Tag Archives: The Listeners

The voice of that SF master, Stanislaw Lem

hmvMy experience with Stanislaw Lem’s work has been limited so far, but the few times I have read one of his books I’ve gotten the inescapable impression that I was reading something written by one of science fiction’s true masters. Lem’s writing is full of philosophical depth and intellectual intensity; and there are emotional tensions in his characters that can be uncomfortable at times, but that let you know you’re reading about a realistic person with realistic struggles. By the time you get to the end of a Lem novel, your brain will have gotten a serious workout; you will have thought and you will have felt, and you will have loved it. Lem is just that good.

His Master’s Voice is a novel from 1968 that definitely fits the above description. The basic theme is a Lem trademark: the impossibility (or near impossibility) of communication with alien life. That’s an assumption I happen to disagree with, but that in no way lessens its value as one of a multitude of viewpoints to consider. Lem goes against the general trend in science fiction, which is overwhelmingly optimistic about alien communication. I tend to share that optimism, but nevertheless I think Lem’s opinion serves as a useful counterpoint to the majority view and provides some needed perspective. After all, that widespread optimism is also based on assumptions, and who knows if they could turn out to be wrong?

The basic plot concerns an alien signal that is picked up; it is unknown whether it was intended for Earth, or if it was merely intercepted on its way somewhere else. A research group, half-jokingly called His Master’s Voice, is formed to study and try to decipher the signal. The group consists of a wide variety of specialists: mathematicians, physicists, biologists, linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and representatives of any other discipline you can name. The project is kept strictly secret and controlled by the military. The story is told through the eyes of one of the lead mathematicians, writing a memoir of the project years later.

The book touches on a great many scientific, philosophical, and political issues, and really says much more about our modern world than it does about extraterrestrial contact. One of the tensions among the project members is the “two cultures,” the divide between the social sciences and the physical sciences; the members of the project almost naturally sort themselves into these two camps, referring to themselves as “elves” and “dwarves,” respectively. Lem lays some well-deserved (in my opinion) criticism on the soft social “sciences” and their defensiveness when anyone intrudes on their territory, their “Mystery of Man” as Lem puts it; he also has some comments about the influence of Freud. But the tensions are not limited to soft vs. hard science. Lem portrays science as a whole as not quite the idealistic model we tend to see it as.

Another of the big issues is the relationship between scientists and the government/military. The main character muses frequently on the morals and responsibilities of scientists, and chafes under the military’s domination of the project and scientists “renting out their consciences.” At one point Lem makes an analogy with pigs that are trained to search for truffles, and refers to “scientist-pigs” who are likewise trained to search out new weapons technologies for their governments. Lem is definitely not one to hold back his opinions!

Yet another major theme is the modern world’s relationship with technology and how it has changed our lives for better or worse. Lem refers to our time as an….

… era made sober by an overabundance of discoveries, which tore apart like shrapnel every systemic coherence, an era which both accelerated progress as never before and was sick to death of progress….

And he questions the need for that never-ending technological progress, always churning out new gizmos and racing to provide the latest, fastest, newest versions of old ones:

Thus the means of civilization replace its ends, and human conveniences substitute for human values.

What I’ve said so far gives only the barest taste of the depth of this novel and the wide array of topics commented upon therein. It’s a very serious look at many of the complexities and ugly realities of our modern society. The basic thrust of this book is that maybe humanity isn’t as mature or advanced as it likes to think it is, and maybe we need to work harder at understanding ourselves before we can ever hope to understand life from other worlds.

And that alien signal? It never does get deciphered. The task turns out to be beyond our abilities:

The hypotheses popular before the existence of the Project seemed to me incredibly shallow; they ricocheted back and forth between the pole of pessimism, which called the silentium universi a natural state, and the pole of mindless optimism that expected announcements clearly and slowly spelled out, as if civilizations scattered among the stars would communicate with one another like children in kindergarten. Yet another myth has bitten the dust, I thought, and yet another truth has ascended overhead — and, as is usually the case with truths, it is too much for us.

His Master’s Voice is simply one of the best “signal from an alien species” novels, and stands right alongside such classics as Gunn’s The Listeners and Sagan’s Contact.

Sagan’s classic tale of first contact

It’s pretty common to hear the phrase “the book was better than the movie,” and usually it’s true; because no matter what the quality of a book is, Hollywood is usually all too willing to lower it by several notches in order to make a movie that appeals to the masses. In the case of Carl Sagan’s Contact, however, I have to say both the novel and the movie are of roughly equal quality, and high quality at that. Which is fitting, since Sagan wrote in the Author’s Note at the end that the initial version of the story was conceived for film, and the novel grew out of that.

I’m not going to delve much into the plot; I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie (if you haven’t, you should), and it doesn’t differ from the book in any extremely major ways. (As far as I can recall — it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the movie.) The biggest difference I can see is that the movie had one person using the Machine, while the book had five people who went on the journey. Also, there was of course a greater level of scientific detail in the book. But that’s to be expected; it is, after all, Carl Sagan we’re talking about. And I don’t recall the movie including the part about messages buried inside the transcendental numbers, although I could be wrong. But basically, this is one of those rare cases in which, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ve substantially gotten the essence of the book. Of course that’s not to say you shouldn’t also read the book. On the contrary, it would be well worth your time.

When I reviewed James Gunn’s The Listeners a while back, that other classic of first contact via radio astronomy, I said I had the feeling I’d like Sagan’s novel better. And in fact, that’s the way it turned out. Sagan’s book has many of the same strengths as Gunn’s, but without some of the weaknesses of that other novel. For one thing, Sagan’s Palmer Joss character was a far more interesting religious adversary than Gunn’s Jeremiah. For another, Sagan gave a much more convincing portrayal of the political situation surrounding the scientific ones. However, I have to wonder if Sagan was paying homage to Gunn with this passage, which strongly echoes the plot of The Listeners:

“Yes. Maybe something’s about to go wrong on Vega,” the Director of Central Intelligence interrupted. “Maybe their planet will be destroyed. Maybe they want someone else to know about their civilization before they’re wiped out.”

I will say, though, that on the level of pure writing style, Gunn outdoes Sagan. After all, Gunn is a professional fiction writer, while Sagan was of course a master of a different kind of literature — inspiring non-fiction books about science and reason. Actually, I couldn’t help but notice how his love for reason and rationality shines through even here, in his single foray into fiction. As part of the background world of Contact, he pokes fun at some of our species’ silly and illogical forms of news and entertainment, for example referencing the “now defunct National Inquirer,” and commenting thus on the world of television:

Lifestyles of the Mass Murderers and You Bet Your Ass were on adjacent channels. It was clear at a glance that the promise of the medium remained unfulfilled.

Coincidentally, that fits in perfectly with a recent discussion I started on the very same topic.

Sagan’s fictional world of television also has some glimmers of hope, though, including:

[…] Promises, Promises, devoted to follow-up analyses of unfulfilled campaign pledges at local, state, and national levels, and Bamboozles and Baloney, a weekly debunking of what were said to be widespread predudices, propoganda, and myths.

It was passages like these, just as much as the story of galactic travel and alien contact, that made me realize just how much I miss Sagan and wish he was still around.

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.