Reading: Cauldron

The galaxy is huge, ancient, and only sparsely inhabited, and most of what we’ll encounter when we get out there is weirdly mysterious. That’s the premise of Jack McDevitt’s novel Cauldron, a finalist for this year’s Nebula award.

McDevitt writes in a mainstream tradition that owes a lot to early Heinlein. His characters are all upper middle-class white people, and they never have any emotions that are not G-rated. He takes brief detours to sketch the life histories of the main characters, but the details are interchangeable. None of the characters’ personalities has the slightest impact on the plot — unlike the situation in, for instance, Nancy Kress’s An Alien Light (1988), which I read last week. In that story, the characters’ inner struggles have everything to do with how the encounter with enigmatic aliens unfolds.

The theme of Cauldron might be summed up as, “Only misguided cowards oppose space exploration. Civilizations that fail to leave their home planet become stagnant and die.” You could make a case for this thesis, but turning it into a gripping drama may be tricky.

Niven and Pournelle cranked up some drama in The Mote in God’s Eye, which had exactly this theme, but Cauldron isn’t Mote. The entire first half of Cauldron is devoted entirely to the main characters’ efforts to get the faltering space program back on track. Fund-raising, testing improved equipment, a retired star pilot’s bland struggle over whether to give up a fabulously successful career as a real estate agent in order to go a-voyaging again (the reader can guess what he’ll decide within the first two sentences) … there’s no action and not a speck of real conflict.

When the two starships crewed by our heroes actually get to roving, they visit three or four locations on their way to the galactic core, which gives the story an episodic flavor that lacks rising action. At one planetary stop, a crew member is killed — but only because of rank stupidity on the part of the entire exploration team.

Eventually they reach the core and encounter a Strange Space Creature. Maybe this particular creature never appeared in Star Trek, but it could have done. It learns to speak excellent English, for instance, from listening to a few hours of radio transmissions between the two human ships. This is one of three separate places in Cauldron where the difficulties of translating from an alien language are casually glossed over. Come to think of it, McDevitt may have inserted the first two in order to make the final one more believable. For me, it didn’t help.

After a few pages of dramatic suspense as they outsmart the Strange Space Creature, our heroes return home. Public support for the space program pours in, and that’s the end of the book. None of the ancient mysteries of the galaxy is resolved, though we have new data points for a couple of them. It appears the book is part of a series McDevitt is unfolding, and he’s adding mysteries to the galaxy as he goes along rather than subtracting them.

If you’re into space exploration and don’t mind casual pacing, you may enjoy the series. But I find myself reflecting on this book in light of a column Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg wrote for a recent issue of the SFWA Bulletin, in which they discuss the decline of the SF novel. The SF readership is declining, yet at the same time the market for SF films is huge.

In Cauldron, I think, we can glimpse one of the reasons why that’s happening. The book is written for insiders. The polemics in favor of space exploration will have true believers feeling warm and fuzzy, but I found myself thinking, “Get on with the story, for crying out loud!” Cauldron lacks the kind of drama and the kind of vivid characters that would appeal to a wider readership.

On the other hand, you could make a case for the notion that McDevitt would have to falsify his vision of the galaxy in order to craft a more compelling drama. The galaxy is just too big, too ancient, and too mysterious. For the paltry little human race to ever win a decisive victory over anything, we’d need another hundred thousand years of technological development — and technologies that advanced would surely make the book read like fantasy, not hard SF.

It’s a tricky tightrope to walk. I like the far-flung mysteries McDevitt sets forth, but I think it’s safe to say a scriptwriter would have to do a lot of work on this book in order to turn it into a satisfying movie.

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