Friday, April 13, 2007

How would having neighbors change us?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, first contact, SETI

I read only a portion or two of James Gunn's The Listeners in the 1970s, when it appeared piecemeal. It was refreshing to find the whole volume and devour this 35-year-old classic.

If a civilization on another planet were to send a signal we could receive, what would be its content? Some years ago, some folks devised a message in several parts, and put it, part by part, weeks between them, on a web site for all to decipher. It was clever, and many clever people deciphered it at least in part. As it turned out, not some parts of it were amenable to more than one interpretation. Making a completely unambiguous communication of any complexity is hard, and perhaps impossible (remember the old story "To Serve Man", which turned out to be about a cook book).

Jim Gunn has come up with perhaps the best compromise. The message, once the signal is detected, is composed primarily of a hash of early radio transmissions. The content of those transmissions yields a good estimate of the distance to the alien star: 45 light years. But there is more. Each short segment of the hash is followed by a staticky blip. Each blip contains simply several pulses. Once the project workers realize they can be considered an on-off raster pattern, it doesn't take long to produce an image that gives a few clues to the aliens' appearance and number system, plus a few words.

Much of the dramatic tension in the book surrounds first, the apparent futility of the Project before a signal is detected, and the meaning of the message it conveys. Of course, for the novel to go anywhere after this point, the message must be answered with one of our own; and it is, a similar image. Ninety years later, one would expect an answer, and the denouement follows from that answer.

I found myself wondering, would the world really develop such an extended peaceful period after receiving the first alien message? War and chaos are equally likely, particularly once people realize knowledge coming from an alien source will be a valuable resource like any other: something worth fighting for. We are unlikely to unite in the face of The Other until we physically face The Other.

I think the religious response in the novel is too pat. That a religion could be formed around the "Solitarian" perspective seems incredible. More likely, a "Christian" sect would arise who found the idea of aliens to be some kind of attack on the uniqueness of God.

These are minor flaws. As a classic in the field, The Listeners sets the standard others must still meet.

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