(2007/2013) Jack McDevitt, Headline, £9.99, pbk, 403pp, ISBN 978-1-472-20329-8
Though this came out in 2007, its first British Isles edition was in 2013. And for those of you into light weight, space opera let me assure you that this delay is well worth it for you are in for a treat.
Cauldron begins with a SETI receiver detecting an alien transmission… A few pages later and we move forward 70 years where an exploration mission from Earth comes across a derelict alien spacecraft. These two events are teasers for what happens much later in the book. Up to the last third of the book we are more concerned about whether or not humanity will turn its back on the stars.
You see the problem is this it takes around two days just to get to the nearest star and then once in system it can take a day or more getting to where you really need to go. This may not sound a long time but it still means that to go anywhere meaningful say 100 light years takes two months, and in a galaxy 100,000 light years across that is a long time to get not very far: you could not even begin to get out of our spiral arm within a human lifetime. The problem is that our star drive is not good enough and humanity has already explored and found that there is not that much within reachable space apart from one medieval civilization, a few worlds with algae and a few more with some animal life, plus a load of ancient ruins from long extinct species. What is needed is a new star drive.
Fortunately, Silvestri, a collaborator of the original, Hazeltine, FTL (faster-than-light) drive inventor, thinks he has the physics theory needed for a new faster drive. This one is so fast that the galactic core will be just months away.
By this point we are halfway through Cauldron and the experiments on this new drive are not going away. Also not going away is the mystery of the Omega Clouds. We encounter these earlier in the book as well as previous titles in the Priscilla Hutchins novels of which this is one. These are clouds slowly (sub-light speed) moving out from somewhere more central in the Galaxy and clouds which seem to be attracted to straight-line patters, hence attracted to artificial constructs. However when they get close to technological planets, or even close-flying star craft, they unleash destructive lightening storms. Could these Omega Clouds have wiped out earlier technological civilizations in the Galaxy?
Suffice to say that by the book's end Cauldron addresses the SETI contact, the derelict alien space craft, as well as part of the Omega mysteries that taunted us at the novel's beginning.
The Priscilla Hutchins novels are not exactly cutting-edge SF, but then that is their charm: they are more in the tradition of good old fashioned, straight forward sci-fi with a certain Dan Dare simplicity about them. They are basic but solid SF reads and fantastic SFnal light entertainment. McDevitt is well worth checking out and if you like one of his novels then you'll enjoy his whole oeuvre.
This novel sets McDevitt's universe up for the other series of stand-alone novels for which he is known: the 'Alex Benedict' stories. These are essentially detective PI tales set on a developed human colony world at a future time when humanity is more firmly footed among the stars. Though this other series is set further in the future, it does not strictly seem to be the same universe as that of the Priscilla Hutchins novels. Nonetheless, McDevitt's writing style and sci-fi vision is sufficiently distinctive that it is difficult not to make some comparisons: the bottom line being that there are plenty of stories for a reader new to McDevitt to mine.
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