The Listeners

James E. Gunn
The Listeners Cover

The Listeners


The Listeners is a short novel that nevertheless manages to fit in some thought provoking ideas. It's more than a 'first contact' (with extra-terrestrial intelligence)novel. It's a novel of faith.

The novel's focus is on 'The Project' which is the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Since the scientists have no way of sending out messages they are effectively listening for any sign that 'we are not alone'. Robert McDonald is the project's Director who, along with his colleagues has spent decades 'listening' with no tangible results. His role is ensure motivation and belief is strong within the team whilst also dealing with outside factors that threaten the future of The Project.

The Project has been listening without success for fifty years with McDonald at the helm for the previous fifteen. As McDonald faces budgetary concerns and the threat of closure he is dealing with an influential journalist who is openly planning an expose of The Project and a damaging article. During the journalist's visit the scope of the novel changes as a signal is received from a satellite of a distant planet , Capella. The Capellans have heard radio waves transmitted from Earth since the 1930's and it has taken until 2028 for the message to get back to Earth - a round trip of ninety years.

McDonald faces the moral responsibility of sharing the message with Earth, deciding on the response and engaging with those who would choose not to reply or those who discredit the validity of the message. The novel passes through the generations as another ninety years pass waiting for the reply from Capella which is particularly powerful and frightening as to the idea of us 'being alone' on Earth. The last sentence of the novel though ends on such a positive note of belief and perseverance and that humanity / other intelligent life has the capacity to grow.

On one level this book is a huge promotion for SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) and indeed this book predates it, envisages it and is a powerful advocate of the need to listen. The structure of the book is interesting as each chapter is interspersed from real and fictional scientists, poets, artists, philosophers, writers and cultural history from throughout mankind. They ponder the question of life in the Universe and our place in it. These chapters set the context and provide the reader with ideas to the big questions about life on other planets and how they would view us. Are we a threat, an exploitative resource, significant or not, or an opportunity to learn and share intelligence and understanding. Gunn firmly nails his colours to the mast of promoting the search for extra terrestrial intelligence is intertwined with our evolution as a species.

Most of the quotes in between the chapters are from Gunn's contemporaries and early founders of SETI. In many respects this book is an effective time capsule as to the understanding of the search in the 1960's (although over fifty years later the big ideas remain the same and as such the big questions no nearer to being answered).

In terms of being a 'time capsule' the novel discusses the nature of time and more importantly faith. It's an interesting concept to be dedicated to a task knowing full well that the results will not be realised in one's life time. It seems in our modern world we think in terms of months and the next election for results, not in a generation or two - this is seen in our governments behaviour. Something as important as understanding if we are truly alone in the Universe will always be difficult to convince a government to fund (at the same time - as a species we haven't begun to meet the basic needs of our own yet so it could be argued how can we begin to understand the 'other' when we don't understand ourselves).

As a novel of faith it asks the reader to believe and the people of Earth to believe that it is worth listening for decades with no tangible results. It has an interesting resolution to the major religious question of whether we are unique and created in God's image. I think the novel successfully realises a belief in God and the notion that we are not the only intelligent life in the Universe. I don't consider myself religious but I think this was handled masterfully.

What I really like about the novel is Gunn's optimism. He has a faith in human nature. Part of this may be evident in the optimism and forward looking nature of the 1960's but I think it is mostly due to the authors belief in mankind. I suspect similar novels written today would have a dystopian nature whereas this is decidedly different. I'm not sure if Man evolves and solves it's issues because of the existence of the Capellans or because it is the natural order of things. In a world of such suffering and pain I find Gunn's novel a message of hope and I find this refreshing and a pleasure to read. Through Gunn's eyes the world is a better place in a hundred years and that's a vision I'm glad to read.

One of the novels key themes is one of communication - McDonald (like Gunn) is a linguist first, then a scientist. McDonald oft quotes significant figures (in their original language) to illustrate a point and much of his role and success isn't in listening for signs from the universe, it's listening to other persons and their point of view. The novel focuses on understanding the Capellans but it's also about understanding other perspectives. McDonald doesn't use linguistic tricks to convince his peers (including President's and religious leaders) he uses understanding and visionary leadership. (I think Gunn demonstrates an awareness of leadership theory in advance of what was commonly believed in the 1960's).

The characterisation of the novel is weak in places and I struggled to be overly interested in McDonald, his family and his colleagues. The relationship between Father and Son is an interesting dynamic and even made me think about my relationship with my son and his future. However, I felt the way the estranged Bobby McDonald picks up his father's work was a bit clunky. The theme of dedication to work, or one's life's work and it's impact on the family is explored but Maria McDonald comes across as a weak character who only exists in this novel in the context of her husband. She says, 'yes, husband' then gives up. In a novel of hope, Maria has little.

There are tons of ideas in the novel but not much happens in the novel. It will make you think but isn't particularly exciting and doesn't wow the reader.

A small complaint about my SF Masterworks Kindle edition. Translations for the quotes are at the back, like the print version I presume however the translations are not linked so it's a real pain to access the translation. The technology exists to fix this and use the format to it's capability. For the publishers not to do this is just lazy.