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The Listeners by James E. Gunn
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The Listeners (original 1972; edition 2004)

by James E. Gunn (Author), Freeman J. Dyson (Afterword), H. Paul Shuch (Introduction)

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205457,211 (3.78)5
Member:Valashain
Title:The Listeners
Authors:James E. Gunn (Author)
Other authors:Freeman J. Dyson (Afterword), H. Paul Shuch (Introduction)
Info:BenBella Books (2004), Edition: BenBella Books ed, Paperback, 195 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:2012 reviews, english, random comments review, read, read 2012, science fiction, wwe, wwe full

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The Listeners by James E. Gunn (1972)

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My reaction to reading this novel in 1994. Spoilers follow.

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 novellette 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 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, Fremann 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 Science Fiction Encyclopedia 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. ( )
  RandyStafford | Apr 7, 2013 |
...In the end I thought The Listeners featured a little bit too much promotional material for the SETI project but it is a fascinating read nonetheless. Gunn picked a subject that isn't particularly sexy and yields very little in the way of visible or easy to understand results and turned it into a good story anyway. It is a bit melancholic at times, some readers will not particularly care for the characters. I guess I can see why it didn't sweep the awards or turns up in lists of must read classics. After having read it, I think it does deserve more recognition than it has received. This novel is definitely one of the pleasant surprises encountered in my Grand Master Reading Challenge reading. I may have to check out some of Gunn's short fiction in the future.

Full Random Comments review ( )
  Valashain | Nov 11, 2012 |
Involvement in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) might be the ultimate job for the extremely dedicated. Most scientists might not be willing to spend their careers listening for signs of intelligence out there, dealing with bureaucratic nonsense, constantly fighting for funding, and knowing that the chances of actually hearing anything are remote.

The Project has spent the previous 50 years listening to the stars, using the "Little Ear" radiotelescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The rest of the world does not share the interest of the scientists on duty, so The Project is on the bureaucratic chopping block. Everything changes the day that a message is received.

It isn’t so much a message as it is early human radio broadcasts beamed back to Earth, with the message inside, as a series of something like dots and dashes. It is analyzed, and turned into a very stylized picture of the sender (specifically, from the star Capella). An interpretation of the message says that Capella’s binary star system is becoming very unstable. Perhaps one of the stars is about to go supernova, and the message is an attempt, before their race perishes, to learn that they are not alone in the universe.

There is much discussion in The Project as to whether or not Earth should answer the Message. An answer is sent, consisting of a similar stylized picture of humans, knowing that it will take 90 years for the message to reach Capella, and for them to send a response. The Day of The Reply is a worldwide holiday on Earth. Billions of people are tuned in to see The Reply, but it’s not what they were hoping for.

This is a really good and plausible novel. It shows how one moment of "Oh, my God!" (receipt of a message from space) can make up for many years of nothing. It’s recommended. ( )
  plappen | Sep 4, 2009 |
I do not recall the last time I read any sci-fi book which was not published a recently or was not considered a classic by many (like. Asimov, Clarke, Verne, Wells.) I admit I never heard of James Gunn http://www2.ku.edu/~sfcenter/bio.htm , so I could not considered his works classic earlier. But now, having read The Listeners, from 1972 I can say that this stood the test of times for several reasons.

The novel's central plot is about trying to receive a signal or message from extraterrestrial intelligence and when it arrives react to it. The talk of gadgets, science and computer is minimal; that maybe one of the reasons it reads fresh even today. The title of the books is not The Message or ET, but The Listeners. Accordingly the book is more about humanity, about us, than about what's beyond us. It is an introspective look of what we have been listening to and why.

When I say "we" I mean it in multiple sense. For several years I was one of millions of people who let their computers' down cycles to be used to analyze signals from space in hope to find patterns, indicating intelligence. (Via SETI http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/ ) There members could explain why they are doing it. Those justifications reminded me of the discussion in the first half of the book, where the members of the team, who actually sit and listen to the radio signals discuss their motivations and the future of the project. These discussions in the book are really deep and go around all the possible pros and cons. It was almost like reading a scientific paper, which I really enjoyed.

The author did not limit the "we" to the team members, but used countless, paragraph length quotes to share what others--throughout human history, but mostly in the preceding decades of the writing--thought of non-Earth-based intelligent life. Every second chapter consisted of almost nothing else than these quotes. Typographically they were distinguished by being italicized. Interspersed were all capital texts, which gave additional details of the plot in the form of news report segments.

First, these mixed chapters annoyed me, because stylistically they were so different than the rest of the book. Then I took it as a test. If the heroes of the book could listen to decades of noise just to find that one pattern, which may not even exist, then I can listen/read a few pages of quotes of smart people. In a why the book helped to redefine what listening can mean. In today's society, where short attention-span is becoming the norm--where we vehemently flip tv channels, where we are upset if a webpages does not load in 3 seconds—listening, really listening to someone or something outside of ourselves is becoming a rare gift and ability. It is kind of a lost art in members of younger generations. If for nothing else, this reminder was a good reason for me to like the book.

But, I belong to a younger generation myself, with degraded knowledge compares to previous one. I was reminded of that, as the protagonist--whose original occupation was a linguist, but now is the director of The Project whose mission is to find ET life via listening to radio signals from space—uses quotes from classical literature in 5-6 languages. I could make out the meaning of the quotes in several of them, by being somewhat familiar with German and French and being able to decipher Latin and Italian if I have to. But I am not as familiar with classical literature that I could quote from it, or recognize a quote's origin. I believe that many more people had that kind of education in the past than today, when other enjoyable distractions are so readily available.

Another reason I liked the book was its vision of the future. Starting with the outlandish idea that the president of the USA was an African-American man. I am so happy that what belonged to the realm of imagination 35 years ago, in a few weeks can become a reality. Then the book also shows an interregnum of peaceful years, where people could slow down to enjoy life and they do. This, of course, happened after all the major problems of the world (poverty, hunger, energy, war, health, crime, pollution…) were solved.

A problem which was not mentioned in the book, thus not solved is gender inequality. It was more than that; all women got an unfavorable treatment on the book. If I could change anything in this work this would be it. Otherwise I recommend it whole heartedly who wants to think through what listening means, and enjoy a tight novel about multi-generational act of meaningful listening.
  break | Jan 1, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
James E. Gunnprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dyson, Freeman J.Afterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shuch, H. PaulIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Walter Sullivan, and to Carl Sagan, and all the other scientists whose books and articles and lectures and speculations provided, so clearly, the inspiration and source material for this book - may their listening be rewarded and may all their messages be answered...
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The voices babbled.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 034530036X, Mass Market Paperback)

A classic of science fiction, this book predicted and inspired the creation of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)—the organization dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life. A tale of contact with alien life hailed by leaders of SETI organizations and today's leading science fiction authors as hugely influential, the story appeals to both science fiction readers and the hundreds of thousands of members of various SETI organizations. This replaces 034530036X.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:06 -0400)

They have have been trying to decipher the eerie silence that resounds from space and now there is finally a sound. What does it mean? The message's intended meaning baffles Earth. Only one man can make that decision and it could mean intergalactic warfare if he makes the wrong choice.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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