In a far future time the Earth is gone. We are given no explanation: we are told the Earth died three centuries before the book begins. To save itself humanity went to the stars.
Some of the colonists took the conventional route of finding planets to settle. Others took asteroids, fitted them with star drives and roamed among the stars. These roaming colonies or "mobiles" are over 100 kilometers long and contain enough room for millions of people to live comfortably. The societies aboard the mobiles are high tech. Nanotechnology allows the people to live hundreds of years while the Artificial Intelligences aid in all forms of learning and research.
In one of these mobiles visits the planet colony Tau Ceti IV. The society of Tau Ceti IV is deliberately conservative and backward. Its government is a theocracy based on the old Catholic Church. All the leaders are members of the Church, with a pope as the ultimate authority on everything. Change is kept to a minimum. Medicine, industry, technology, etc. are all kept simple to avoid the problems humanity had in the past. Anyone with "new" ideas or anyone seeking to rise above his station is subject to arrest and imprisonment. The vast libraries of knowledge from Old Earth, which contain information to turn Tau Ceti IV into a paradise, are closely guarded.
Cave of Stars, has a clash of cultures with the inevitable misunderstandings and mistrusts. The leader of Tau Ceti IV, Pope Josephus, sees the visiting mobile as the ultimate threat to his planetary society and a personal insult. Josephus' hatred and treachery shatters both worlds and leaves the survivors fighting for their lives.
Zebrowski has a dry, spare way of writing. He seems to use only the number of words necessary to get his idea across. The result is a narrative which is compelling and cold at the same time. We experience the fear and danger the characters face, but we are also strangely distant from it. I am not sure how to describe it, nor am I sure if it is good or bad. I felt the same dual reaction when I read Zebrowski's Brute Orbits.
I suspect one reason for my dis-ease with Cave of Stars (and Brute Orbits) is that Zebrowski doesn't use heroes. In both books he uses several viewpoint characters to tell his story, filtered through the goals, desires and agendas of each. But each person is a victim of circumstance. He or she is merely trying to get by and survive. Even the villain, Josephus, is quite understandable though I soundly condemn his hatreds and remedies.
I enjoyed Cave of Stars but I cannot help to wonder if I'd have enjoyed it more if Zebrowski had written it in a different fashion.
Cave of Stars is apparently a companion novel to Zebrowski's Macrolife, which speculates about life aboard space-going habitats.
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