Vintage Treasures: Memories by Mike McQuay

Vintage Treasures: Memories by Mike McQuay

Memories (Bantam Spectra Special Edition, August 1989). Cover by Will Cormier

Mike McQuay published his first SF novel, Lifekeeper, in 1980, and he died just fifteen years later, in May 1995. But in that decade and a half he enjoyed an impressive career as a science fiction and fantasy novelist.

He made his mark writing men’s adventure with a light SF twist, starting with the Mathew Swain (“The 21st Century Private Eye”) series, the covers of which unfailingly featured our hero clutching one of three essential tools of the trade: a pistol, a cigarette, or a slender young woman (frequently several at once). They began with Hot Time in Old Town (1981), which proudly bore the cover blurb “Can a hard-boiled private eye beat the odds in the back alleys of tomorrow?” That same year he was selected to write the novelization for John Carpenter’s cinematic masterpiece Escape From New York, and you can sorta see the connection.

Just six years later McQuay published Memories, which signaled a significant evolution as a writer. It was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award for distinguished science fiction paperback, and began a period when McQuay was taken much more seriously. His next book The Nexus — which Joe Bonadonna called ‘brilliant’ in his Black Gate review — was released as part of Bantam Spectra’s prestigious Spectra Special Edition line in 1989.

[Click the images to create memories of bigger versions.]

The first three Mathew Swain novels: Hot Time in Old Town, When Trouble Beckons,
and The Deadliest Show in Town (1981-1982). Covers by Bob Larkin

Lifekeeper was originally published as a paperback original by Avon Books, but McQuay switched publishers to Bantam Books for his second novel, Hot Time in Old Town. It was a fortuitous change, and McQuay was, with only minor exceptions, to stay with Bantam Books for the rest of his career.

His career coincided with — and benefited from — the rapid rise of Bantam’s young hot shot publisher Lou Aronica. Aronica, then just 27 years old, wanted to start a new science fiction imprint, Bantam Spectra. The first book he acquired for the new line, David Brin’s Startide Rising, won both a Hugo and a Nebula award. Bantam Spectra formally launched with a bang in 1985, and over the next few years Aronica published New York Times bestsellers by Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Raymond Feist, William Gibson, and others. Simultaneously, Aronica launched the hugely successful Star Wars book publishing program.

For half a dozen years in the late 80s and early 90s, Aronica could do no wrong. It was during these years that he acquired five consecutive Nebula Award winners — an unprecedented run — and won the 1994 World Fantasy Award for the fourth volume of his original anthology series, Full Spectrum 4, edited with Amy Stout and Betsy Mitchell.

McQuay was not one of those New York Times bestselling Bantam authors. But by the mid-80s, after a series of successful midlist novels, he was ready to move away from the men’s adventure books that had launched his career, and Lou Aronica’s Bantam Special Editions — modeled after Terry Carr’s legendary Ace Science Fiction Specials line a decade earlier — gave him the platform to do it.

The Bantam Mike McQuay: Lifekeeper (reprint edition, May 1985),
Jitterbug (August 1984), Memories (June 1987), The Nexus
(May 1989). Covers by Alan Hashimoto, Enric, Frank Riley, Bob Hickson

Memories, published as a paperback original in June 1987 (see cover above), surprised McQuay’s readers, but gradually began to win critical acclaim. As Bantam Spectra Special Editions began to gain steam, Aronica decided to relaunch the book as a Spectra Special Edition in August 1989 (see cover at top).

It’s not easy to pull off a mid-career switch and win recognition as as serious novelist, especially when your top selling book was Escape From New York (not to mention a popular Bobbsey Twins book and pair of Tom Swift novels). How did readers react to Memories?

Memories generated considerable excitement among my own circle of SF readers, and a thorough reevaluation of Mike McQuay. The review that stuck in my mind at the time was from Locus.

Cause for great celebration… Memories stands with a small handful of science fiction novels that successfully convey the pain and wonder of being alive. It transcends the genre.

There’s ample discussion of this novel online, but the best plot synopsis I’ve found is at Scott Overton’s Ponderings blog.

Memories… featured one of the most interesting time travel concepts I’ve ever come across: a drug is developed that lets a person “mind-travel” through their ancestral line and inhabit the body of any of their genetic ancestors. The plot of Memories involves the main character going back to the Napoleonic era to stop another traveller from messing up history. The process involves DNA and RNA (strongly linked to memory). It’s an excellent read that’s stayed with me, and I couldn’t help but think of it this week when I encountered an interesting science news story.

I’ve won’t spoil the nifty science connection for you, but you can read the whole thing here.

Escape From New York Mike McQuay-small

Escape from New York (Bantam Specta, December 1985). Cover uncredited

Despite the lively critical discussion of this book over the past four decades, my favorite review is this brief appraisal by David at

A Transcendental Story

The story… centers around a modern-day psychiatrist named David Wolf, a typical self-absorbed rich guy trapped by his own class and background. Then one day, along comes his sister, acting very strangely and claiming to actually be one of his descendants from the far future, Silv. Silv has invented a drug that allows a person to travel through his own lines of ancestry — to time-travel, in essence, and inhabit any one of his ancestors for any length of time. And of course, she needs David’s help to stop a third time-traveller, Hersh, who stole the drug and has ensconced himself in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte and is proceeding to screw up history…

It quickly becomes about far more than mere time-travel paradoxes. It’s a vast what-if story. What if: you could be anybody in any place, any time? What if you could see Jesus or Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, what if you could influence world events? What if you couldn’t die? What if you could dwell for eternity in the lives of any of your ancestors? What would life *mean*? What would *existence* mean?…

The plot develops from a rickety time-travel story into a philosophical exploration and, ultimately, a romance of a sensual and spiritual nature that is beautiful to read… In the end, as I read back across the timescape that McQuay has crafted, I saw how life in general goes — really, in that sequence, from struggle to exploration to enlightenment. (Think Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.) So few stories really touch on a context for life and existence so deep and so broad, and I am grateful to this author for offering this to us.

Memories is the winner of a Philip K. Dick Award, and I definitely see why.

Mike McQuay was at the top of the science fiction field for a very short time. Other than Richter 10, his 1996 novel based on an outline by Arthur C. Clarke, he never had a book appear in hardcover under his name. But for a short period in the late 80s and early 90s he published a string of highly-regarded novels that demonstrated what he was capable of, and the field is immensely poorer for his sudden death in 1995.

The Ramon and Morgan saga: Pure Blood (Bantam Books, February 1985) and
Mother Earth (Bantam Spectra, August 1985). Covers by Royo and Seguilles

Our previous coverage of McQuay includes:

The Ties That Bind: Mike McQuay’s The Nexus, by Joe Bonadonna

Memories was published as a paperback original in June 1987, and re-issued as a Bantam Spectra Special Edition in August 1989. The latter is 402 pages in paperback, priced at $4.95. It has been out of print since 1990, and there is no digital edition. cover of the Spectra edition is by Will Cormier.

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Adrian Simmons

I actually read PURE BLOOD back in the late 80s. An interesting side note, he taught at Central State University (now University of Central Oklahoma)–a university in the very town I lived in during the 80s. I neve rmet him, but I imagine he might have still been there where I started going to CSU in 88-90.

Rich Horton

I was aware of McQuay at the time, and I remember hearing about his early death, but I somehow never read him (except for the story in Full Spectrum 2, which I confess I don’t remember, though I thought those anthologies were excellent.)

Rich Horton

I might also have confused him with Mark McGarry, whose first novel (Sun Dogs) came out about when McQuay’s did.

Rich Horton

Or with Michael McCollum, who was born the same year as McQuay, and whose career started at about the same time. I enjoyed some of McCollum’s stuff for Analog. He is still alive, happily. His career in traditional publishing seemed to stall in the mid-90s, though he seems to have published stuff as recently as 2020, in what looks like his own (i.e. self-published) imprint.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x