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Is There Anybody Out There?

The Listeners

By James E. Gunn 

15 Mar, 2020

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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James E. Gunn’s 1972 The Listeners is a collection of related stories pitched as a novel. All concern the search for extra-terrestrial life through the means of radio telescopes.

Each chapter is followed by a computer run” made up of quotations re SETI and mood pieces from Gunn’s vision of the World of Tomorrow . Gunn’s 2020s are not a horrible time in which to live.

Robert MacDonald – 2025

The Project, a government-funded research project aimed at detecting ETI (extra-terrestrial intelligences), has been running for fifty years. MacDonald does well enough dealing with the stress of being the leader of a seemingly failed program. He’s much less successful in coping with his wife’s mental problems. 

George Thomas – 2027 

Thomas, a once-successful writer who has declined into mere journalism (for a paper that sounds a lot like Frank or The Onion) is sent to write a hostile article on the Project. MacDonald toys with the man for a while before revealing that the Project has just received a message from the vicinity of Capella1.

William Mitchell – 2028 

MacDonald deals with Jeremiah, a hostile religious leader, by inviting him to the Project. MacDonald shows Jeremiah the message that the Capellans sent Earth. Much to MacDonald’s surprise, Jeremiah interprets the message through the lens of his faith rather than taking a secular viewpoint. 

Andrew White – 2028

White, the first black president, must deal with the political repercussions — national and international — of the message. Unfortunately (at least from his point of view), by the time White finds out about the message, word has already leaked out.

The researchers struggle to interpret the Capellan message, which is not at all clear (it consists only of a 19x33-pixel drawing, low resolution, almost a Rorschach test). The star around which the hypothetical Capellan home world orbits is drifting off the main stellar sequence; the message hints that the Capellans have been forced to adapt to this.

Robert MacDonald – 2058 

Robert MacDonald, Sr., dies and his estranged son Robert is convinced by his father’s co-workers (who include the son of President White) to join the Project in his father’s place.

Humans send a message back to Capella, but as that star is forty-five light years away, it will be nearly a century before Earth hears the answer.

The Computer – 2118

The long-awaited Capellan reply arrives. The Project is still in the hands of a MacDonald, who realizes that the Capellans are long extinct, killed by their expanding star. The message comes from a relic, a super-advanced, artificially intelligent computer. The reply is long and complex. The Earth computer in charge of interpreting the reply comprehends that reading the message will transform the computer into something more than half-Capellan. (None of the humans in charge of the computer realize that this will happen.) The Capellans will live on, in a way.

We learn that humans will eventually spot a similar relic near the Crab Nebula.

General comments

Gunn’s treatment of ethnic characters, uh, well, it’s not out of keeping with the time when the book was written.

Capella is a pretty unlikely place to find life and the precursor to the Crab Nebula is even worse. I think we must assume that the Crab Nebula message was placed there by aliens taking advantage of the fact that the Crab Nebula is a Leinster Object, something that will be interesting to any species with telescope. They placed their broadcaster where it would be noticed.

Even for a STEM protagonist, Robert MacDonald is spectacularly hopeless where people are concerned. He ignores his wife’s mental problems until she attempts suicide. When she dies later of heart failure, he tells his young son Bobby, your mother is dead. The doctors tried but they couldn’t save her. Her heart stopped beating. She used too much of it, you see. On you, on me, on everybody.” I am fairly certain that telling bereaved children that they contributed to their parent’s death is a suboptimal strategy, but it is entirely in keeping with the character’s behavior up to that point. This may explain why the Project is in dire straits at the beginning of the book.

Not much happens in the course of this novel. Mostly, it’s a collection of characters talking to each other. I’ve always found Gunn’s prose rather flat, as is his dialogue. 

The Listeners is available here (Amazon US),here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Book Depository), but it does not appear to be available from Chapters-Indigo.

1: This is where I point out that not only does Gunn claim that the Capellan stars are red giants (when in fact they are yellow giants) but he includes as flavor text an excerpt of an astronomical text that classifies the stars correctly. Twice.