Cauldron is the sixth novel in Jack McDevitt’s series of novels featuring Priscilla Hutchins as a protagonist, and is not a good place to begin reading the series. In fact, it’s chronologically the last novel (to date) in the series, as the seventh book goes back to the very beginning of Hutchins’ career to show how everything got started.
The universe that McDevitt has shown through Hutch’s — to use her nickname from the books — eyes is a grand one: enough faster-than-light travel to make the space opera work, but enough of the limitations of lightspeed, the immensity of the galaxy, and the implacability of deep time to show that even an earth-based civilization capable of sending ships regularly through interstellar distances is a mere speck in space and time. One of the recurring motifs of the series is that intelligent life and civilizations, even those that reach the stars, don’t last long on a galactic scale. Xenoarchaeologists appear in several books, and some of the most affecting scenes involve civilizations that have been and gone by the time that humans show up. Not all of the civilizations that the archaeologists explore died natural deaths, however; over the course of the series, evidence mounts of something (or rather, somethings) moving through our part of the galaxy at a significant fraction of c, and laying waste to any place with sufficiently high technology.
Through most of the series, the Academy of Science and Technology is an institution driving interstellar exploration. Hutch begins as an Academy pilot, and over the course of the succeeding books becomes not only more senior and famous — not least by surviving the adventures McDevitt describes — but also moving up within the Academy’s ranks.
By the opening of Cauldron, however, that age is passing. The Academy has largely closed down. Interstellar flight, what there is of it, is being left to commercial ventures. Exploration is on hold, apparently indefinitely. The xenoarchaeologists are not going out to new digs, they are poring over what previous expeditions found. Hutch has retired, but donates her time raising funds for the Foundation carrying on some of the Academy’s work on a much-reduced scale. Humanity, apparently, has turned its back on learning more about the stars.
At one fundraiser, Hutch is approached by someone who claims to have a solution: a faster-than-light drive that is orders of magnitude better than current technology. Anyone who has done much public speaking will recognize the type: someone who waits around after the talk, clearly has an agenda, moves to buttonhole the speaker. She listens, and he’s not an obvious crackpot, but his claims are at the far edge of the plausible. Still, if he’s right, it would be just what the Academy needs.
That encounter sets up the first part of the book. What if the guy is right? The story McDevitt tells happens at the human intersection of science, technology, and whatever it takes to find resources. It’s shortened, of course, to keep it within the bounds of part of a novel, but it shows how innovation starts up, how such things can go wrong, and one of the ways they can go right. One of the pleasures of the book for long-term readers of the series is seeing how experience has turned crusty, action-oriented Hutch has into more of a people person, someone who understands why folks are the way they are, and how to get them to do certain things. Her big fundraising scene is a memorable one, and this from a writer who usually gets credit for evoking a sense of wonder about the mysteries of the universe, or the mind-stretching concepts behind alien devices.
People who look at this book structurally will have realized that if the new drive doesn’t pan out, there isn’t going to be much of a book, and certainly not one that involves a voyage of exploration close to the center of our galaxy. Of course that’s true, but I was along for the journey, and not just for the destination. How Hutch and company got their ship was just as important as the fact that they did, and McDevitt makes the how every bit as interesting and enjoyable as the whether. Some of the obstacles arise naturally from the kinds of people involved, as do their surprising successes.
Once the voyage begins, the story becomes one of discovery, and perhaps one of understanding. The new ships are still uncertain enough for the voyage to contain dangers in and of itself. The characters are also testing the limits of what they can achieve. Is this a one-off expedition? Or is it the first chapter of a new tale of human presence in the galaxy? Are the new methods unsound? As they stretch those limits, they stop at places alluded to earlier in the book, or (I think) earlier in the series. Each place reveals more about the characters on the voyage, and about the universe as McDevitt has constructed it.
Their ultimate goal, though, is the source of the objects that have caused the destruction of numerous civilizations. What has been sending them out? Why? There are some amazing scenes along the way — a brown dwarf near a black hole, for example, and the slow realization that not only must the object be artificial, but why it has been put there. After that build-up, not to mention everything in previous books in the series, I don’t know what kind of final encounter would have met expectations. The one in Cauldron has great tension and suspense, but not, I think, the kind of cosmic import that I had hoped for going into the novel.
On the other hand, the book has rounded and interesting characters, whose flaws, personalities and interactions shape the action. It has politics and science and business that feel true to life; it has surprising encounters in unexplored space; and it has a huge dose of raw wonder at the immensity and strangeness of the universe. That is a splendid mix for any cauldron; if the imperfect end means it’s not one of the giants of the genre, Cauldron is still a very solid book.