Brisk and readable from its opening page, World Without Stars details what happens when a human crew is dropped unceremoniously into an utterly alien culture and all hell breaks loose. Mostly told in first-person narration by Felip Argens, the captain of said expedition, the story begins when the crew of the Meteor is sent to contact a heretofore unknown alien race known only (and generically) as the Yonderfolk, who live on a planet circling a lonely red giant way out in intergalactic space. By an error in calculation, the ship emerges from jump at the right star, all right, but only to crash-land on the wrong planet.
Still, even this gloomy world is inhabited. The Azkashi are a tribal, semi-primitive race of kangaroo-like bipeds who worship the Milky Way galaxy, which looms in its majestic entirety in the night sky. And they are at conflict with the Niao, a similar race who are in thrall to the telepathic Ai Chun, the most advanced species who have developed a belief system that they created the universe — a belief that is, to say the least, sorely tested by the arrival of a bunch of earthmen. (The Niao, incidentally, fear the sight of the galaxy that the Azkashi worship.)
When the Meteor 's crew find themselves suddenly thrust into the middle of a war between the Azkashi and the Ai Chun with their Niao lapdogs — in addition to experiencing a personal taste of Ai Chun treachery — it's up to the leadership of the charismatic Hugh Valland, an adventurer and bard (the character in many ways seems an early, male version of Caitlin Mulryan from 1978's The Avatar) who helps to organize the ragtag Azkashi (using among other things a rather amusing comparison to Europeans vs. American Indians) in the hopes of finally liberating them from the fearful oppression of the "downdevils," as the Azkashi refer to the aquatic Ai Chun. And given time, could the Azkashi help the humans in rebuilding their spacecraft and getting home? Perhaps, if they survive the crisis at hand.
I have some real gripes here. Throughout, the Azkashi are referred to in a vernacular way as the Pack, and the Niao as the Herd, and rather than making things easier it complicates an otherwise simple situation of sorting out one group of aliens from another (mainly, the nicknames are too similar). Confusion occasionally sets in during the novel's brisker passages. Also, a backstory involving a technology that has allowed our human heroes to become, well, immortal, is only casually touched upon, and it seems rather odd to dismiss something so phenomenally important as the fact we have apparently defeated aging and death in order to traverse the stars! I mean, how does this process work exactly? I appreciate this early exploration of transhumanist concepts, but it needs a little backing up. (More confusion is added when, despite his so-called "immortality," the story is purported to have been taken from the narrator's "posthumous" diaries. Wha?) The Ai Chuns' telepathy is another element that is taken for granted. Throughout the book, I kept yelling, "Hold it, wait!", wanting so much more to be fleshed out for me than actually was.
As a space adventure and a tale full of action and exotic alien fauna — plus the haunting subplot involving Valland's true love, Mary O'Meara (there's a wonderful ballad that keeps popping up, that evidently became quite the hit among filksingers for a while) — World Without Stars is a worthwhile quickie. But with a little more smoothing of its rough edges, it could have been a whole lot more.