Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, December 19, 2013

1972: The Stardroppers (Brunner, John)

Sweet first draught with tiresome and bitter aftertaste (3/5)

Show me a man who has read more than 24 Brunner novels and I’ll show you a new unsung hero of mine; that man would have read just as any as I have. It ain’t easy being a Brunner fan: the pain of reading “No Other Gods But Me” (1966), the tediousness of spies and hypnotism, but also the joys of discovering gems amid his prolific career, the brilliance of some older Ace paperbacks like Meeting at Infinity (1961). I admit there are ups and downs, but like the Chicago Bears fan that I am, I vigilantly stick through the bad and relish the good, occasionally waxing poetic during the great.

Stardroppers starts as an “up”, finds some time-honored but unappreciated Brunner themes, and ends on a flat note… yet another mediocre Brunner novel.

Rear cover synopsis:
“A stardropper got its name from a 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, but what you got from it were some very extraordinary noises and the conviction that you were listening to being 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 popper out of existence suddenly—and the world’s leaders began to suspect that somehow the fad had lit the fuse on a bomb that would either destroy the world or change it forever.”


The accidental invention of the stardropper was due to the device’s simplicity. The inventor, Rainshaw, “brought together a powerful magnet, a chamber containing a hard vacuum into which he was introducing counted quantities of ionized and non-ionized particles, and delicate instruments for tracking those particles” (42). Resembling a portable radio, the signals which the device received and transmitted to the listener did not come from an external source. Another scientist, Berghaus, offered his best hypothesis based on a non-Einsteinian continuum that “the normal sense of space-covered-in-measure-time” (71) did not exist and that instantaneity ruled (Feynman’s One-Electron Universe?).

The phenomenon of listening to the stardropper had spread worldwide, but the center of the buzz is in England. Special Agent Dan Cross has been sent to England to penetrate social circles dedicated to listening to the stardropper and talking about the stardropper because curious, unexplainable incidences have begun to arise: twenty people have been documented who had “literally and physically vanished” (18) while listening to the stardropper. Governments have begun to worry about the knowledge which the device may be imparting, knowledge which may point to teleportation. Whose hands could grasp this knowledge and how would a country defend itself against instantaneous teleportation of, say, a nuclear device? Dan Cross is on it.

Dan’s own stardropper model is an elite, homemade kit which everyone envies. He doesn’t feel drawn into the secrets in the soundwaves, but many others have become addicted to the alluring susurrus of the mysterious signals claiming they are on the verge of some greater understanding. Others maintain they are eavesdropping on the minds of great alien beings. Regardless, top scientists understand that this is a “totally new phenomenon, unforeseen, inexplicable” (102). People are willing to steal to hear it, willing to risk insanity to understand it, and actually eager to transcend into oblivion with its knowledge. Is this all an “escape from reality, like drugs” or “a path to new knowledge” (77)? One thing was known: stardropping could provoke a form of trance and in this trance, exactly like a hypnotic trance, the person was capable of incredible feats such as superhuman strength and total recall. To Dan’s Agency, this sounded dangerous.

Gathering this common knowledge from the social circles, Dan Cross informs his department of his findings. His official presence and task hidden behind his tourist façade, Dan makes his report in the agency’s secretive way, which relies on hypnotism and idiosyncratic syllogism. “Ordinary language was a series of labels invented by other people; Agency codes were derived from remembered events that were exclusively significant to the user” (63) where the clarity, length, and grammar “depended on Dan’s personal memories and not on a process that could be attacked statistically” (62). With the addition of standard Agency vocabulary implant by deep hypnosis, the method of transmitting information data to the Agency was secure. “Dan himself could not decipher a transcript of one of his reports; it required a post-hypnotic trigger” (62).

Public knowledge of the disappearances had been muted. Dan’s penetration into the social circles of stardropping seemingly scrapes the surface of the global addiction, but soon Dan finds himself too deep in the cover-up. He befriends a scampy girl who tries to steal his own stardropper and, feeling sorry for her but also seeing a chance to delve further into the circles, Dan goes to the community house where she stays. He lets her listen to his ‘dropper alone in her own room; the only sign of her disappearance is a note which reads “Thanks”.

Uncanny but still possibly explainable, Dan shrugs it off and attends a meeting a store, Cosmica Limited, which acts as a hub for stardropper sales and stardropper seminars. Sitting in the group expecting to be entertained by the charlatans and antics, Dan is soon entranced by the shared aural spectacle of stardropping. He awakes with a thud, lying on a seat that was once occupied but now empty, having been vacated by a sudden “pop”. This is the most public of disappearances and Dan is unfortunately at the center of it all when he should be keeping low-key. Dan is anxious to solve the mystery and the Agency is upset with his open cover. For Dan, it is now or never.


The premise of the transmission of an undecipherable signal which cannot be detected is, in modern physics, a bit far-fetched. Suspending this disbelief, I found myself being snared into Brunner’s plot featuring a popular device (the stardropper) which spurs social intercourse, hermetic intrigue, and unexplainable disappearances. The gravity of the trio captured my attention and plunged me into a 5-star sense of wonderment and into a well of ruse; my mind pivoted on the idea that everything wasn’t as clear as Brunner was making it—a realistic basis based on having read prior Brunner novels…

…yet, having read other Brunner novels, I also foreshadowed a few of his pet plot twists for his pulpier novels: the importance of the spy agency and the stratagem of hypnotism. Naively, I held out on my suspicions yet fell on my face when Brunner’s typical turns were finally unveiled.

Aside from the expectedness, Brunner, as mentioned, does spin an entrancing web of addiction around the stardropping. Each stardropping receiver transmits different transmissions, so not all people experience the same signal at the same time, yet a very rare few are able to decode the “alien” signal and supposedly “sublime” from the translated data. The addiction comes from the common user’s cups on this translation—some continue on the verge of understanding while others plunge from the precipice of sanity, the ridge of perception which separates what is corporeally perceived from what is only imagined. Dan pertinent mission and lingering theories fall upon the question: Do the sublimed transcend from their former or latter state?

Brunner poignantly touches upon the focus of recreational drug use: Do most people use consciously for relaxation or for habit? Yet, Brunner skirts the users’ responsibility aspect of partaking through occasional use for easement or habitual use for addiction. Addiction seems widespread but goes undefined.

Other Brunner morsels of knowledge find their way in the novel, possibly a forced insertion into the narrative but, in when reading, imparting a glimmer of needed intellectual depth (though actually superficial) into the 144 pages. One ort of insight comes from a brief oration on evolution:

So what’s human evolution? Basically a story of learning to impose a desired form on environment, right? But not just physical environment: also the sequence of events experienced. The more man evolves, the more he consciously plans ahead and … manipulated randomness, trying to ensure that future experience are desirable ones. (80)

On the same page, Brunner continues this string of intrigue with the propagation of knowledge à la knowing of knowledge versus use of knowledge:

[C]an you think of a better niche [the sales of stardroppers] in a commercial society for someone who’s concerned to propagate knowledge he considers important? … So tell me what makes knowledge dangerous. Which seems more innocuous, in your view—to teach a man to read and write, or to make gunpowder? Yet more revolutions have been carried through with literacy than with shot and shell. (80)

This intellectual interlude spans the gap between the novel’s two parts: the enticing trio (social intercourse, hermetic intrigue, and unexplainable disappearances) of Dan’s investigation and the unraveling of said investigation in a very Brunner pulp style. It’s reminiscent of, if not a complete rip-off of, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956).


The Stardroppers doesn’t so much draw the reader in and repel the reader away as it does draw, settle, and tepidly stew. Like many Brunner novels, this is one for Brunner completists or maybe someone who hasn’t read The Stars My Destination and needs a few hours to kill on a plane. Memories of this novel's onset will linger with me, but I will most likely forget the entire middle half.

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