how all the kids hoped that a flying saucer would notice it, and conclude it would make an ideal landing spot.

If there actually were a demonstration that someone else was out there, an artifact found on the Moon, or a radio intercept, or whatever, how would we react? What advantage would politicians take of it? How would the approximately 50% of Americans who think the universe is only 6000 years old respond? Would it show up on cable for a few days until the next celebrity cheating scandal drove it offscreen? Would large segments of the population refuse to accept the evidence, even as they now refuse to acknowledge that global warming is happening?

For a fiction writer, first contact has endless possibilities. And it’s the ultimate kind of romance. If we could actually talk to an alien, what would the conversation be like?

What was your reaction to the proposed cancellation of the Constellation program? Is returning to the moon something we need to do?

I’m not surprised that we are backing away from NASA. You can’t run the country over a financial cliff, as we’ve done during this decade, and then talk seriously about a space effort. I don’t expect to see any movement until we get the Treasury back into decent shape. That sounds like a long time.

As for returning to space, I can’t imagine that we’d be content to simply sit here indefinitely at the water’s edge for the next thousand years. If we do that, then we probably shouldn’t be allowed out in the dark anyhow.

Your story ends with a grim warning, but also a tiny bit of hope. Do you think that it’s inevitable that technology will be the end of us? Where do you see the gravest danger coming from? What do you think our focus should be, in order to avoid our own destruction?

Technology makes us more vulnerable. If we were to come back and look around in, say, 700 years, I think it’s probable the USA will still be here. We’re probably smart enough to get through, in spite of the fact that so many of us don’t pay attention to things that matter on a national scale. But maybe not. I have no doubt, though, that Afghanistan will still be in operation.

The most pressing danger is precisely that modern communications technology leads us into a Demosthenes syndrome. It’s too easy to win adherents with a smooth delivery. Too easy to ramp people up, to persuade them that someone out there is trying to destroy the faith, take over the country, demolish free enterprise. When I was in grade school, my teachers loved Demosthenes. He overcame a speech defect by putting pebbles in his mouth, they said. He practiced speaking against the roar of the incoming tide. The result was that he became a brilliant orator. Able to persuade his fellow Athenians to see things his way. They didn’t tell us, as the radio guy used to say, the rest of the story.

The problem is that eloquence does not necessarily equate to intelligence. Either Demosthenes didn’t have a brain in his head, or he only cared about what would advance his own political influence with no regard for the city that he theoretically served. He eventually succeeded in persuading the Athenians into starting a war with Alexander.

I’d like very much to see a major effort in the schools, and at home, to teach our kids to think for themselves. To recognize that they have a natural instinct to hold opinions that their friends hold, to bow to authority. The reality is that parents and teachers—and I’ve been both–don’t really want what’s best for the kids. We want them, instead, to be like us. Which is not likely to be the same thing. If we succeed in that effort, the main thing we’ve taught them is to get on board. Let’s hope we aren’t talking about the Titanic.

What do you think society’s reaction would be if we discovered something like this to be true–if we knew that the odds were against us and we were not far from our own destruction, despite all of the ways that technology has improved our lives?

You mean, e.g., that we discovered we’re using too much fuel, reproducing too much, putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? It depends on the nature of the process, I suppose. We were pretty scared of the possibility of a nuclear war during the fifties and sixties. If the kind of event you describe moves more slowly, giving us time to adjust, maybe for a generation or two, I think we’d probably deny it. Make jokes about the Cassandras. And go on drinking the lemonade.

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your story or the ideas behind it?

I think that a discovery like the one in “The Cassandra Project” would be kept quiet if it could be managed. But I also suspect that it would not ultimately matter. It would become old news fairly quickly. If the western branch of the human race is good at anything, it’s moving on. You worry too much, Cassandra. Everything will be fine.

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Christie Yant

Christie Yant

Christie Yant is a science fiction and fantasy writer, Associate Publisher for Lightspeed and Nightmare, and guest editor of Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction special issue. Her fiction has appeared in anthologies and magazines including Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011 (Horton),  Armored, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, io9, Wired.com, and China’s Science Fiction World. Her work has received honorable mentions in Year’s Best Science Fiction (Dozois) and Best Horror of the Year (Datlow), and has been long-listed for StorySouth’s Million Writers Award. She lives on the central coast of California with two writers, an editor, and assorted four-legged nuisances. Follow her on Twitter @christieyant.