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Book Review:
The Listeners (2004 edition)
by James E. Gunn
BenBella Books, Dallas TX, 2004
ISBN 1-932100-12-1
$14.95 (trade paperback)

Reviewed by H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.
Executive Director, The SETI League, Inc.

The search for intelligent signals from space was Robert MacDonald's lonely life's work. Today, he would not be quite so alone, as many of us have been privileged to follow in his fictional footsteps. Indeed, in the three decades since The Listeners was first published, SETI has grown from an obsession of a handful of scientists working at the fringe, into a household word pursued by literally millions of amateur and professional enthusiasts. And yet, we have yet to uncover the Call from Capella, which was central to the plot of this science fiction classic. Perhaps we never will. The widespread public interest and support which SETI now enjoys is indeed a tribute to human optimism. It also speaks volumes about Gunn's novel, recently reissued by BenBella Books, of Dallas TX, for this is the book that inspired a generation of SETI scientists to pursue the seemingly impossible. Many of us decided early on that we wanted to be Robert MacDonald when we grew up. And, if we ever do grow up, one or more of us may someday achieve that goal.

The SETI Institute's Tom Pierson notes in an insightful Introduction to this new edition that the growth in our technological prowess since Jim Gunn first penned this book has been astronomical. Our searches today are just beginning to approach the sensitivity of Big Ear (Gunn's fictional space-based one, not the recently demolished radio telescope of the same name at Ohio State University). Our computerized signal analysis hardware and software are expanding the search space to include most of the microwave spectrum, as well as significant segments in the infrared and optical regions. Soon, the entire electromagnetic realm will reveal her secrets to us -- all we need do is wait. Perhaps, as MacDonald did, for most of our lives.

More important, maybe, than our technological prowess is our societal progress. For the notion of humankind's uniqueness in the Universe is falling into disfavor (due, in large part, to this very novel!) The idea that we are but one civilization amongst the many is fast becoming the accepted paradigm. For my children's generation, the burning question is no longer whether we will achieve contact with our cosmic companions, but rather when.

A major shift in funding has occurred in the years since The Listeners first saw print. What Jim Gunn envisioned as a massive Government-sponsored project has gone grass-roots. Indeed, since the lamented day over ten years ago that Congress cancelled the NASA SETI program, thousands of radio amateurs and signal processing experimenters have turned their own modest backyard dishes toward the stars. Millions of ordinary citizens have lent their spare computer cycles to the process of analyzing data from the world's greatest radio telescope (the very one Robert MacDonald used in Gunn's story). And a handful of dedicated industrialists have financed the design and construction of arrays grander and more sensitive than those contemplated in fiction. SETI is truly the science that refuses to die.

We who dedicate our lives to The Search well realize that ours may be, like MacDonald's, a multi-generational effort. We can only dream large, as Jim Gunn has taught us to do, and count the days (or centuries) until our dreams are realized.

Note: Copies of the 2004 edition of The Listeners are available from SETI League headquarters for $15.00 US postpaid worldwide, to SETI League members in good standing. Email our secretary for ordering details.

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