The Listeners, for anyone who’s listening

James Gunn’s The Listeners, published in 1972, is a fictional tale of a SETI-style program to search for transmissions from intelligent alien civilizations. I have always seen this book described as almost a sister to Carl Sagan’s Contact; and I wish I could provide some comparison, but I can’t since I’ve never read the latter work. I have seen the movie version though, and if that’s any indication, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would prefer Sagan’s novel over Gunn’s — although final judgment must be reserved until I’ve actually read both. However, this is not to say that Gunn’s novel isn’t worthwhile as well. It is, but in different ways than I was expecting.

When I picked up this book, I was looking for a scientific adventure. I expected to read about scientists engaged in an magnificent enterprise, explaining all the technical details, experiencing the excitement of discovering an alien message, applying their intellects to deciphering it, and so forth. I was eager for an in-depth look at how science would deal with this situation and use all its resources to solve the puzzle. And all of this was there, but it was too generalized to be very satisfying. The way the signals were detected and analyzed, the way the alien message was deciphered…. it was all too facile, too slick. The results were simply given to the reader, but the process behind them was largely glossed over.

Instead, this book puts much more of its focus on the social issues surrounding the scientific ones. What kind of people would devote their lives and careers to a search that may never turn up anything and may ultimately be pointless? How would such a program continue to get funding after years of no results? And if, against all odds, it does turn up evidence of alien life, how would the people of Earth react? Would we be able to deal with it? Would it make us feel larger, or smaller? Would it be a benefit, or a curse?

I believe when judging a book, the author’s intent should always be taken into account, and I suppose Gunn’s intent is right there in the book’s title: he’s concerned not so much with the listening but the listeners. It’s less about the actual signal itself, and more about those (the species and the individuals) searching for it, and why. It’s more about the personal and the social than the scientific. So even though I would have preferred more of the science, I can see where Gunn is coming from here and respect it. He does a decent job of pointing out the sacrifices made by people who are devoted to important jobs, the need for effective leadership, the tensions between science and religion, and our never-ending need to ponder our place in the universe.

And yet, I found some of his applications of these personal and social factors to be laid on a bit thick, or lacking in believability. For instance, the cult of personality surrounding the Project’s director; everyone worships him as if he’s the only person in the world who could have done the job. And the seemingly hereditary nature of his position that is later held by his son and grandson — not very realistic, that. Also, I thought the first director’s problems with his wife and her suicide attempt, his later problems with his son, the President’s problems with his own son, and a certain journalist’s inner demons and bitterness about his career, were a little on the overdramatic side, and unnecessary.

One thing that was utterly brilliant, though, was the alternating chapters that consisted entirely of quotations from various real-world scientists, philosophers, authors, poets, priests, and the like, all relating in some way to the possibility of the existence of alien life, all tackling the concept from different angles. These chapters were my favorite part of the book, actually. Among those quoted were such figures as Carl Sagan, Freeman Dyson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nikola Tesla, Immanuel Kant, William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, Theodore Sturgeon, H.G. Wells, A.E. Van Vogt, and C.S. Lewis. Gunn’s reputation as not only an author but also a scholar of science fiction shows here; the snippets from older sci-fi literature describing various aliens were amusing, but more seriously I think they were meant to represent how the average person may conceptualize aliens.

Another thing I liked was how Gunn showed just how ignorant people can be about scientific issues, or indeed about any kind of important world issue. For example: after the alien signal is discovered and has appeared all over the news, one woman has her tv viewing interrupted by a pollster asking what she thinks about it. Irritated, she replies that she doesn’t know what he’s talking about and just wants to get back to watching her show, ironically a sci-fi show called “Station in Space” (a forerunner of DS9 perhaps? lol). In another instance, one guy asks his friend if he’s seen the message from another star. His friend replies that he thinks the scientists made it all up, since there could be no life on a star! Yes, Gunn hits the mark on this score; that kind of stupidity really does exist, unfortunately.

Bottom line here, this was a decent book that did some things well, others not so well, could have been a lot better, but was worth reading all the same.

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