My life in outer space

The Hercules Text – Jack McDevitt (1986)

The Hercules Text

“From a remote corner of the galaxy a message is being sent. The continuous beats of a pulsar have become odd, irregular… artificial. It can only be a code.

Frantically, a research team struggles to decipher the alien communication. And what the scientists discover is destined to shake the foundations of empires around the world – from Wall Street to the Vatican.”

Blurb from the 1986 Ace Science Fiction Special paperback edition.

McDevitt’s Debut novel is almost a text-book examination of the effects of a superior culture on a more primitive one. In this case, Humanity is the primitive culture, in receipt of a radio message, sent one and a half million years ago from a binary star system outside the galaxy; so far in fact that our scientists can only conclude that the G2 sun and its pulsar companion were artificially created.
Harry Carmichael is a senior administrator at an American Space Centre where the message was discovered and is being decoded.
Rimford, America’s answer to Professor Stephen Hawking, along with a number of other experts, is asked to join the project. Also involved are a priest and working scientist (the Rev. Steele) an attractive linguistic psychologist (Leslie Davis) and an extraterrestrial-obsessive astronomer (Ed Gambini)
The alien transmission turns out to contain a vast amount of information which the team slowly decipher.
Despite the fact that McDevitt unravels the effects of the alien transmission in a sequence of events which seem portentous and inevitable, there are some aspects of the narrative which are weak due to their unlikelihood.
I think most people – having thought it through – would not think it a good idea to announce to the world that we can now tap the energy of the Earth’s magnetic field, rendering fossil fuel and other energy sources redundant. For the President of the US to do it is quite unbelievable, but this is what he does. As one might expect this triggers a stock market crash and economic chaos.
The consequences then extend to the USSR who threaten to initiate nuclear war unless the data is shared, and into religion, where various fundamentalist sects lay siege to the Space Centre, some claiming that the aliens are the creatures of Satan while others claim them to be God’s Children.
Slowly, most of those involved come to the conclusion that we are not ready for the knowledge of the aliens and the scientists destroy the data.
The focus of the novel is on the effect on US society which detracts somewhat from its power since the only other interested party appears to be the Soviet Union.
The narrative is interspersed with American headlines cleverly showing the ripple effect of the initial discovery of the broadcast and the later alien revelations.
As in the movie ‘Species’ and the story ‘A for Andromeda’ comparisons have to be made symbolically with the original story of Pandora who was sent in the form of a gift from Zeus (from the sky) only to become a curse to mankind.
Ironically, the female characters are few. There are no female scientists, apart from Leslie Davis, the linguistic psychologist who helps to translate the alien text and give insight into the psyche of the aliens themselves. She is under-used and employed mainly as a human interest element in the life of Harry Carmichael who is himself in the throes of a divorce and concerned for the future of his diabetic son for whom the data of the aliens could provide a cure.
It is a competent first novel and heartening to see that McDevitt in later novels puts female characters to the fore, even if his Americocentricity continues unabated.

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