Calling Collect?

The Listeners by James E. Gunn, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, © 1972.

James Gunn presents, successfully and almost convincingly, a fictional account of theB The Listeners emotional, the psychological aspects of searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life: the prerequisite human attributes that a project of this scope requires for a conclusive outcome; mainly the possibility of multiple human lifetimes of tediously seeking something that may not be there.  Gunn postulates the persona needed to continually believe that we are not alone in the vastness of space, someone with the temerity to risk his fruitful years in a quest that will likely fail, his ability to stay the course through countless days and nights of monotonous failure, of a nothingness convulsing his cerebral core to a mush of hopeless sadness.

Gunn illustrates the personalities that it may take to forge ahead with a SETI project of interminable searching, a human that believes he is right in searching the heavens for intelligent life, a human that believes we are not alone in the universe, a humane that believes that all that is needed to succeed is perseverance.

This works in Gunn’s fictional world because the searchers find what they are looking for, an advanced civilization 45 light years from Earth that wishes to impart their collective wisdom to us.  The aliens cryptically convey to us, in their initial message, that they are dying, and as a consequence, pose no threat to our species or planet, allowing humanity to respond with impunity, without risk of triggering an apocalypse.  It’s fiction and everyone does love a happy ending.

The technical side of this novel doesn’t work so well, but sci-fi novels read, coincidently, 45 years after they are published rarely do. Steam turbine powered cars, humongous computers with silly parts, the Arecibo radio telescope with 18 light years of reach capturing 45 light year distant messages, are a few of the distractions, but in the end the visceral concepts are credible suppositions even if the mechanical details of future life lack ingenuity and artistry. A confusing, and possibly superfluous, message presented in the novel is of fictional economic societal solutions, amounting to not much more than welfare, instituted to foster stability and peace, coupled paradoxically, with a prescient passage from a 1968 techno-predictive book, The Year 2000, by Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener concerning an individual’s responsibility to society:

The year 2000 conditions could produce a situation in which illusion, wishful thinking, even obviously irrational behavior could exist to a degree unheard of today. Such irrational and self-indulgent behavior is quite likely in a situation in which an individual is overprotective and has no systematic or objective contact with reality. For example, there are probably many people for whom work is the primary touch with reality. If work is removed, or if important functions are taken from work, the contact these people have with reality will be to some degree impaired.  The results-minor or widespread-may become apparent in forms such as political disruption, disturbed families, and personal tragedies-or in pursuit of some “humanistic” values that many would think of as frivolous or even irrational.

Contributing to this book’s bond with its reader, and cementing its science cred, are non-fictional extracts from the author’s contemporaneous big thinkers on extraterrestrial life, such as Freeman Dyson and Carl Sagan, liberally sprinkled throughout the “even-numbered chapters”.  One of these excerpts, embedded in the “2nd chapter”, a remark from Frank D. Drake from 1960, can serve as the basis for the book’s plot:

Those who feel that the goal justifies the great amount of effort required will continue to carry on this research, sustained by the possibility that sometime in the future, perhaps a hundred years from now, or perhaps next week, the search will be successful…

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