1980’s Star Driver is a standalone SF novel by G. Harry Stine, writing under the pen name Lee Correy. It ended a twenty-four-year hiatus in Stine’s SF novel writing career. A flurry of novels followed.
Government funding cuts end astronomer Mike Call’s research project and his job. This is a big problem, because Call is qualified (experience counts!) but he is under-credentialled. Many possible jobs are out of his reach.
Call isn’t just a scientist. He is a trained pilot. NEMECO can use a man like him.
Call has never heard of NEMECO. Formerly the New England Mill Equipment Company, for the most part it does what the (outmoded) name suggests: supply a variety of industrial goods. NEMECO also has an R&D arm and it is the R&D arm that needs a smart guy who knows his way around a plane.
NEMECO has a space drive. More exactly, NEMECO has something that might some day be a space drive. Wild Bill Osbourne believes he has found a way to tweak action so that there’s no matching reaction. Unidirectional thrust! If his theory can be turned into a functioning machine, NEMECO could open up the Solar System to humans … oh, and become fabulously wealthy.
Thus far NEMECO has a device that will, when adjusted correctly, put a hole in a lab wall as the device exits at high speed. Sometimes it just bursts into flame. Turning it into a useful propulsion system will require practical expertise in turning physics into useful tech. Something that humans have been doing for centuries. Which is not to say that it’s easy.
Call’s experience as a crop-duster and an astronomer have not prepared him for the realities of private research: office politics, office romances, demand for profits, and industrial spies. (His martial arts training does come in handy for dealing with spies.) He is utterly unprepared to deal with the greatest danger of all in corporate R&D:
The espionage subplot is pretty wretched. Call’s implausible talent as an unstoppable two-fisted man of action come across as both convenient and contrived.
The romance plot … well, it’s not as terrible as one might expect from Campbell-style SF. The love interest is a survivor of domestic abuse; no one doubts her and Call does his best to be supportive. Support seems to require lots of clumsy passes.
One can tell this is set in the late 1970s or early 1980s in a number of ways. NEMECO has just one microcomputer, for example, the company takes a paternalistic interest in the employees love lives, the Muslim character is just this guy, and most importantly, it's assumed an illegal immigrant who overstayed their vis can resolve all their legal issues simply by marrying an American1.
I say Campbellian for a reason. Star Driver is a late-appearing relic of a dead subgenre: stories about thinly disguised Dean drives. Lorimer Dean’s eponymous drive supposedly delivered unidirectional force. John W. Campbell was absolutely certain that the Dean Drive was real and not, say, either a con or the delusions of a kook. Given that there are no Dean-Drive-equipped ships zooming into space, we can assume that Campbell was wrong. But … he loved stories that had Dean-Drive-like propulsion systems AND he was the editor of Astounding (later renamed Analog), so he published many stories featuring such propulsion systems. As the magazines, so the novels. Star Driver would have been a natural sell to Campbell’s Analog, if only Campbell had not died years before the novel appeared.
The book is dedicated to the “Cat Pack”
W. O. Davis
E. L. Victory
S. A. Korff
J. W. Campbell
H. M. Coanda
I don’t know all of these names, but Coanda is the Romanian aerodynamicist, J. W. Campbell is of course John Campbell, while W. O. Davis is William Davis, like Campbell and Stine a believer in the Dean Drive. Davis created something called Davis Mechanics to explain how the Dean Drive might work.
Campbell probably would have enjoyed this genre novel. It features the standard engineer heroes and grumbles about those darn scientists, especially that darn Einstein. A newer element is present: disdain for NASA, which became mainstream in SF around the time that it became clear that the Apollo program wasn’t progressing as fast as many had hoped.
Star Driver does lack one element that appears in most of the Dean Drive stories. In those stories, R&D can go from a doodle on a napkin to a fully functioning interstellar vessel the size of Denver in a couple of days. A week, tops! All that’s needed is sufficient will and an absence of bureaucrats in the way.
Not so in Star Driver. Early in the book there’s lots of talk about a demonstration flight to Mars that will surely attract oodles of cash from investors. This never happens. In the end, our heroes win by setting their sights considerably lower2. A bit disappointing for the nineteen-year-old me who spent the whole book waiting for the trip to Mars. The failure to deliver on the Mars flight must have been traumatic, because I remembered my disappointment when I picked up this book again, after forty years.
Star Driver is out of print.
1: Not, as one might expect, the Arab engineer. His portrayal is problematic in a number of ways but he is in the US perfectly legally.
2: Ben Bova for the most part sticks to the conventional SF R&D model. One notable exception is 2012’s Power Play, centred on magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) research. As it happens, Bova worked for Avco Everett (the company that built the first MHD generator) many decades ago and wrote popular science books on the matter during the Nixon Administration. He knew too much about the challenges of MHD applied research. Rather than usual SFnal pattern of “fusion rocket invented on Tuesday, Mars visited the following week,” his R&D guys struggle throughout the book to get their MHD generator from dangerous curiosity to potentially useful curiosity.