by Jack McDevitt
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
More than any of Jack McDevitt’s earlier novels, Cauldron builds on previous novels in the “Academy” series featuring Priscilla Hutchins. While Cauldron does stand on its own quite well, knowledge of the five earlier novels will add depth and texture to the events McDevitt describes.
After a brief prologue set seven decades before the main portion of the novel, McDevitt presents one of the least optimistic scenarios that has ever graced his writing. Years after the interstellar exploratory missions described in the earlier books, which resulted in evidence of alien, although extinct, civilizations, humanity has all but turned its back on the stars. One of the things which makes this such a depressing scenario is how closely it mirrors the current state of manned space exploration. However, just as the modern Chinese are trying to spark interest with their intention to land a man on the moon, Jon Silvestri hopes to shatter the melancholia of McDevitt’s future by promising much faster space travel.
In fact, Cauldron feels like a strange mix of ending and beginning. Even as Silvestri works to create a new exploratory phase, McDevitt’s world looks back to the great events of the past, many of which, like the chindi or omega clouds McDevitt discussed in previous novels. Even when his characters in Cauldron manage to go into space, it appears more as a step to wrap up loose ends McDevitt left in the earlier books rather than to blaze a new trail. However, as McDevitt’s scenario progresses, his normal optimism does intrude itself on his characters again.
And optimism in mankind’s future is stock in trade for McDevitt’s novels. He sprinkles humanity’s need to learn liberally throughout Cauldron, just as he does in his other novels and stories. Equally, McDevitt is a generous distributor of sense of wonder and in Cauldron he starts with the wonders of his earlier books and builds upon them to provide a gee-wow vision of the galaxy.
McDevitt’s primary character, Priscilla Hutchins, has, of course, been the focal point of numerous adventures, but McDevitt provides a reasonable rationale for including her in this excursion. In addition, Hutchins’s support characters, Silvestri, Rudy Golombeck, pilot Matt Darwin, and Antonio Giannotti, filling the role of journalist and everyman, are easy for readers to relate to, if not as quixotic as some of McDevitt’s characters from the past, although Gregory MacAllister and some of McDevitt’s earlier characters do make cameos in Cauldron.
The main focus of the book is a journey undertaken to the location believed to be the home of the killing omega clouds, a region of space known as the Cauldron, among other picturesque names. Along the way, the ship makes other stops to further explore mysteries set up in earlier books or at the beginning of Cauldron. This permits McDevitt to give his readers a tour of the wonders of the galaxy, an ability McDevitt shares with many Golden Age authors like Murray Leinster, Edmond Hamilton, or Jack Vance.
For all that Cauldron draws on McDevitt’s earlier novels, everything a reader needs to know to enter his wonder-filled world is included in the book, which can easily stand on its own. New readers won’t feel lost while returning fans won’t feel that they are being told information that they already know. Cauldron succeeds as both an entry in an on-going series and as a stand-alone novel.
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