Odyssey, and Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt
Odyssey and Cauldron are the fifth and sixth books in the author's Academy series, following on from Omega. This effectively ends the main sequence of this series, although there is a 2013 prequel, Starhawk, featuring a much younger Priscilla Hutchins (Hutch) at the start of her career.
Odyssey continues the tale of Hutch, the former starship pilot and now deskbound administrator, and includes some other characters we have met before; most notably Gregory MacAllister, the cynical and irascible iconoclast who owns and edits a no-holds-barred periodical. In fact, he is arguably the most important character in this story, along with a newcomer, Valentina (Valya) a Greek starship pilot who is, of course, gorgeous, like most of McDevitt's heroines.
This time the plot hangs on the mysterious "Moonriders"; groups of black spheres which have allegedly been spotted by space craft from time to time. They seem to belong to an advanced alien civilisation but no clear evidence exists that they are real, and MacAllister among many others believes they are a myth, with the occasional video footage being faked. This attitude changes when Moonriders are observed to move a large asteroid in such a way that it would eventually strike one of the few life-bearing worlds discovered, with devastating effects. Not long afterwards, a partly-built space hotel is also threatened.
The ability of the Academy to respond to these threats is hampered by constant budget cuts and its survival has been doubtful, but with an unknown and apparently hostile alien civilisation on the loose, a warfleet is planned. This will be too late, however, to help the Origins project – a giant particle accelerator in space which also comes under threat, and whose fate forms the climax of the novel.
The author's writing quality and characterisation continue to improve, and while the viewpoint hops between various individuals there is no problem keeping up with who everyone is. However, the story is less ambitious and exciting than the earlier books; it doesn't have such a "widescreen baroque" appeal or the associated "sense of wonder". There are some loose ends, too: an initial mystery concerning a spaceship lost in transdimensional space is left unresolved, as are some more important issues.
An amusing aspect of the story is the series of quotes which begin each chapter, many of them caustic observations from MacAllister's publications, which provide a good flavour of the character. For example:
"The term congressional hearing is an oxymoron. No congressional hearing is ever called to gather information. Rather, it is an exercise designed strictly for posturing, by people who have already made up their minds, looking for ammunition to support their positions."
"There are few professions whose primary objective is to advance the cause of humanity rather than simply to make money or accrue power. Among this limited group of humanitarians I would number teachers, nurses, bookstore owners, and bartenders."
"Certain types of decisions can be safely ignored. Some issues will go away with the passage of time, others will be so slow developing that the decision makers will depart before the results of their neglect become manifest. Which brings us to the environment."
Despite a certain lack of excitement in the story by comparison with the earlier books, this is still a fast-paced and intriguing tale which is well worth reading.
Cauldron is set some years later, when the Academy has closed down as a result of a general withdrawal from space exploration as humanity focuses on winning the battle to correct self-inflicted environmental damage to the Earth. Hutch is retired, only emerging to give fundraising speeches in support of the Prometheus Foundation, a private organisation which is the last to be carrying our interstellar research. Everything is shaken up when a scientist approaches her with information about a new type of superluminal drive which is many times faster than the existing one: fast enough to reach the galactic core in only a few months.
The rest of this review contains some spoilers; if you don't want to read on, I'll just add that it is, as usual, a gripping story which I finished in a couple of reading sessions, despite it being not without flaws.
After various trials and tribulations the new drive is made to work and a party of explorers, including Hutch, sets out to reach the galactic core. The reason is not just research for its own sake: they are searching for the Cauldron; the source of the vast, civilisation-destroying Omega clouds (featured in the first and fourth books of the Academy series: The Engines of God and Omega). On the way, they drop in to two other solar systems of interest: one is the source of the vast alien spacecraft (the subject of Chindi, the third in the series); the other the origin of the first ever alien message received by SETI when Hutch was a young girl. Both episodes have a certain familiarity about them: the first an alien contact story reminiscent in some respects of that in Omega; the second has a landing party in trouble on a frozen world, which reminded me of Deepsix, the second book of the series. The climax of the story, as they reach the Cauldron and discover what the Omega clouds are all about, is certainly different, but I found it rather unsatisfying. On the other hand, the author had rather painted himself into a corner; what reasonable explanation could there be for the existence of such incomprehensible artifacts as the Omega clouds? Maybe it would have been better to leave their origin and purpose a mystery.
One aspect of McDevitt's writing that I enjoy is the way he takes the opportunity to pass (often sardonic) comment on social attitudes in both human and alien societies, as mentioned above. In this instance, his target is personal immortality: if everyone could live forever, he postulates that the end result would be a society totally fossilised, with no new thinking or development, and possibly even abandoning many technological developments as being unnecessary. That adds another wrinkle to my own thoughts on this issue, as expressed here: http://quarryhs.co.uk/OnImmortality.htm
Overall, the Academy series is a significant contribution to modern space opera. It has its weaknesses, but these are forgivable in the light of the widescreen imagination and gripping storytelling.