Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Jack McDevitt

Published: 2007

Reviewed: 2011-05-06

Publisher: Ace

I picked up this book in the misapprehension that Jack McDevitt was
one of the excellent new generation of hard-SF authors, like Charles
Stross or Alastair Reynolds. I think I must have been confusing him
with Ken MacLeod, because when I read "Cauldron," I found it nothing
but a long, slow slog of poorly written over-acting by characters who
could barely figure out why they'd gotten out of bed in the morning,
much less why I'd want to read about them.

The most remarkable thing about "Cauldron," really, is the degree of
apathy in the characters. Here they are, on an incredibly-much-
faster-than-light journey to the center of the galaxy, and all they
can think of is how it's hard to figure out how to fill their time for
three weeks. That whole journey was nearly scuttled because
apparently all human curiousity and venture capital are dead, and
nobody seems to be able to figure out why humans should bother going
to other solar systems with nice habitable planets.

In a novel by a better author, this could work. I can buy losing
governmental or societal will on a large scale: that sort of
regression happens all the time, as evidenced by our current lack of
cities on the moon. I can buy prohibition by a taboo or religious
movement or morality dispute---a decent example comes to mind in
Bova's "Moonrise" and "Moonwar" novels. I can buy having our will
sapped by some sort of societal or technological trap that we've
fallen into, like the VR plague in the Kollins' "The Unincorporated
man," or the ignorant and drugged enclosures of Silverberg's "The
World Inside." But if an author wants to persuade me that humanity
has lost the basic variability that will send splinter groups flying
off into all kinds of passions, to explore and colonize and just plain
mess around with anything in reach, that author had better provide a
compelling reason. Instead, it's just an unexplained backdrop of
blandness that was doing its best to convince me that Mr. McDevitt was
telling a story about a society where nobody does anything worth
telling stories about.

So I was already pretty unimpressed, but hanging on in the hopes that
the stunning revelation hinted at would at least be some interesting
plot or idea. But what do we find in the end? Nothing but a big
diabolus ex machina, to coin a phrase. And again, I've seen it done
better, by Piers Anthony of all people. And then? The characters
just turn around and go home, having done nothing, learned nothing,
and simply wasted my time.