James E Gunn: The Listeners

December 29, 2017

51ZnpgDj6xL._AC_US218_I last read this one in 1979! So, having completely forgotten it for so long, I wasn’t expecting much; how wrong I was. It’s a masterly series of linked short stories set in a project scanning the universe for communications from other civilisations, other intelligent species. The lives and work of the various characters are interwoven with thoughts and reflections on the possibilities inherent in there either being other life-forms somewhere else or on our species being alone; Gunn imagines contact is eventually made and also succeeds in making us care about his main characters and their work, in an astonishingly powerful and quite erudite novel.

I’ve come across no other novels or stories by Gunn in my life of reading SF, so I looked him up; still alive in his nineties, apparently, and this particular novel a runner-up for a major award when it was published. Although life elsewhere is a standard trope of SF, the long and painstaking search for it, and philosophical implications are not. The novel was published in 1972, and this was the time when people like Carl Sagan were setting up the SETI project.

The communication Gunn imagines from intelligent life in the Capella star-system strongly resembles the drawings and coded information we sent out from Earth on the Voyager spacecraft five years later in 1977. To me, science and research has always been a double-edged sword; to be sure, we advance the sum of human knowledge and understanding, and this is a good thing, but so much that is discovered can be and has been perverted to evil ends, either in the development of weapons of mass destruction, or tools that enhance our lives whilst wrecking our environment. Against this background, I’ve always felt that the exploration of space and the search for life elsewhere is one of the best things that we do, one of the most useful things on which we can expend time and resources; I’ve never felt it to be a waste of money, given the obscene size of the ‘defence’ budgets of so-called civilised nations… And, when I find myself reflecting on the fact that I won’t be around for ever, one of the things I realise I would really like to be around for would be when we finally contact other intelligences, or when we get to Mars. I still rate humans landing on the Moon as the greatest event of my lifetime.

So, once contact is made, humans panic and fear. Will aliens invade and enslave us? Politicians’ first instinct is to suppress news, and to refuse to respond to the message; calmness eventually prevails and a reply is sent, but ninety years are needed for our message to reach its destination and a reply to come back, and here we are faced with a different issue – our attention-span. The SETI project in the novel was threatened with closure, having existed for 50 years without making any contact; 90 years for a reply to come back is beyond a human life-span, let alone any politician or manager’s working life. How does anyone cope, how do you sustain the necessary infrastructure for long enough to receive and respond? Our short lives and the nature of capitalism make us short-termists par excellence…

Gunn’s novel, which I’m sure has been long forgotten about by everyone except compilers of SF reference books, is another example of what the genre is best at: making us think. What if? I’d love to know…

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