Reviewed date: 2017 Oct 24
Originally published in a shorter version as Listen! The Stars!
Brunner writes competently, but this book is dull. Much talking, little action. It would be better as a novelette. I wonder if the shorter version is better.
Special Agent Dan Cross arrives in London with a stardropper slung over his shoulder. He chats with the customs agent about the stardropper. It's a Binton, hand-made in America.
His passport stamped, Cross goes to pick up his luggage, and is accosted by a deranged stardropper; the young man has clearly gone mad from too much time listening to the stardropper signals.
Cross settles in a hotel, and gets a surprise visit from British agent Hugo Samuel Redvers. They have a frank discussion: Cross admits to being a UN agent on a secret mission to study the new stardropping craze. In particular, the UN wants to know if the stories are true about people vanishing into thin air while listening to stardroppers. If it is, and the stardroppers are the key to some kind of teleportation breakthrough, it could destabilize the fragile peace and precipitate nuclear armageddon. Redvers offers the help and support of the British agencies. Britain is neutral, having disarmed and adopted the Swiss model, but nobody survives nuclear armageddon, so the British are keen to preserve the status quo.
A Stardropper got its name from the belief that the user was eavesdropping on the stars. But that was only a guess ... nobody really knew what the instrument did.
The instrument itself made no sense scientifically. A conventional earpiece, an amplifier, a power source -- all attached to a small vacuum box, an alnico magnet, and a calibrated "tuner". What you got from all this was some very extraordinary noises and the conviction that you were listening to beings from space and could almost understand what you were hearing.
What brought Special Agent Dan Cross into the stardropper problem was the carefully censored news that users of the instrument had begun to disappear. They popped out of existence suddenly -- and the world's leaders began to suspect that somehow the fad had lit the fuse on a abomb that would either destroy the world or change it forever.
Special Agent Cross makes his way to a stardropper shop, and talks to the proprietor, Mr. Watson, about stardroppers. Such as, which model is the best for a beginner? How do they work? Etc.
A young girl snatches Cross's stardropper. He pursues her, catches her. Her name is Lilith. He talks to her about stardropping. Later Lilith invites him to her stardropper commune. At the commune, he talks to other people about stardropping.
Redvers takes Cross to visit Rainshaw, the inventor of stardroppers. They discuss the theory behind stardroppers. Cross discovers that Rainshaw's son is among the vanished.
Cross attends a meeting of a stardropper fan club, where he talks to people about stardropping. Later, a guest speaker gives a lecture about stardropping.
By this time, Cross has witnessed two disappearances: Lilith, and a man at the club. Yes, people are vanishing into thin air. Sometimes accompanied by a thunderclap, sometimes not. And now the British secret service can no longer keep it out of the press. Panic ensues. Cross finally does the one and only useful thing in the whole book, which is break into Mr. Watson's penthouse suite. See, Watson knows much more than he's letting on. Cross searches the place when a man winks into existence.
It's Rainshaw's son, the one who vanished. Watson joins him a few minutes later. The stardropper signals do unlock hidden potentials in the human mind, chief among them, teleportation. Watson, Rainshaw's son, Lilith, and dozens of others have discovered the secret and have spent their time jaunting around the galaxy, visiting alien worlds, generally having a great time.
But now it's earth that needs their attention. The newly made supermen decide that their teleportation and telekinesis powers are best put to work saving humanity from itself. They jump around the world, using their powers to render harmless the weapons of mass destruction that threaten mankind. With their powers, and some help from Cross and Redvers (who shows up conveniently) they can locate every bomb, missile, submarine, and silo across the entire globe. In minutes, the threat of armageddon is ended forever.