The cover art is pretty great. Against a background of orange there's what appears to be an exploding star and a blue mountain hanging in space. In the foreground is a mustachioed gentleman in a suit and bowler hanging suspended in space and looking a bit freaked out. He's got some sort of device hanging from a strap around one shoulder and has just dropped his umbrella. Above this is the following tag:
WHEN THE STARS ARE CALLING, ANSWER AT YOUR OWN PERIL!
The book itself has a neat backstory. The cold war is still going on, with the USSR on one side and the U.S. on the other. Britain has declared itself to be neutral and one of its government's goals is to preserve its own sovereignty while simultaneously doing what it can to prevent global thermonuclear war from breaking out. There are other groups who share this goal, notably the U.N.
The protagonist of the book is an American U.N. agent who's sent to Britain to check out a new fad that's taken hold there, which is using stardroppers. Stardroppers are like little transistor radios that broadcast a signal whose pattern is similar to the electrical patterns generated by the brains of intelligent beings. The secret of their creation was discovered by accident, and the scientific basis of how the signal is generated isn't understood. While trying to figure out what use this could be put to, someone decided to hook one up to some headphones as a lark and it caught on. (Not altogether dissimilar to how Silly Putty was invented, I think.) People have seemingly become addicted to listening to them, listening to them for hours trying to get some kind of special insight through them. Some have been driven mad by it.
The U.N. doesn't particularly care about any of this, but there have been reports that a few people have disappeared while listening to the stardroppers and there is concern that if these stories are confirmed and get out it will cause hysteria, which will lead to the big powers getting nervous, which leads eventually to the extinction of life as we know it.
The stardropper stuff isn't necessarily that interesting, but I liked the world that everything took place in. The stardroppers are available in all sorts of packages, from cheap imports to build-your-own kits to expensive hand-built custom jobs in what I thought was a nice analogy to the home stereo market. The anti-nationalist stuff was a bit overplayed, but since it fits in to a reasonable extent with my own views I didn't mind it too much (until the very end, about which more later).
Oh, there was also this:
You could run a stardropper off anything within reason: flashlight cells were naturally commonest, or house current for the bigger models, but he'd seen at least one model advertised with a tiny built-in generator driven by clockwork. This one, though, as he'd told the immigration officer, was an expensive hand-crafted version; its power came from a fuel cell that converted butane gas directly into electricity, water vapor, and CO2, just about the most efficient process yet devised.Which I think is basically the same as the hydrogen fuel cell that George W. Bush claims will make the U.S. be no longer dependent on foreign oil -- shortly after reading the above passage I came across the following in the current issue of MacAddict (on a list of
technologies to watch):
FUEL-CELL BATTERIES. Pop in a hydrogen or methane cartridge and get several hours of electricity. Fuel-cell batteries are already in test labs and are on their way to the laptop. The benefit? No more 5300-style accidents (although the Hindenberg comes to mind), plus you get longer hours of operation, a lighter laptop, and drinkable water to boot.It makes me feel like we're almost in the future!
Another development described was a way for agents to send coded messages back to home base. The idea is that the agent at some point goes into some sort of computer-aided hypnosis-assisted regression therapy which results in a code derived from the agent's own memories and experiences. The code is then stored back at home base and a post-hypnotic suggestion is implanted so that when the agent hears a certain series of tones he or she goes into coding mode and speaks complete gibberish. Brunner is wise enough to acknowledge that this isn't the most secure code (its main advantage is that the agent doesn't have to carry around a codebook or anything, since it's all implicitly in his or her memory to begin with), but it was a neat idea and one that wouldn't be out of place in a cyberpunkish book from a couple of decades later.
So Brunner has taken a decent amount of care to make a consistent and reasonable-seeming backdrop for the events that are the main focus of the book. The stardropper itself is an enigma; nobody is quite sure what it does or how it works (not to say that there isn't a certain amount of scientific-sounding babble used to describe what ti does, but there is a basic understanding that what it does seems to violate the laws of physics and that this is a big problem). This is all good, I think! Where the book starts to fall down in my estimation is what he does with the stardroppers. OK, so some people are able to gain insights from listening to the stardroppers ... questionable but we go with it or else there would be no book. Sometimes people literally disappear while using them ... hmmm. Oh, wait, the people who disappear have turned into supermen who can do practically anything but only good people have minds flexible enough to make that leap and they use their powers to destroy all nuclear weapons with the wave of their hands and to make the world safe for everyone -- I think at that point the book has gone completely off the rails. It seems too much like wishful thinking. (I think the ending of Shockwave Rider has been similarly criticized, although I don't actually remember how that book ends.)
Brunner may have ultimately agreed; It's interesting to see that a decade later he revisited the theme of a new race of people with super powers who decide to remake the world, but that in that book (if I recall correctly) it's all motivated a bit better and in the end the Earth is doomed, doomed, doomed anyway. I should also note that the ending of that book, Children of the Thunder, was so misanthropic that I actively hated reading it and resolved never to do so again.