Andrew M. Stephenson
Dell Books, 1979
Synopsis: Dan Frome finds himself drafted into a tour of duty on the Moon in the early 21st century due to his expertise with Golems, artificial intelligences, which he believes will be used in an upcoming uncrewed Jupiter mission. En route, he discovers that each of his fellow crewmates has a different idea why they are headed for the Moon.
On arrival, it is explained to everyone that an STL alien spacecraft was been spotted sometime earlier, slowing to stop near Sol. Because the international situation is unusually tense and a major war is seen as highly possible in the near future, the various nations do not want to risk the potential threat the probe might pose and therefore are going to send 18 Golem-crewed space forts to meet the probe near Jupiter.
Heavily armed and intelligent, it is hoped that the forts will destroy the probe. Unfortunately, Frome has become aware the Golems have programing blind spots which make the Golems incapable of dealing with some uncertainties autonomously. More annoying, everyone involved must stay on the Moon incommunicado until the alien probe is dealtwith, a period of five years. Frome has an [ex]girlfriend on Earth, others have family and this will be a great strain on them.
Five years pass while the probes get to Jupiter. Frome survives several attempts on his life by various factions, aided by a fellow named Jones, who claims close ties with a terrorist group. He has a brief affair with another member of Night Watch [as the probe project and associated activities is called] but break it off out of loyalty to his terrestrial girl friend. A spare Golem turns out to show the instabilities Frome warned of. A new plan is thrown together, to send Frome and the last remaining Golem, self-named Ishmael, to Jupiter in a high-energy, high risk, 0.05 AU perihelion transfer path to take control of the forts. War does break out on Earth finally andmost of civilization is destroyed but Ishmael makes it to the Moon, courtesy of some would be refugees, who are then murdered for safety reasons.
Frome and Ishmael are launched. They survive the trip, although at one point the side effects of drugs Frome is on to make the trip less unpleasant make him take an unplanned [and ultimately, although only very slowly] lethal trip out onto the hull of the ship. The forts are inadvertently crippled by Frome’s attempts to take control. This is immaterial because the alien probe turns out to be immune to the fort lasers and 500 km relative velocity kinetic impacts. The probe then grabs Frome’s ship and captures it, using some form of gravity control. Frome talks to a robot on the probe, who reveals the probeis one part of an interstellar teleport system. Frome uses the transport system to travel to the star the probe originated at, 1800 years ago. The probe is just one of many slowly extending an FTL teleport netacross the galaxy and the Network is willing to trade with Earth, hoping to pay for the expense over thousands of years of interaction.
Frome returns home. Ishmael, who is extremely unhappy with his place in the universe, tricks Frome into allowing Ishmael to kill himself. Once back, Frome is involved in a complex attempted coup: the base commander and his chief security end up dead and the man who takes over is only deterred from attempting to destroy our end of the network [which would cut us off until we contacted them, since the Network only budgets for one contact attempt per species]. The Network will help humans deal with the effects of the war [which its probe helped started by arriving when it did], in exchange for which it expects humans to build a probe of its own in a few centuries.
Frome discovers that at the present time, the Network is occupied only by robots, organic beings being prone to the rise and fall of history. Indeed, the original Builders have not been seen in many millennia. Frome decides to set out through the Network to look for them, knowing that he has only about a year to live due to radiation damage and leaving behind Earth, his now dead terrestrial girlfriend and his lunar girlfriend; indeed all connection with humanity.
This is not an enjoyable book but it retains much of its power for me twenty-odd years after its writing. Frome is extremelyalienated even at the beginning: Stephenson shows how much worse this gets by an amusing POV trick just after the war. Ishmael is perhaps less well drawn but still effective. On the whole, I would notrecommend this book for the easily depressed.
As far as I know, Stephenson wrote this book and Wall of Years and then either stopped writing or stopped getting published. He’s still alive afaik and since he is or was a friend of folks like Christopher Priest and Robert Holdstock, perhaps if a British fan ran into those authors they might ask if they know what happened to Mr. Stephenson.
Next book: Earthwreck , by Thomas Scortia.