Harper Prism, 1999, 276 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-105299-X
It often happens, especially in Science-Fiction, that a book that starts off in an entertaining, dynamic, innovative fashion runs out of steam midway through, falling back on stock situations to resolve an intriguing premise. Not every writer can sustain far-out speculation and appropriate style for 300+ plus pages. Then there’s the Hailey syndrome (from Arthur Hailey, the author of contemporary docu-fiction such as Airport, Hotel and The Moneychangers) in which the author spends almost half the book exploring a neat setting, even or concept, only to wrap a quick, trivial and unsatisfying story at the end to justify the “fiction” label.
It’s far less common, however, to encounter a novel that starts out in a dull and tepid fashion, only to become steadily more interesting as it goes along. Given that the first few pages of a novel are supposed to hook the reader and give his the impetus to read the whole book, authors often consciously take care to punch up the introduction.
Not with George Zebrowski. Cave of Stars begins as so many bad SF novel begin: A few scenes on a distant human colony, sketching a rigidly conservative society whose power is wielded by priests all the way up to the emperor/pope. Stock characters are also introduced; the star-crossed couple from different social levels, the assistant to the emperor, etc… Not a very good start, because we’ve seen all of this before, and usually handled in a more entertaining fashion. It’s dull, it’s boring, it doesn’t show any sign of improving over the first thirty pages. If anyone quits reading at this point, it’s perfectly understandable.
But stick around; in a short while, a massive space colony (a macrolife habitat from Zebrowski’s previous novel Macrolife) arrives in the vicinity of the colony and makes contact. They bring new technology that worry the religious elite. Among them; a cure for mortality, which immediately interests the pope who seeks it for himself. His petition is refused, which provokes an answer so terrible that it alters the whole course of the novel to something you really haven’t seen before.
It takes time, but Cave of Stars really cooks past the novel’s halfway point. As if the weak planetary romance of the first few pages was only a setup for one of Zebrowski’s big “What if?” concept. The writing becomes clearer, the goals more sharply defined and the narrative tension definitely heightened.
By the end, Cave of Stars doesn’t somehow become so good that it overwrites the bad impression left by its weak beginning, but it becomes a decently entertaining novel. (It’s not as if the latter part is so good; some choices are definitely bizarre, and the ending is a half-downer. It’s obvious that this is an author-driven novel as compared to a character-driven novel, and the result is a bit too forced to feel entirely natural).
As a side-show to Macrolife it’s actually better than the middle portion of Zebrowski’s 1979 novel. (Which was, as stated in my previous review, so idea-packed that the rotten fictive aspect of the novel didn’t really matter.) As a stand-alone SF novel, it comes out as being average, dogged by its beginning and ill-defined characters but partially redeemed by a steadily interesting plot. Goes straight in the “if there’s nothing else to read” pile.