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Melville on Iapetus by Jack McDevitt

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“Melville on Iapetus” is a 1983 science fiction short story by Jack McDevitt. It is about a group of astronauts who discover an ancient statue on one of Saturn’s moons.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:

Iapetus from CassiniSeven lucky scientists have been chosen to make the long trip to Iapetus, and now that they are there they have discovered something amazing – a statue of… something. It is alien for sure – what with its long limbs and nightmarish talons – and it is most likely female too. But most disturbing is the fact that the millenia-old snow around the statue shows no signs of how it was constructed! As the group searches for clues they make some bizarre discoveries, and one of them figures out exactly how it all happened!

The thing was carved of rock and covered with ice. It stood serenely on that bleak, snow-covered plain, a nightmare figure of curving claws, surreal eyes, and lean fluidity. The lips were parted, rounded, almost sexual. I wasn’t sure why it was so disquieting. It was more than simply the talons, or the disproportionately long lower limbs. It was more even than the suggestion of philosophical ferocity stamped on those crystalline features. There was something—terrifying—bound up in the tension between its suggestive geometry and the wide plain on which it stood.

My Two Cents:

• The good:

  • Jack McDevitt is a great writer, and that shows in this story. The tone, story telling style and detailed descriptions all make for a beautiful story.
  • I am intrigued with stories that are about mysterious ancient races that leave artifacts in our solar system – so I quite enjoyed “Melville on Iapetus”.
  • I found the discussions about Melville’s writings to be interesting – and how that was worked into the ending was really cool!

• The bad:

  • It did have a bit of an abrupt ending – I would have liked to learn more about the statue and its creator. Sigh… oh well.

Fact Sheet:
• Page Count: 13
• Word Count: 5,625

Where you can find “Melville on Iapetus”:

  • This short story first appeared in the November 1983 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction.
  • “Melville on Iapetus” is included in Cryptic: The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt . Be sure to check out the cool cover art – which features a scene from this story!
  • You can read a free online version of this story at

Some Interesting Links:

  • Did you know that science fiction author Michael Swanwick refers to Jack McDevitt as a “Philadelphia boy?” Yep. You can learn more about Jack by reading Michael’s touching profile of him.
  • Special thanks to Free SF Reader for pointing out this great story!

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you might also like The Sentinel, about an ancient monument discovered on the moon (and also the basis for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey), by Arthur C. Clarke.

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