Listeners, The by Gunn, James, 1972

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The Listeners, by James E. Gunn, will be at once very familiar and possibly quite shocking to those who have read Contact, by Carl Sagan. These two stories tell not only the same core story, but the authors were thoroughly informed by each other, Gunn by Sagan's scientific work, and Sagan by Gunn's novel. The differences in the execution, however, warrant separate discussion of each. The Listeners is an underrated and introspective tale of individual and racial redemption and absolution with very subtle influences from the Christian Bible. Five plus out of five stars.

The Listeners was originally published serially in Galaxy Magazine during the Pohl and then Jakobsson eras, with one of the six original stories oddly finding its way into MSF&F in the late 60's. For those of you who know something of Gunn, he is quite the intellectual, and along with Blish and Knight is pretty much single handedly responsible for making science fiction a credible area of study, worthy of serious criticism. He also heads the organization which awards the Campbell Award, and wrote some of the 70's most influential science fiction, including this book, Kampus, The Immortals, The Joy Makers and most importantly, The six volume Road to Science Fiction, a comprehensive genre-straddling anthology that starts with the Epic of Gilgamesh and ending with whatever was published yesterday. In my opinion, The Listeners is his strongest work (though I admit I have not read any of The Road to Science Fiction. Yet). With some exception, it tells the story of a man named Robert MacDonald and his family, MacDonald being the Director of The Project, a deep space listening station in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. When the book starts circa 2025, The Project is 50 years old and in serious funding trouble. Norhing has ever been detected, and the government has all but forgotten about the existence of the project. But, as MacDonald's says, "we are for the years, The Project is for the centuries." The six chapters of this book tell the story of how MacDonald, through his own personal fortitude, strength of character, and unfailing belief in the scientific method and in his mission transform first his family and then the world. For those of you reading this who are skeptical of how personal transformation can ever be described in a way that conveys the sense of optimism and hope that the transformed must necessarily experience, give this a try, because I promise you, its in here.

The best chapter in this book has to be the second. Itís the story of how MacDonald deals with a muck-raking journalism named George Thomas who has been sent to do an expose on The Project. Thomas arrives immediately before a message from the binary system of Capella is received, and at this point in the book The Project is in serious trouble and may lose its paltry, afterthought-in-nature funding. Thomas, after MacDonald, is certainly one of the best drawn characters in this book. He is divorced, and at one point was a successful author, having penned a reinterpretation of Dante's Inferno, and one notable Italian to English translation of the entire Commedia. He lacks the ability to commit to anything though, including women and work, though his potential as a mate and an author are both immense. He is not without serious intellectual horsepower though, but instead, each time he tries to start his next novel, Purgatorio, "it quickly descends into Hell again." Despite his own humiliation and personal second-guessing over his shortcomings he has great faith in his own ability, but none in the world around him. He is also metaphorically paralyzed by loneliness. Because of this, Hell comes at him from all angles, and he views MacDonald, who deftly puts the full-court press onto Thomas so as to convince him that The Project is worthy, as the devil himself. And this is the big conflict between the two, and the source of the most irony in the entire work. Thomas, the destroyer who seeks to tear down the decades of hard work and commitment and conviction of the entire staff of The Project is cast as the demon against MacDonald's angel, MacDonald having enough faith in the work for the both of them. Gunn's description of how the demon is exorcised, or how Thomas reacts to MacDonald is superb, with Thomas first wondering what to expect, then tentatively engaging MacDonald, next feeling himself pulled over to the light, then putting up a fight, eventually becoming angry, and finally resolving himself to the notion that MacDonald knows what he is doing and why, and is entirely correct. It is at this point that the message from Capella is discovered, and Thomas falls deep into The Project himself, becoming the media agent for Arecibo as news of the message spreads around the world.

None of the other five chapters are as strong as this one, but most are close. In the other chapters Gunn deals with MacDonald's resolution of conflict with his wife and son, and with the US government and an aged Christian leader of a movement called the Solitarians who deny that the message could have come from aliens. Gunn's themes of redemption and transformation run strongly through each chapter, and each chapter deals very well with the theme of overcoming loneliness. Each also mirrors in a very loose way a story from the Bible. I don't think that Gunn was very interested in telling a C.S. Lewis type story that relied on Christianity to set the moral tone, but with themes of redemption and transformation, bible allegories certainly work better than, for example, EST-like tales of emotional transformation. Loneliness, on the other hand, may be what Gunn has the most to say about. MacDonald at first is moved by his belief in the virtues of The Project, and this spreads to all the employees, as well as most who visit Arecibo. This keeps the project going, despite most othersí desire to move on to something more productive. But once the message is received, MacDonald finds himself in the position to spread his own message to the entire world. This transformation is as gradual as can be, and is largely depicted by the "computer run" blurbs that Gunn wrote to tie each individual story together. These "runs," found in 10 page or so subchapters between each main chapter, are composed of Gunn's original writing, quotes from papers and speeches from scientific luminaries and political and social commentators, and humorously quotes from Golden Age science fiction books describing Martian and Venutian creatures. Gunn uses these blurbs to tell of the gradual transformation of human society from basically what we have today, to a population controlled, environmentally conscious and forward looking society. The societal ideals that Gunn espouses are certainly from the left end of the spectrum, the far left in some cases, but even if you object philosophically with where Gunn is going, there is no denying the motivations and causal implications. That is to say: We are no longer alone, we are strengthened by that knowledge, and we shall overcome. I cannot recommend this book enough to each of you.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)

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