So what kind of story do I consider to be realistic? Not
that I know of every ETI novel and film in existence, but
my choice would be James E. Gunn's 1972 science fiction
work, The Listeners.
Here the aliens contact Earth to give us all their history
and knowledge in order to preserve as much of themselves as
they can before their star Capella expands into a red giant
and renders them extinct.
These ETI do not intend to conquer the human race. They do
not possess starships with warp drives or subspace radios.
The transmissions between Capella and Earth move at the
speed of light and no faster (a message from Capella takes
45 years to reach us [at 186,000 miles per second, or 300,000
kilometers per second]). The story therefore stretches over
hundreds of years, as a real two-way communication between
distant star systems would take.
If an ETI were transmitting to Earth in a deliberate and
non-hostile attempt to communicate, the message contents
would most likely be about their culture and what they
know of the Cosmos. Preserving themselves by sending this
information to other star systems is also plausible.
We have done this already on a small scale with the Pioneer
plaques, the Voyager records, and the Arecibo radio message
sent to the globular star cluster Messier 13 in 1974. Our
microwave leakage might also be considered cultural
preservation on a galactic scale of a sort.
The Listeners serves as a good example of an ETI contact
story which did not involve alien marauders or even
a spaceship and still remained suspenseful, intelligent,
and scientifically plausible. Even Carl Sagan praised
the novel. His words adorn the cover of the paperback version
I own. I do not know when he wrote them, but it certainly
could have been before Contact was even conceived. (16 -
See this footnote three paragraphs down in this post.)
What matters is that Gunn portrayed how our first contact
might actually happen and unfold. People should be made
aware of this so that they do not have any more unrealistic
expectations of what is out there than what they already do.
SETI searches can be seriously harmed by lack of support if
the public is expecting the Mothership to land at Devil's
Tower instead of a faint whisper [or bright laser beam]
from deep space.
16. On my May, 1985 Del Rey (Ballantine) paperback edition
of The Listeners, Sagan says this about the novel:
"One of the very best fictional portrayals of contact
with extra-terrestrial intelligence ever written!"
Gunn dedicates the novel to Sagan, Walter Sullivan (author
of the classic We Are Not Alone, first published in 1964,
updated in 1966, and thoroughly revised in 1992), and all
others searching for ETI.
Like a typical Sagan work, The Listeners is loaded with
scores of relevant quotes, the majority from real sources
(this is a work of fiction, after all). Like in Contact,
there is a dedicated (male) leader of the SETI Project who
devotes his life to the Search. There is also a sensationalist
media presence and a group of religious fundamentalists who
see the discovery of intelligent beings from anywhere other
than Earth as a threat to their dogma and way of life. For
them, God made humanity special and unique over everything
else in the vast Universe, so that we might worship Him
[I want to add that the Capellans first make the SETI project
aware that their signals are of artificial origin by sending
back our old radio broadcasts from the 1930s, just as the
"Vegans" did with the 1936 Berlin Olympics/Hitler opening
speech television broadcast in Contact.]
The President of the United States in The Listeners is a
black man. Originally, the President in the film Contact was
to be portrayed by veteran black actor Sidney Poitier, who
was eventually replaced by editing in Bill Clinton. In the
Contact novel, the President was a white woman.
I do not know if Poitier simply bagged out on the role or if
the filmmakers had a sudden loss of nerve at making a bold
statement by portraying the first black American President.
Of course if the producers wanted a black man in the role,
they could have kept searching until they found a willing
black actor. Then again, perhaps Zemeckis wanted to continue
his trend, begun with Forrest Gump in 1995, of inserting
real U.S. Presidents into his films through the "magic" of
computer technology. Or they could have put Rachel Constantine
(Angela Bassett) in the position. I would believe her as a
United States President.
As a final "connection" between The Listeners and Contact,
the paperback cover artwork depicts the VLA at sunrise, though
the novel's SETI Project uses the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico.
The star Capella shines high overhead, much as Vega does during
the summer months for Earth's Northern Hemisphere.
For more information on James Gunn, see this Web site:
At 09:38 AM 05/28/1999 -0300, John C. Sherwood wrote:
>"Dr. H. Paul Shuch" <email@example.com> wrote:
>> When The SETI League announced our choice of names for our search, Carl
>>Sagan (who used "Project Argus" for his search in the novel 'Contact')
>>jokingly accused me of stealing the name from him. My response was, "No,
>>Carl; I stole it from the same place you did: Arthur Clarke's 'Imperial
>By the way, consider this plot sketch:
>"An extraterrestrial species of vast intellectual and technological
>superiority to human beings confronts Earthlings with a complex
>communications technology. This initial contact provokes a small band of
>humans to leave Earth to learn more about the ETs. The Earthlings
>encounter conflict and hardship because of their own foibles, but
>eventually one member of the human party is allowed to make contact with
>the ETs, in a place and time generated by the ETs to resemble an Earth
>environment. There, the ETs do not reveal their own form, but
>nonetheless impart to the sole human ambassador a revelation about the
>complexity of the universe and the surprising high relevance of the
>Sound familiar? I imagine that "Argus" may have been just one of the
>things Dr. Sagan, despite his own genius, borrowed from Sir Arthur.
>John C. Sherwood
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