The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt science fiction book reviewsThe Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt

The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt science fiction book reviewsIn the near future, NASA scientists pick up a signal from space that turns out to be a coded message (“The Hercules Text”) from an alien species. It originated a million years ago, so it’s unlikely that the aliens still exist, and even if they do they’re very far away, but the message tells us that (1) We are not (or were not) alone in the universe and (2) A million years ago these aliens were sophisticated enough to send this technologically advanced message.

These facts have profound effects on the scientists and other people involved with the NASA project. They are forced to re-think much of what they thought to be true and they need to work with the US government (and other nations) to decide how much of the information should be made public because some of it is dangerous. As you’d expect, there are differing and strongly-held opinions on these issues and the outcomes have ramifications for science, medicine, history, religion, politics, economics, and pretty much every other discipline you can think of, as well as just overall human culture and evolution. The Hercules Text may be a Pandora’s box.

Not all of the ramifications of The Hercules Text are so far-reaching; some are more personal. Perhaps most striking is the Catholic priest (by far McDevitt’s best character) who has to come to terms with what this means for his faith and must work with his order to help their congregants make sense of these profound changes in their worldview. We also watch Harry Carmichael, a NASA bureaucrat and our main protagonist, wrestle with what the Hercules Text means for the world, how it changes his job, all while he deals with “mundane” but deeply emotional personal troubles such as a failing marriage and the deteriorating health of his son.

The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt SF book reviewsThese are interesting and weighty things to think about and it’s what makes Jack McDevitt’s The Hercules Text worth reading (it is, in fact, the purpose of the book). But, most of this contemplation is relayed through dialogue as the characters talk to each other about these issues. I don’t think this is the most interesting way for readers to grapple with the questions McDevitt presents, but those who don’t mind that most of the novel’s ideas are shared during meetings or on phone calls may feel more generous toward The Hercules Text.

The Hercules Text was originally published in 1986 but was updated in 2000 to reflect changes in political history as well as advances in science, space, and computer technology. This is not always successful. Despite mentions of cell phones and internet, the novel feels old-fashioned and, at least in my feminine opinion, not in a good way.

All of the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) scientists we get to know are middle-aged men who eat a lot of steak dinners together. The only female scientist is called a psychologist but she sounds nothing like the dozens of actual psychologists I know and work with. She does a lot of counseling but wants to focus more on research. Her expertise seems to be in other social sciences such as sociology or anthropology rather than psychology. But at least she is very attractive and her cleavage is a nice place for our main male protagonist to rest his eyes when they talk about the Hercules Text. Actually, there is one mention of a black woman who gives a presentation on Maxwell’s Demon. So maybe she’s a physicist (not sure), but she gets ogled, too. As a female scientist in a STEM field, I notice when we are not represented in these types of novels and I would prefer, when we are represented, that we not have to be subject to the male gaze and that we not have to be cast as the male lead’s potential love interest. Please just let us be scientists.

I listened to Tantor Audio’s new version of The Hercules Text which was narrated by Kevin T. Collins and is 13.5 hours long. Collins is perfectly cast in this production and he does a wonderful job. If you’re going to read The Hercules Text, I recommend this version.

Published in 1986. The classic first-contact science fiction novel that launched the career of Jack McDevitt, the national bestselling author of Coming Home. 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 this world — from Wall Street to the Vatican.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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