Cauldron

by Jack McDevitt

Cover image

Series: Academy #6
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: November 2007
Printing: November 2008
ISBN: 0-441-01650-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 351

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Cauldron is the sixth (and apparently final) book in the the Academy (or Priscilla Hutchins) series. This is not the place to start for multiple reasons that I'll mention below. It's the apparent culmination of the ongoing plot about the Omega clouds, which started with the first book, The Engines of God.

While this is not exactly a bad book, I found it deeply disappointing. After one has built up a mystery over multiple books, and did as good of a job as McDevitt did in adding complexity, possibility, and analysis to that mystery, it can be hard to find a suitable conclusion. But I knew the story was in trouble when that conclusion only starts in earnest about fifty pages from the end of the book. I kept reading and reading and getting more and more concerned that there wasn't enough space in the book for a satisfying revelation, and unfortunately I was right. I won't spoil the details, but I'm sure I wasn't the only reader to have a "that's it?" reaction.

The problems start early. There has been a long-term trend in this universe away from space travel, with funding falling and support for the Academy diminishing. By the start of Cauldron, space exploration has effectively ceased. However, a scientist believes he's found a breakthrough enhancement to the interstellar drive, one that would allow far faster speeds of travel and therefore exploration far deeper into the galaxy than ever before, including the galactic core. Attempting to find the resources to test that drive and get funding for such a mission in a deeply hostile environment is the opening puzzle of the book.

I think this has two serious problems. One is that the parallel to the current tedious arguments of space boosterism was rather too strong to me. McDevitt had previously avoided being too preachy about the merits of getting off the planet, but Cauldron felt more like a soapbox. I'm not entirely unsympathetic, but this gets tedious quickly. It's also not entertaining fiction; I've read lots of those arguments before.

The other problem is that McDevitt tries to build suspense over whether this drive enhancement will actually work, for far more pages (135!) than I was expecting. This ruined my ability to get engrossed in the story since it was obvious from the beginning of the book (and, for that matter, from reading the back cover) that without this drive enhancement, McDevitt has no story. So the reader gets a third of a book of effectively fake suspense delivered with McDevitt's characteristic deliberate pacing. In the absence of discoveries and intellectual puzzles (and there isn't much of either available), this is all horribly dull.

Cauldron is about one-half setup, then one-quarter a whirlwind tour of a few galactic locations and one-quarter resolution to the central plot of the series. The first is too long, and the last is far too short and deeply disappointing, and the center... well, parts are intriguing and thought-provoking, but as this is apparently the last book of the series, also frustrating. The explorers make some neat discoveries that mostly open new questions that apparently won't be answered. This is, of course, part of science, and McDevitt has always been willing to leave unanswered questions, but I was in the mood for a concluding book. I wanted more revelation and fewer unanswered questions.

McDevitt's grasp of characterization is as good as always, though, and I enjoyed the interplay of personalities. Cauldron is quiet, but it's heart-felt, and the characters (Prescilla in particular) show the signs of long careers, extensive experience, and a slower and more thoughtful approach to the world. I would have been happier with the character interactions if they had been enlivened by more plot events, but I still admire the way that McDevitt portrays the deliberateness and occasional boredom and tedium of scientific exploration. He writes that story well. But it can drag without a solid plot to hang it off of.

I'm not sure whether to recommend Cauldron even to people who have read the rest of the series. It's not a horrible book, but I deeply disliked the final conclusion to the series plot. You may be better off sticking with your imagination rather than reading the official conclusion, and the book doesn't have much else to recommend it. It's not horrible, but it's very slow and even dull in places, and spends far too long on questions that plot necessities remove all suspense from. An unfortunately disappointing conclusion.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-06-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21