The Listeners Critical Essays

James E. Gunn


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

After publishing the space operas This Fortress World and Star Bridge in 1955, James Gunn published three novels compiled from stories—The Joy Makers (1961), The Immortals (1962), and The Listeners (1972). An educator, critic, and editor, Gunn followed these novels with Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction (1975), part of his body of work in the study of science fiction for which he was given the 1976 Pilgrim Award; his four-volume anthology The Road to Science Fiction (1977-1982); and Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction (1982), which won a 1983 Hugo Award.

The Listeners suggests that humankind may overcome various communication and scientific obstacles and reap the benefits of a message from the stars. Robert McDonald, too absorbed in his tasks, initially fails to hear his wife’s messages of loneliness but then re-establishes contact with her. Later, when a lonely reporter listens to McDonald’s requests for help in explaining the Project to the public, he breaks out of his isolation and sends a positive message to America. McDonald deflects opposition to the Project by permitting different interpretations of the message. Eventually, after the president of the United States agrees to allow McDonald to communicate with the Capellans, Earth turns toward addressing some of its own problems.

The younger McDonald, listening to messages from his past, understands his father’s love for him and joins the community of scientists. Humankind’s science and its ennobling qualities of love, faith, hope, and perseverance finally allow it to establish contact with an alien intelligence. Listening to their own voices, characters in the novel find companionship and lead humankind to contact with an alien intelligence.