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Cauldron by Jack McDevitt
Edited by Ginjer Buchanan
Cover Artist: Larry Price
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441015252
Date: 06 November 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

There's something you've got to love about a book that begins with the dateline "Cherry Hill, New Jersey, December 16, 2165". It's the future, but somehow the very fact that there's still a Cherry Hill makes it seem close enough to reach out and touch, or be touched by. It's this sense of future imminent that permeates Jack McDevitt's work. It's the day after tomorrow, or maybe the week after, but it's a tomorrow that overlaps today. A century and a half or so from now we've gone to the stars, but found them about as interesting as the surface of the moon, which is to say, not very. What we've really missed is finding anyone worth have a good long talk with, though we've found some dead civilizations and some pretty lame ones along the way. Spaceflight has gotten tame, lame, and once again, on the wane.

Priscilla Hutchins, "Hutch", who starred in earlier books in this six-book cycle, now evidentially closing with a bit of a whimper, is now retired, first from starship piloting, then running the foundation that sent research ships into the deep unknown. She's mostly enjoying doing fundraising to keep exploration going, but she knows there's no real incentive to do so. Space travel costs too much and there are too few places worth going to for anyone to really care now that we've been there and back. Even the specter of the deadly Omega Clouds, vast regions of space that act inimically towards any civilization that goes out and builds rectangular artifacts, has been dulled. First off, we know now how to deal with them, and secondly, their origin, deep in the center of the galaxy, is just too far off to check out, even with superluminal drives.

Until now. A new drive, very experimental and short of funds, but promising nonetheless, just might make such a trip possible. Hutch gets the head of the foundation to invest one of their few starships to test it, with poor results. The whole venture seems doomed until a successful starship pilot turned Realtor steps in to make it happen.

Once the drive works and the universe (or at least galaxy) opens up to them, the question becomes, "Where to?" There are a couple of galactic sites that Hutch especially wants to see, starting with the source of the first SETI signal ever received by none other than her father a lifetime ago. The itinerary for the expedition that we send the pair of ships on turns out to be a checklist of places that have been wondered about in previous books. Where did the massive starship in Chindi start out? Where did that signal come from? And finally, where are the Omega Clouds born and why do they seek and destroy civilization after civilization?

The good news is that McDevitt is as good as he's ever been, and the expedition crew has that same good feel that all his books' crews have had. Some folks are keen to get out there, some are cranky to be cooped up, and some are just bored by the whole process. At least until things go wrong. But the drama in these stories is rarely about aliens who want to move in and take over, or assimilate us into their hive mind, or anything that calls for us to rise up and fight back. It's much more like real life. Though that's more than a bit of a disappointment for the characters. After the "first conversation between a human and a representative of a technological civilization" one of the explorers mutters into his coffee, "Where's the majesty?"

This is the condemnation of all this boldly going as Jack wraps up his series. Even the dreaded Omega Cloud source turns out to be something of a non-event, though it's touch-and-go for a bit. But it's not the sort of thing you can get worked up about, more a petty villain than one of cosmic importance.

If you've enjoyed the ride in this series so far, and by my lights you should have, you'll want to come along on the visit to the Cauldron. You may feel a little let down by it all, but you'll be channeling the author's feelings. Still, he lets Hutch close with a hopeful sentiment, that getting off world in a serious way is more than worth doing -- it's critical to the survival of humanity. Not just because it spreads the risk, but because it's how we'll discover "who we are ... (and) if we're worth saving."

The message here is that we can be ... but we'll have to work at it. I'm fine with that.

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