Tag Archives: George Zebrowski

Cave of Stars, George Zebrowski

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.

Macrolife, George Zebrowski

Avon, 1979, 284 pages, C$3.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-55483-6

One of the unique aspects of Science-Fiction as a genre is that is some instance, it’s possible for a novel to be completely interesting while also being completely rotten. George Zebrowski’s Macrolife is a good example of this.

In many ways, this is an incompetent novel. For most of the books, you can’t discern the characters, and it doesn’t help that most are members of a same anglo-saxon family, so you’re stuck with boring names like Jack, Richard, John, James… Everyone talks the same way and act identically so that it’s a waste of time to figure out the characterization.

The novel is divided in three parts, and I’ll be the first to admit that the third one should have been a two-page epilogue, not a thirty-five page chapter. The pacing is also sadly deficient in the middle section, with our protagonist going down on a primitive planet to… er… do some stuff I couldn’t get interested in. Whoever Macrolife‘s editor was, s/he could have spend some more time on its structure. The prose is okay, though Zebrowski didn’t bother with dialogue.

Which leaves us with the first section and segments of the second part. Fortunately, the novel improves sharply in the fist section. “Sunspace: 2021” resemble Clarke’s work in many ways, with its portrait of a future human society just beginning to step into space. The near-magical “bulerite” element isn’t very convincing, but it does sets up a few interesting situations. More significantly, this section revolves around an event that doesn’t require a lot of effort to be gripping; the end of Earth always requires some attention..

The beginning and ending of the second sections also have some interest, mostly in the description of how humanity is able to evolve beyond Earth and even thrive elsewhere. Though I’m not really familiar with the whole of Zebrowski’s work, this really fits well with the end of his 1998 novel Brute Orbits and elements of The Killing Star, his 1995 collaboration with Charles Pellegrino.

The true value of Macrolife, as is the norm for a hard-SF novel, are the ideas that it showcases. Though it would be useless to pretend that the notion of space colonization is as surprising today as it was in 1979, Zebrowski makes an interesting argument and his “Macrolife” (ie; human settlements as cells of a super-organism) terminology is thought-provoking. Though the novel is twenty years old, it hasn’t perceptibly aged and compares in theme with the latest hard-SF. (It’s fun to see Greg Egan’s Diaspora as an update to Macrolife. Or maybe not.) In any case, this is a novel of considerable ambition. As the blurb says, “From the end on the world to the end of the universe”!

One can’t say that Macrolife has much of a reputation today. (Though its worth noting that the Library Journal selected it as one of the “100 best SF novels”) It’s unfortunate, given that it seems as significant -in SF terms- as its contemporaries like Sheffield’s The Web Between the Worlds and Clarke’s The Fountain of Paradise. In fact, I’m surprised that “Macrolife” as a term hasn’t received much more attention (an Altavista search reveals only 35 mentions) in this age of enlightened environmentalism and impending private colonization of space.

You can easily dismiss Macrolife on literary merits; no argument about that. You can scoff at the weak characters and chances are that they’d agree. You can even ditch most of the last two-third with nary a qualm. But you can’t really argue that the novel isn’t worth a look. Such is the strength of SF, which can get away with escaping most of the criteria of good fiction and still end up with a worthwhile result.

Brute Orbits, George Zebrowski

Harper Prism, 1998, 222 pages, C$33.50 hc, ISBN 0-06-105026-1

TITLE: Brute Orbits

AUTHOR: George Zebrowski

STATUS: Hardcover Science-Fiction Novel

SUMMARY OF PREMISE: In the near future, Earth has successfully brought several asteroids to Earth orbit in order to mine them. Once the precious core has been extracted, some bright guy has the idea of transforming them in habitats, stuffing them with prisoners and sending them away in ten, twenty, thirty-year long orbits before they come back to Earth. Of course, it’s not that difficult to make a “mistake” and send the asteroid for an even longer orbit.

SUMMARY OF PLOT: There isn’t much of a plot. The massive space and time frame covered makes it difficult to have a unique protagonist. So Brute Orbits follows a few prisoners and historians, each vignette trying to tell a facet of the story. In one series of linked chapters, a super-intelligent prisoner tries to manage his micro-society of fellow criminals as they head away from Earth. In another, a political dissident talks with other exiles until the asteroid’s indoor lights go dark. In another, a historian tries to piece together the history of the Rocks. These are pretty much the only three sustained stories; other passages feature characters we seldom see again.

SUMMARY OF THEMES: Zebrowski here attempts to use his premise as a vehicle for argumentation about the judicial system’s corrective branch. As with any work dealing at length with criminality from a serious perspective, Brute Orbits exhibits a dark and violent viewpoint. Unlike most of these other works, however, Brute Orbits strongly suggests that not all prisoners deserve their fate and that society -not to mention more specifically society’s elites- ultimately define and causes crime.

SUMMARY OF VIRTUES: Brute Orbits‘s premise is exceedingly clever, forcing us to contemplate virtually escape-proof prisons, and the realization of a “just throw’em away together” social phantasm. Zebrowski’s writing is also, with a few exception, quite readable. Some good scenes. Good grasp of the hard sciences. His argument that society is the biggest criminal is a provocative systemic self-examination on the level that SF does at its best.

SUMMARY OF FLAWS: Though other readers might disagree to the “flaw” designation, the “vignette-sequence” structure of Brute Orbits has its disadvantages. Probably the most important of those is the lack of attachment to characters. Without those, Zebrowski is hard-pressed to illustrate his ideas convincingly. Not only does Brute Orbits reads like a fix-up, but the stories of the fix-up are all interleaved with each other. It’s not only difficult to read as a whole, but doesn’t really convince. Unfortunately, Zebrowski’s charge that society-is-criminal really needed a good dose of sympathy and credibility. This is lacking.

VERDICT: Not worth buying in hardcover, and a risky choice in paperback given the wealth of competent storytelling out there. Readers intrigued by the strong premise should consider borrowing from the local library.