The Listeners

I’m off working on reviews of new books, so you get old stuff.

The choice was between a review of an economics book or more James Gunn.

I think we can all agree I made the right choice.

Raw Feed (1994): The Listeners, James E. Gunn, 1968.The Listeners

A very good novel especially considering, like most of Gunn’s novels, it is a fix-up with all chapters, except Chapter 5, being published originally as stories. That format works very well for a novel spanning 97 years which deals with the issues of interstellar communication between man and an alien race. Gunn has said that, at least in the short story and novelette form, sf must first stress the primary of idea over character.  Another of Gunn’s critical tenets, that sf is racial fiction, is followed here as the dialogue with an alien race greatly alters human society. There is, in fact, a counterpoint to the idea of communication between sentient races in that most of this book is filled with troubled, failed communication between characters and, each chapter usually concludes with the Project overcoming another hurdle by not only solving interstellar communication puzzles and problems but also communication advanced – or at least instrumental in changing minds – between human minds.
The first chapter has legendary Project director Robert MacDonald failing to recognize the despair of his wife Maria before she attempts suicide. The third chapter has Robert MacDonald convincing Solitarian (a new religion whose central creed is “We are alone.”) leader Jeremiah Jones that the Project is not a theological threat to him and gives him an opportunity to be one of the first to view the first message from the alien Capellans (which he interprets as a haloed angel). Andrew White, protagonist of the fourth chapter and the U.S.’s first black president, can’t understand his son’s disdain for politics, can’t communicate his zeal for maintaining the progress blacks have made in society, that the progress can be reversed, that inequality exists. The fifth chapter has Robert MacDonald and his memories of his failed communications with his now dead father, the Project Director. The chapter concludes with him leaving to read unopened letters from his father.
The larger scope of this book involves two things.

First is the presence of the legendary Project Director Robert MacDonald who looms large and on-stage during the first five of seven chapters of this book and whose presence literally haunts the Project in the last two chapters. It is his faith, his caring, his clever stratagems that sustain the Project through eighteen of it’s first 50 years. He keeps the group – from janitors to computer scientists – together, enthused while they wait for the message. It is his willingness to try any avenue towards receiving a message that helps in detecting the Capellan message (a message encoded in repeats of Earth commercial radio broadcasts from the thirties). His charm and vision keep funding coming, keep Jeremiah from using his political influence to shut the Project down, convince President White that sending a response will not destabilize society. His faith, akin to a stonemason visualizing the cathedral he is helping to build but will never see, is a religion.
Second, throughout this novel, Gunn uses individual characters to personify the reactions of the whole human race. Just as Robert MacDonald yearns above all else – he loves his wife and son but loves the Project more – for the knowledge they are not alone, not the only sentients in the universe – so does man. This personification of the human race is echoed elsewhere. White balks at sending a message to the Capellans until he sees MacDonald’s proposed reply:  a pictogram of a human family. Like man as a whole, he wants to tell the universe about us, and, personally given the troubled relations with his son, the idea also has visceral appeal, shows man united without racial or national differences. Earth’s culture, by novel’s end, has evolved in that direction. In the final Capellan transmission, man receives the sum total of Capellan knowledge and art. It seems the human race, like the Project’s computer (a complex maze of circuits with vast databanks full of Earth’s science, art, languages, and cryptographic and anticryptographic programs) will become “at least half Capellan”. (Interestingly, a minor character brings up the notion – dismissed immediately by others as possessing no practical value even if possible – of alien communication subverting the computer. This seems a tossed-out precursor to related notions of computer subversion in Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus, Vernor Vinge’s True Names, John Varley’s “Press Enter █”, and cyberpunk stories.)
The meaning, problems, and implications of interstellar communication are explored in several quotes from the “Computer Run” (presumably from the Project’s computer) sections between chapters. Not only are there quotes from distinguished scientists like Carl Sagan (who has mentioned this book as his favorite sf novel), Fred Hoyle, Phillip Morrison, Nikola Tesla, Freeman Dyson but also story quotes sf writers like John Campbell, Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. van Vogt (“Black Destroyer”), H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds’ opening), and Murray Leinster. There are also bits of background explications relevant to the novel’s background, futurological quotes from Herman Kahn, and some interesting poetry – on a cosmically speculative vein about extraterrestrial Christianity – by one Alice Meynell, a real poet I’ve never heard of.)
The bits about aliens and alien contact run the range from malevolent aliens to benevolent contact. On the malevolent side: aliens may have a “cockroach” response to us and wish us dead, may have irrational reasons of religion or politics to exploit or hurt us despite the cost, that advanced technology does not mean rationality or benevolence, that aliens – like us – may wish to know they aren’t alone, that information is the only thing worth sending between the stars – not warfleets, that an advanced race may not feel threatened by us but wish to learn about us.
Stylistically, this is a novel of many flashbacks with characters, of abiding reasonableness. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says Gunn’s heroes tend to be administrators. It’s also a novel thoroughly a product of its time. Not only is it concerned, as many sf stories were then, with race (the stories were individually published from 1968 to 1972) in the character of Andrew White, a prescient characterization of blacks in America. White, like many now, seem to equate unequal results with unequal opportunities, feels that hidden residues of racism exist despite legal equality, an equality always endangered. It also shows a world that is thoroughly extrapolated from Great Society visions, a world of ever shrinking work hours, guaranteed incomes, plenty, and many opportunities for self expression. It all seems so quaint now with workhours increasing – and no end to that trend in sight – with the increasing complexity of the world. While some discussions about virtual reality echo the quotes in this novel that worry about advanced technology fostering physical and moral degeneracy, most discussions of advance technology now don’t focus on such concerns or claim that work time will be diminished – only its nature changed – by advancing technology. Few people (at least from my limited readings) think new technologies will bring on the welfare state of this book – although, some discussions of nanotechnologies hint at it. (Interestingly, in his The Joy Makers, Gunn attacked the notion that all man’s physical and emotional needs should be met.)
This is a novel of great richness, thoroughly literary in its exploration of a central theme – communication, human and alien – in several ways. It’s thoroughly sf in its exploration of a vast idea of significance to humanity. But it’s most memorable, most poignant moment comes at the end with the Capellan precursor to their transmission of racial knowledge. It is revealed that the Capellans died long ago when their suns went nova. The messages have come from automated machines charged with delivering their epitaph to the vastness of space in the hopes some other intelligence may hear it.  The message:
We lived
We worked
We built
And we are gone.
A mournful end to the novel.
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

7 thoughts on “The Listeners

  1. Pingback: Crisis! | MarzAat

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