Three centuries after the destruction of Earth, humankind has spread out across the stars. The theocratic government on Tau Ceti IV is dedicated to order and stability. The New Vatican restricts access to knowledge, discourages technical innovation and deals harshly with heretics and dissidents. Only through such discipline, the ruling clerics say, can they avoid another cataclysm like the one that destroyed humanity’s home world.
From the depths of space, however, come humans who embody an entirely different way of life, which they call “macrolife.” They explore the cosmos in hundred-kilometer-long space habitats called mobiles. A cybernetic network called “the Link” connects the millions of inhabitants of each mobile, forming a kind of collective intelligence. Nanotechnology and genetic engineering have endowed the macrolife residents with immortality.
Voss Rhazes pities the Cetians, who endure brief lives of hardship. Josephus Bely, known as Pope Peter III, is old and dying. He fears death despite his professed faith in the afterlife. He begs the visitors to restore his health, but the pope’s illegitimate daughter and his chief advisor argue that it would be best to let the pope die naturally, clearing the way for a more progressive government. Voss agrees that this would be best for the people of Tau Ceti.
Neither Voss nor the other macrolifers ever suspect that the aged pope could be a threat. While the pope on Old Earth was said to hold the keys to heaven, Pope Peter holds the keys to hell, and his last act devastates both worlds.
Cave of Stars, a companion volume to Zebrowski’s acclaimed 1979 novel Macrolife, is an extremely thoughtful book, in the sense that the characters spend a lot of time thinking. This is not a bad thing, for Zebrowski’s vivid characters personalize and enliven time-worn debates about faith and reason, tradition and change, responsibility and individual autonomy. Zebrowski comes down on the side of reason, but the macrolifers pay a terrible price when they underestimate the desperation of those whose faith is challenged.
The later chapters seem rushed, especially when compared to the careful deliberation at the beginning of the novel, and the macrolifers lack the psychological complexity of the Cetians. But these are minor defects in an otherwise magisterial work of speculative fiction. In Zebrowski’s capable hands, the shifts in the story line seem natural, for it is history that Zebrowski is narrating, bloody and chaotic up close, but when viewed from the distance of years it becomes a grand procession toward a future of wonder and menace and infinite possibilities.