Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Listeners - James Gunn

I haven't been very adventurous in my reading for the Damon Knight Grand Master reading challenge. Seven of the ten books I've read so far have been by authors I have read other works of, while two others were acknowledged science fiction classics. For the eleventh read I decided to pick a book by someone I knew very little of. James Gunn doesn't have as long a bibliography as some of his contemporaries and quite a lot is short fiction. He made quite an impact on the genre nevertheless. Besides writing, Gunn is a noted critic and teacher as well as the director of the Center for Study of Science Fiction. The Listeners (1972) is a fix-up novel, various parts of it appeared in Galaxy Magazine and Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1968 and 1972. It is probably its best known novel, but apparently not one instantly recognized as a masterwork. Gunn missed out on all awards and nominations save one for the Campbell award in 1973. There have been a whole bunch of editions of this book with different forewords, introductions and afterwords. The copy I've read is a 2004  edition which features an introduction by H. Paul Shuch, an American physicist heavily involved with SETI, a foreword by Thomas Pierson, founder of the SETI institute, and and afterword by the late Freeman J. Dyson, British-American mathematician and physicist. I guess this book is still well loved in scientific circles.

In 2028, the SETI's search for extraterrestrial life is still ongoing without ever having picked up a single signal that indicates intelligent life. Director Robert McDonald, a staunch believer in the project, is facing ever more difficulties keeping SETI funded. McDonald himself is beginning to wonder if the project is worth the personal sacrifices he has to make. Then, a signal is received that is unmistakably of alien origin. A broadcast is received from a the direction of the star Capella, 45 light years distant. It changes everything. The project, the world, our place in the universe. Humanity is about to enter into a conversation with a ninety year time lag.

I like science fiction a lot but in my mind at least, it doesn't tend to get really interesting until the late 1960s. A time when writers started to incorporate more social sciences into their works, pay greater attention to their characters and move towards more literary forms of writing. The Listeners is a novel that tries to do some of these things. It is in essence a first contact story, which are a dime a dozen in the genre. With a lot of attention dedicated to radio telescopes, it is also firmly rooted in hard sciences. I've been to an installation in Westerbork, the Netherlands many years ago and it is an impressive sight. It is also not the exciting kind of science one might expect in a science fiction novel. It is painstakingly clearing up and deciphering signals, it passive, it is what the title suggest, listening. When you think about it, it isn't an obvious choice of subject for a science fiction novel.

Because of the fairly slow pace of events, Gunn as a lot of time to delve into the psyche of his characters. The story is very introspective. McDonald in particular thinks a lot about what he is doing and why it is worthwhile, but also if it isn't taking too much of a toll on his family. Other characters reflect at length about the changes in society over the course of the novel which spans almost a century. As the novel progressed and society gained more and more utopian characteristics, I kept wondering if Gunn thinks that contact with extraterrestrials will change our look at the universe in such a way that the world's problems become fixable or that it would have happened anyway. Fear would have seemed an equally likely reaction to me, even if realistically the aliens were too far away to be a threat.

Limited but the power of With radio waves taking ninety years for a round trip, it is essential to pack as much information as possible into one broadcast. The message received is deceptively simple, even if it takes the best minds and an enormous amount of computer power quite a while to decipher it. The process of understanding it, the debates and speculation, the attempts at suppressing the find, efforts to fit it into existing religious frameworks and of course the question how to respond all make for fascinating reading. It is not as flashy as an alien invasion but a lot more realistic description of how first contact might happen.

Structurally it is an interesting novel as well. Gunn litters the McDonald sections in particular with quotes from literary greats, usually in the original Spanish, Italian, German, Latin and French. Quite unusual for an English Language novel. The Listeners is divided in five sections, four of which are followed but what Gunn calls a computer run. These are snippets of all manner of news sources, quotes from scientists (Carl Sagan and Frank D. Drake and Guiseppe Cocconi to name a few), philosophers and science fiction writers. They add a lot of detail to the reader's understanding of the SETI project although it appears to have expanded and changed beyond what Gunn envisioned in 1972. One might say his selection is a bit one sided. Quite a lot of it is very supportive of the project and its goals. There has been quite a bit of criticism of the project for as long as it has existed. Ranging from people who consider it dangerous to alert aliens to our presence, to those who SETI is unscientific to begin with. Most of the characters have links with the organization, Gunn might have used the computer runs to balance it a bit.

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.

Book Details
Title: The Listeners
Author: James Gunn
Publisher: BebBella Books
Pages: 195
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-932100-12-9
First published: 1972


  1. Well, Gunn and Clement were unknown quantities for me. Unfortunately, they still are. They were quite a few books by the other authors I had heard of and not read that... I still haven't try anything by those two.:(

    1. You are doing a lot better than I am. There are 14 authors on the GMRC list I haven't read any books of. Four less than when I started the challenge though. Maybe we should add a second year ;)

  2. Great review, Val! Another one I'd like to post on WWEnd. I just finished The Listeners myself and I liked it a lot as well. As you said, there's not much action - of any kind - but it has it's own quiet rewards and it's easy to see why it would be popular among scientists. I don't recall the characters ever referring to SETI in the book. It was always "The Project". I wonder why Gunn shied away from using the name?

    1. Go ahead and run it Dave. Do you plan on running the Bradbury as well?

      The Project... I think it is because everybody involved knows what they are talking about anyway? No need to mention the name. Now that I think about it I'm not sure how common it is in English but I can think of plenty of examples of this in Dutch.