THE HERCULES TEXT
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Jack McDevitts first novel, The Hercules Text, tells the story of the discovery of the first confirmed extraterrestrial signals. Told from the point of view of Harry Carmichael, the bureaucrat administrator of the Goddard Space Center, the novel focuses in on the reactions a variety of scientists have to the message and their conflict with the United States government over the disposition of the information. McDevitts novel is set apart, however, by a strong message concerning the place this new knowledge has in the world.
Published in 1986, McDevitts late twentieth century still sees the Soviet Union as a threat to the United States. Despite this small anachronism, the novel has dated quite well and the issues which McDevitt discusses are just as pertinent in 1999 as they were thirteen years ago. Central of these issues is the question of whether there can be such a thing as "pure science." As soon as the scientists at Goddard realize the potential of the text transmitted to them, the US government wants to classify it and figure out how it can be used for military purposes.
Of course, the knowledge that we are not alone in the universe will also cause religious re-examination, and McDevitt approaches this from a variety of angles. One of the scientists is a monk who stopped believing in God long before the transmissions were received. McDevitt also presents the view of the Vatican, which he portrays as still trying to put the persecution of Galileo behind it. Unlike much science fiction, the religious movements depicted in The Hercules Text are shown in a reasonably sympathetic manner which shows that they can be pro-science while retaining their devotion to God.
While it would not be fair to describe The Hercules Text as Luddite science fiction, there is a definite sense that technological advance needs to be earned rather than bestowed. Many of the scientists, although by no means all, working on the project come to this conclusion on their own. The scientists question whether knowledge is, in fact, neutral or whether it can be evil in and of itself, a conundrum the character Baines Rimford equates to the decision to push ahead with the Manhattan Project even after its likely effects became known to the scientists on the project. In the end, McDevitt does come out arguing effectively that scientists should take moral options into consideration when following their research.
Interwoven throughout the main plot are the problems Harry Carmichael is having with his private life. The book opens which his wife announcing that she is leaving him. Carmichael attempts to keep her and his diabetic son Tommy in his life while he works on the biggest project of his career. Fortunately, McDevitt does not spend a lot of time on this sub-plot because, while it doesnt detract from the main focus of the book, what it adds is really not much (although Tommys diabetes will spur an important decision Carmichael must make).
McDevitt also intersperses news headlines between his chapters. This technique, which he has used in some of his subsequent novels, serves to place his plot in a social context, reminding the reader that the world is a much larger place. Although most of these headlines are simply curiosities, others do relate, to varying degrees, to the plot McDevitt is presenting.The Hercules Text is McDevitts first novel and gives an indication of the type of work he would publish as his career advanced. As with his later books, the themes of scientific responsibility are strong in The Hercules Text and McDevitt realizes that there are several different answers and approaches to the issue. The Hercules Text is definitely worth the effort to track it down.