Fred Hoyle's scientific pedigree is up front in this vintage novel, co-written with son Geoffrey. The story is based on a classic SF premise - a star, with its own planetary system, is heading towards our own. It passes close enough for earth people to mount an expedition to one of the planets of the visiting star - an earth-like world with signs of plant life detectable from earth. The planet turns out to be inhabited by a vastly superior race of telepathic beings who hide themselves from the earth visitors. One of them takes possession of the mind of an astronaut, and returns to earth to spread a dramatic, and unwanted telepathic warning against the nuclear arms race, before returning on a hijacked spacecraft.
The opening chapters are rich with speculation about the astronomical implications of such an event - it doesn't quite read like fiction in many passages. The problems arise when the book tries to speculate on social changes which might ensue. First and foremost, the role of women in society and relationships is a prominent theme of the novel. The main female character is an empty-headed flirt. One of the expeditions also includes the first ever woman astronaut. She was not included for her skills as a cosmonaut, rather because her looks make her a propaganda coup for the eastern bloc. It is remarkable that this book was published in 1963 - the same year the Russian space program sent Valentina Tereshkova into orbit on Vostok 6 - but in the Hoyles' imagination, it takes more than 100 years before a woman is sent into space.
Harder to predict, from their vantage point of the early 1960s, is the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. It's well and truly raging more than 100 years hence in this book. The competition between East and West to reach the Fifth Planet is as fierce as the space race was at the time the novel was written. And the nuclear nightmare which unfolds at the end of FIFTH PLANET is a gripping passage.
It's at the end of the novel where FIFTH PLANET comes into its own. The mysterious events on the planet are reminiscent of Clarke/Kubrick's 2001 in their eerieness; the implications of a telepathic extraterrestrial visitor to earth are imaginatively explored; and the Hoyles' anti-nuclear stance is admirable. At a time when cold-war sci-fi was still prominent, and the peace movement still years away from its peak, the Hoyles' here have made an impresive achievement.
Reading my musty Penguin paperback copy of this book, I was reminded of the wonderful hours I spent with John Wyndham's novels, when I was growing up in the 1970s. Wyndham was never into such "hard" science, and his social barometer was always admirable, always accurate. But FIFTH PLANET is reminiscent of the SF of that era; it's a great exploration of IDEAS. Yes, it's dated in parts, but hindsight for me, makes this a nice period piece, rather than ruining the novel.