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Gift from the Stars
      The Immortals
      The Listeners
James Gunn
      James Gunn
      James Gunn
BenBella Books, 154 pages
      Pocket Books, 300 pages
      BenBella Books, 195 pages

James Gunn
Born in 1923 in Kansas City, MO, James Gunn received a degree in journalism and an M.A. in English following three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He is now professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas, specializing in the teaching of fiction writing and SF and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In 1971-72, James Gunn was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He won a Hugo Award in 1983 for Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. He is the author of at least 19 books and the editor of seven more.

James Gunn Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars
SF Site Review: The Immortals
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars
SF Site Interview: James Gunn
SF Site Review: The Road To SF 5: The British Way

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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The Listeners

The Listeners Like The Immortals, while the viewpoint characters may change, The Listeners focuses on one main character: Robert MacDonald. He is a well-read engineer and linguist, remembering key lines of literary works in their original languages (French, German, Latin, Old English, and Spanish). This isn't too unreasonable since being a linguist is part of the job title. He and his crew members manning the computers and the Puerto Rican receiving dishes must be prepared to translate whatever messages they might receive.

Unlike the previous novels, The Listeners is largely a literary SF work, focusing on the lives of the men involved with tackling the possibility of interstellar and interpersonal communication. Robert MacDonald must deal with the fifty-year failure of Arecibo not picking up any extraterrestrial signals that must flood space, if intelligent life is abundant. His domestic life crumbles as his wife attempts suicide successively. Meanwhile, a reporter from a major magazine arrives to unravel MacDonald's very livelihood of checking radio waves for messages from the stars. Tele-evangelists and even the President of the United States oppose what MacDonald and his team eventually uncover.

I wrote earlier in the essay that James Gunn straddled the Golden and Silver ages of SF. The Listeners represents both a temporary departure and an intensifying of his aforementioned fortes. Written in the midst of the hullabaloo about the New Wave, it seems to have both strongly repudiated the New Wave while embracing it. Its focus on character is part of what makes this a departure although the characters are firmly grounded in their science-fictional ideas.

It must also be one of Gunn's more ambitious works -- for which the opening novelette was honored as a runner-up to the Nebula award -- because of prominently exhibited quotes from major works of literature, which MacDonald ponders; quotes from actual and fictional scientists as interstitial material to give authenticity to how probing for interstellar transmissions came to be and to set up the technology necessary to hear the signals; quotes from an article that MacDonald's reporter antagonist is composing while he interviews his subjects; and quotes from the computer's translation of star signals. A reader can skip over these without loss of continuity, but they add a layer of feeling and significance while characters brood over events that lead them ever back to the problem of listening for life among the stars.

The third section most obviously demonstrates its repudiation and embrace of the New Wave when it uses computer dots (one way information used to be stored) to break up the different sections. What famous New Wave story did just that? Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" uses the supposedly logical code to contrast with its insane babbling behavior. Gunn runs counter to this suggestion. While the code initially reveals little, it comes to mean multiple things simultaneously and logically (quite clever really how Gunn thinks the aliens will signal us, which if I recall correctly, Sagan also uses this). It's that old SF argument that's been going on since Jonathan Swift: science will kill us, science will save us.

In fact, the entire text might be read as a metaphor to the genre and science. It is not just the quotes from famous SF stories from H.G. Wells to A.E. Van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon to Don A. Stuart and Eric Frank Russell to Murray Leinster and H.B. Fyfe. It is not just the allusion to Harlan Ellison's work. A character towards the end speaks of the faith kept by the hopeful, awaiting the unknown for 150 years. It so happens that James Gunn published the first story in The Listeners 150 years before the date the character mentions. Curiously, Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein in 1818, which happens to date when many mark the beginning of the genre, 150 years before Gunn's story. Science fiction has always had curious partnership with another human endeavor: science. SF is the faith that readers keep alive in our search for new technologies and understanding of the universe, just as the characters kept the faith that a signal would come from another civilization. Are the dates coincidental? Possibly. But that's for another reader to discover for himself.

Artistically, one finds more thematic symbols to uncover -- if you enjoy that odd pleasure as I happen to -- paralleling the stories at hand: troubles with communication, fear of the unknown, misanthropes, and ghosts. Unlike the other novels, each section can truly be called a complete story as well as being a part of a greater arc. Perhaps a tale or two allows the greater arc to take place too much offstage though, overall, the dual nature of stories/novel still affords the reader more ways to achieve satisfaction.

One Reason To Be Named Grandmaster | Gift from the Stars | The Immortals | The Listeners | Closure

Copyright © 2007 Trent Walters

Trent Walters has unwittingly incited bloody-knuckled riots at conventions with a sweet and innocent concept like Mundane SF (blog, article printed in BSFA's Vector). His work has appeared in such villainous publications as The Golden Age SF anthology, Electric Velocipede, Full Unit Hookup, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, among others. Examples of his poetry, fiction, and nonfiction can be found online at 3am Magazine, The Angler, EOTU, Lamination Colony, Pindledyboz, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Vacancy, and Zone-SF. Forthcoming are a short fiction piece in Grendelsong and, from Morpo Press, a poetry chapbook called Learning the Ropes. Starting in the second issue of 2007, he will be the poetry editor of Abyss and Apex.


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