Friday, January 6, 2012

Dissecting the Short Story: "Maiden Voyage" by Jack McDevitt

It's been a while, hasn't it? With the Christmas weekend hiatus, I haven't run a post from my Dissecting the Short Story series in nearly a month. For anyone new to the series, the goal here is to look at a story which was sold to a pro-rate fiction market, generally one of the large digest magazines, and see what we -- as writers -- can learn from it.

As always, I won't be shy about including spoiler material in this analysis, so if you have a copy of this magazine and would be planning to read this story, it might be worth your time to read it first before reading the bulk of this post.

"Maiden Voyage" by Jack McDevitt
Published in:
January, 2012 Asimov's Science Ficton
Approximate Length:
Third Person, Chronological
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
Priscilla ("Hutch") Hutchins is in training to be an interstellar pilot. She is on her final training voyage, where she is essentially acting as the captain though a more-experienced officer (Jake Loomis) is on board to ensure she doesn't run into any difficulty. They'll be making stops at seven different planetary systems, dropping off and picking up people and cargo along the way.

At the beginning of the trip, she's looking forward to going to Fomalhaut. It's mentioned that the largest satellite in the family of moons around a large planet in the Fomalhaut system is home to one of a series of alien "constructs" known as the Great Monuments. Another of these Monuments is on one of Saturn's moons and as a child Priscilla had been fascinated with it.

Before they arrive at their first stop they get a message that they will probably be picking up a couple of extra people from one planet since a hold on terraforming it has been lifted. The terraforming will make it a good place for settlers/vacationers, but it would put ancient ruins underwater.

The first planet they stop at is known as Hibachi's World. It has a scientific outpost which is studying the surprising array of life on the world -- surprising because the star in the system throws off frequent violent flares. They are ferrying three scientists there who are going to be doing research on Hibachi's World. On their final approach, Priscilla and Jake get to talking about how she got interested in piloting. She explains that as a child she went to the Moon with her father and was awestruck by its age and its timelessness. Jake mentions that he may take his wife there for a vacation. Priscilla laments how commercialized it's become. "They're ruining it," she says to him.

The ship's AI notices something unusual on one of Hibachi's two moons. Priscilla and Jake inspect it on their viewscreens and believe it's another of the Great Monuments. Jake talks her into not informing the scientists, insisting that they will take credit for the discovery.

They go down to the planet via shuttle and the team there has their own discovery to announce. They found a section of coastline about a thousand miles from the outpost where, as it turns out, a city once stood. No one had expected there to have ever been sentient life on Hibachi's World, so this is considered a major discovery. The scientists at the outpost were excited about the discovery but also concerned that it would mean that specialists would be brought in to study the alien ruins and that their existing work would get shoved aside or brought to a halt.  The people who had been working on the world, though, proudly showed off the alien building which they had discovered -- carved up into pieces and brought to a storage facility with the outpost. They talk about sending it home to be rebuilt on the Academy's lawn.

Priscilla and Jake leave Hibachi's World. Before leaving the system they go to the moon where the monument stands. They discover a second marker beside the monument and computer scans indicate that there is a box below that smaller marker with a skeleton in it. Priscilla manages to convince Jake that this site should be left undiscovered. She expects that the grave would be disrupted so the skeleton could be studied. "I'm tired of it all," she says -- referencing the moon, the terraforming of Quraqua and the torn-down building on Hibachi's World. Jake is disappointed and though he doesn't voice a specific decision at the end of the story, you suspect he's going to acquiesce to her request.

Like the last story I dissected ("Calculus for Blondes"), this one is part of a series. In this case, it features a character from McDevitt's "Academy" novels. There's the possibility that some things in this story are in-jokes/references for fans of that series. One that felt especially likely was a reference to Priscilla hoping that artificial gravity fields for ships would be invented "during her lifetime."

Another possible in-joke... Apparently, Hibachi's World is not a cooking device reference despite the fact that it's a planet that gets fried (my word) with solar flares on a regular basis. The name is presented with no explanation at first. Several pages later it's explained (in passing) that it's named for a biologist who predicted that such a planet could exist. I couldn't find a reference to such a (real) biologist on Google, but I also didn't try that hard. So, maybe it's a real biologist, maybe it's an in-joke. It was a minor "speed bump" for me in reading the story to go from the "Oh, ha-ha, I get it" interpretation of the name to the "Oh, well, that's not as funny" interpretation of the name. But no big deal.

One of the things that really digging into this story helped me appreciate was the number of recurring themes McDevitt put into it. There are multiple instances of people being concerned that someone else will take over their discovery in one way or another either in terms of taking credit for it or shunting them out of the way of exploring it or otherwise exploiting it. More explicitly, there are the recurring ideas of places being taken from their pre-existing state (I don't say "natural" since two of the examples deal with alien ruins.) and modified by humans.

Another bit of wording parallelism is present near the beginning and end of the story. Thinking about the monument on Saturn's moon as a child, Priscilla wanted "To touch the stone image. To trace with her fingers the alien characters cut into its base." The final paragraph to the story begins "[Jake] touched the marker. Pressed his fingertips against the engraved symbols." Very nicely done, though I confess that I don't believe I caught this parallelism on first reading the story. But when I re-read it for this dissection I picked up on the Priscilla reference right away and said to myself "Ah, she's going to do this with the one they discover at the end of the story!" Well, I was close.

Did The Story Work For Me?

Yes, I liked it. I'll probably track down the first of his Academy novels after reading this one.

In fact, as you might have guessed from my comments in the Analysis section, I liked it better on a second reading. That may be one peril of putting too many subtle nuggets into a story, they could pass by a reader on a casual first reading. On the other hand, you can't whack readers over the head either. A delicate balance, this writing thing.

Thanks for stopping by to read this write-up. Happy reading and writing this weekend!

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