Joseph Green’s 1976 Star Probe is a stand-alone science fiction novel.
In the far-off year of Two! Thousand! Eleven! an alien starship moving at 8,000 kilometers/second1 is detected at the edge of the Solar System. Its path will take it past Earth, by which time the actively decelerating probe will have slowed to a comparatively sedate 400 kilometers per second. Even that speed is far above Solar escape velocity at 1 Astronomical Unit. If nothing is done, the visitor will continue on its way out of the Solar System.
The only impediments standing between humanity2 and interception of the visiting Probe are technological and political.
Despite the best efforts of late President Jarl “God” Hentson to impede the process, the One Worlders have triumphed. World-Gov has replaced the UN. While this assuaged the One Worlders, who having triumphed have faded into insignificance, environmentalists are as active as ever and a unitary world government means the activists only need to sway one government. Environmentalists see money spent in space as money wasted. Others are also wary; nobody is certain how the Probe would react if a human space craft approached it. Therefore, there will be no World-Gov program to intercept the visitor.
That leaves good old American know-how and can-do-ism, as represented by Harold “Jesus” Hentson’s Rockets International. RI provides the backbone of launch capacity for the current space station project. It can definitely slap together a crewed craft capable of intercepting the Probe in the time available. What is not clear is if this would be a return mission or if the astronauts would perish in space.
Only a brilliant astronaut would have the ingenuity and will to survive what would otherwise be a suicide mission. Harold is aware he lacks the mathematical skills to be that person. His late father Jarl, who was an astronaut before he was president, might have succeeded but Jarl is too dead to be of use. Or is he?
Before Jarl died, his mind was copied onto tapes. Jarl’s namesake, grandson Jarl, is an imbecile but his body is perfectly healthy. Therefore, the obvious solution is to imprint God Hentson’s recorded mind onto young Jarl’s largely unused brain. Result: a resurrected God Hentson, just the person to send off on what might be a one-way mission.
Young Jarl’s mother’s ineffective objections are easily swept aside. This is not the case where the new Friends of Earth3 are concerned. Activist and notable hottie Jodie Carson keeps her rich dad a secret, but not as secret as her terrorist identity Sarcoma4. If legal challenges won’t stop RI, then Jodie will not hesitate to resort to illegal means: orchestrated spontaneous rallies, kidnapping, even sabotage!
If the Probe does not incinerate Jarl and if he somehow finds a way to make insufficient fuel supplies suffice, Jodie may still find a way to doom his mission.
To be blunt: Green’s rocket science does not work. There’s no way that chemical rockets could rendezvous with something moving 400 km/s. The human rocket technology used in the book is based on proposals of the 1970s [advanced shuttles, heavy lift boosters] and is purely chemical.
What are the odds that an interstellar visitor will show up just as the human space age is beginning? The Probe is slow enough that it seems unlikely it was launched in response to any human activity like radio or nuclear tests. It could be that Probes are common and we just missed the earlier fly-bys.
I was going to re-read another Green novel, Conscience Interplanetary, but it has teeny tiny print. I settled for reading this book. I knew I had read it in the distant past, but didn’t remember much about it. Well, I remembered one thing: the striking cover that the first installment of the serialization received from Analog.
The anti-space environmentalists versus the pro-space engineers is a fairly stock Analog situation. However, the World-Gov decision not to interfere with the Probe isn’t the usual bureaucratic intransigence. It’s clear that the Probe has better propulsion tech than the Earth currently commands. Also better energy generation and storage. It might also be armed against interference from the solar systems it was penetrating. Would a pissed-off Probe blast the Earth? Serious consideration is given to just blowing the Probe out of the sky; the proposal is rejected as too risky.
On this re-read I realized that I had completely forgotten the subplot about resurrecting Old Jarl in Young Jarl’s body. Some readers may wonder how the obvious consent issues were handled. The kindest description is somewhere between “poorly” and “not at all.” Harold has no interest in a son who will always be institutionalized5 and even young Jarl’s doting mother has largely given up hope. Harold is just happy to find a use for young Jarl; Mrs. Hentson’s views on the issue do not matter. It’s a safe bet that many modern readers will find the young Jarl plot elements unfortunate at best. I certainly did.
I will give Green this6: Jodie is more fleshed out than most environmentalist antagonists in stories like this. Many characters of her sort are dimwits who repeat empty slogans. Jodie’s core precepts are deranged — people would live fuller lives if they returned to the Stone Age — but at least she’s thought through the implications in great detail7.
Otherwise … yeah, this is pretty much what you’d expect from “disco-era Analog series pitting space fans against environmentalists.”
Although Star Probe was reprinted as recently as 2011, it is currently out of print. That is not entirely surprising. What did come as a surprise is that after what looks like more than a forty-year hiatus in novel publication, Green started publishing new books.
1: Green’s choice of fusion reaction for the Probe (something the humans figure out just from observation of the visitor) is idiosyncratic: nitrogen 15 + an alpha particle, which breaks down into 4 helium atoms and energy. RI experts assert that this reaction is more energetic than deuterium + tritium. I doubt that but since I cannot find any discussion of that reaction, I don’t have concrete figures. RI experts also point out that the reaction does not produce free neutrons, reducing the amount of harmful radiation to be managed. It strikes me that there’s another advantage to this reaction, which is that liquid nitrogen is much easier to store for long periods than hydrogen.
2: I say humanity. The book says Man. The term is used inclusively, as was the custom of the elder times. This is far from the most dated usage in the book.
3: Friends of Earth does not have the best initials but at least they didn’t call themselves People’s United Reformed Environmentalist Effort Victoriously Influencing Law.
4: Jodie does explain why she named herself after a cancer, but any cover name that needs a verbal slide show to convey its reasoning is probably a bad choice.
5: Note that Harold himself is a less impressive character than his father was. He was handed RI by his dad, isn’t presidential material, and is too much of a mathematical dunce to be an astronaut. In fact, Harold’s conviction that a sufficiently ingenious astronaut could overcome technological shortcomings is wrong. Jarl survives because he gets incredibly lucky.
6: Harold is, of course, a disco-era horndog, which allows FOE (which has an abundant supply of attractive women) to easily kidnap him. However, Harold weaponizes his proclivity. A particularly crass but totally in-character pass at Jodie gets her out of the room long enough for Harold to escape.
7: Jodie suffers from a debilitating condition. She is invariably the most competent person in the room during every FOE group effort. Much of Jodie’s activism is carried out with the social equivalent of four-ton anchors tied to her feet. I suspect many readers will feel some sympathy for her.