Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, May 3, 2012

2007: Cauldron (McDevitt, Jack)

When the journey is worse than the destination (2/5)

Book Six of McDevitt's Academy sextology, the same sextology with the excellent base premise of exploring the mysteries of near-space, establishing contact with alien races, and dabbing in some xeno-archaeology. You may wonder, as I did, how this tantalizingly wondrous premise came to produce one mediocre book after another. Book Six, much like the previous five, dips its grimy paw of curiosity into the adventure honey pot and refuses to taste the sweetness of its discovery, just when things are looking good.

Rear cover synopsis:
"By 2255, the age of starflight is over. The Academy of Science and Technology is long closed, and the only efforts at space exploration are carried on by privately funded foundations. However, physicist Jon Silvestri insists that an abandoned prototype for a much more efficient star drive is workable. Priscilla Hutchins, now a fund-raiser for the Prometheus Foundations, persuades the group to back his research. Soon the Cauldron--the core of the galaxy--is only months away. As long last, the mystery of the deadly omega clouds that have devastated the galaxy for centuries can be penetrated. And a handful of brave men and women, Priscilla Hutchins among them, will journey into the very heart of the Cauldron..."

I'm assuming this book is called "Cauldron" not because of the book's destination, but because of the book's journey. Whereas the destination of Cauldron is the tumultuous radiation-plagued galactic center, the journey of Cauldron is simply a 350-page vat which McDevitt filled with half-cocked ideas that he couldn't flesh out into full novels. The reader typically wants a destination, but it seems the author ignores this plea and favors the journey... which is asinine because the entire journey in the Academy series was painful. McDevitt hints as his preference for the "journey" over that of the "destination" here: "The sense of getting from one place to another. Journeys are not about destinations, they are about the route." (291)

The journey within Cauldron is chaotic and McDevitt takes no time to stop and smell the metaphorical roses. He rushes by everything at FTL speed, leaving the reader gasping for a breather. If the "journey" is what is important to the author, then why are the first 195 pages of the 351 page book about getting ready to leave? Simply put: a wondrous new drive is discovered, tested, and crewed. Done... one sentence, which McDevitt draws out into 195 pages. Seriously. That leaves the reader with roughly 156 pages of "journey" and "destination." Unfortunately, McDevitt attempts to cram as many idle-brained scenarios as he can before reaching the destination of the galactic core.

(1) Makai 4417 is the target of the stealth satellites' transmission (from Chindi) but the planet is oddly rustic with denizens living simple lives. (2) Sigma 2271 is the source of a SETI reception of alien origin. The planet is barren save for a tower sticking out of the snow. (3) Tenareif is home to a once thought unpaired blackhole, but upon visuals it seems the blackhole has a very odd companion, indeed. (4) The Mordecai Zone is the conclusive source of the omega clouds. The clouds in the galactic core are massive and difficult to penetrate and explore.

All of these great scenarios are hurried by, in what seems like an attempt to boil down the plots of four other books and cram the remains of it into a grand finale. However, none of the "journeys" above provide any sort of relief to the readers desires for alllll those little dots to connect: the Monument Makers, the saviors of Deepsix, the intentions of the Chindi, the intention of the Omega clouds, and the reasoning behind the Moonriders... none of this will be answered, all of it will be skirted and ignored. If you're looking for closure, you've come to the wrong place. Even 7-11s have doors that open and close! McDevitt doesn't have the artistic license like Gene Wolfe to leave he reader in the dark.

I've written in prior McDevitt reviews that the author has an annoying knack for mentioned the height of every cast member. In Omega, McDevitt uses "tall" seventeen times to describe the height of characters, while in Odyssey he uses "tall" sixteen times. This trumps any other height description by a landslide. Here in Cauldron, he uses "tall" nine times (pages 12, 15, 24, 27, 37, 50, 54, 71, and 188); short, large, small, and huge were each used once; and "average" was used twice. McDevitt has gotten control of his "of course" diarrhea, too. One additional thankful note is the largely missing Gregory MacAllister, the mouthpiece upon the pages for McDevitt.

If you haven't read any of the Academy novels, then try out The Engines of God because I liked it when I read it in 2007. But with five years of heavy reading behind me, I find that all the McDevitt novels border on mediocre and terrible... 2-3 stars each. I'm in the unfortunate position to be in the possession of three more McDevitt novels, so this isn't the last review of a McDevitt novel... is there hope for him? I've heard Infinity Beach is much better... better than what, I don't know.

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