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Worlds Without End Blog

GMRC Review: The Listeners by James E. Gunn Posted at 8:45 AM by Charles Dee Mitchell


WWEnd Grand Master Reading ChallengeGuest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his blog series Philip K. Dickathon and The Horror! The Horror! He can also be found on his own blog This is Dee’s eigth GMRC review to feature in our blog.

The ListenersA few pages into The Listeners I thought I was settling down for a pleasantly boring experience of 1970’s science fiction. But halfway through the book, my respect for what James Gunn was attempting — and accomplishing — began to grow. He writes with subdued passion about the commitment of scientists to what many outside their world consider either a fool’s errand or an actual threat to the functioning of society. His “listeners” who work on The Project are fictional incarnations of those who devote their lives to SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.”

The novel, assembled from short stories published in Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction was published in 1974. It opens in 2025, when The Project has existed for fifty years without a result. But in 2027 a message comes through and a reply is formulated. The message is from the star Capella in the constellation Auriga, forty-five light years from Earth. Our reply will take forty-five years to reach the Capellans, and an additional wait of at least forty-five years will follow before we receive a response.

A novel based around almost a century of waiting is not going to be a real page turner, and much of the human interest elements Gunn brings to his plot are either predictable or awkwardly handled. What makes The Listeners a compelling, modernist novel is its use of that extensive time frame, a structure that means characters realize they will not live to see the next stage of their work. Each chapter focuses on an individual who may work for the The Project, but also includes the President of the United States and a fiery Solitarian minister who bases his theology on the fact that man is God’s only intelligent creation. Grand Master James E. GunnDuring the course of the narrative, Gunn gives us glimpses of a world undergoing considerable social and political change, changes based largely on the global acceptance of the fact the “we are not alone.” He also uses quotes from real and imagined scientists alongside works by poets and fiction writers to evoke the intellectual ferment The Project arose from.

In the final chapter, representatives from around the world converge of The Project to hear the Capellan reply. Gunn’s conclusion is emotional, combining both the ending of a civilization and a breathtakingly rich trove of material from that distant galaxy. By 2118, there are in some cases third generation representatives of Project employees on hand. They work in a building that has seen better days, but immediately after the glare of publicity surrounding the Cappellan reply, they return to that building to continue listening for however long it will take the next message to come through. Now they are focusing on the Crab Nebula.