The Hercules Text: Asks interesting questions in an uninteresting way

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.

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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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  1. Paul Connelly /

    The recent book The Man in the Tree has a middle-aged male protagonist with similar “gaze” issues, but the author, Sage Walker, is a woman and a scientist by profession! It was odd, and I don’t think it was written to be a critique of the McDevitt style books. She did have a lot of female scientists in the novel, but everyone on the soon-to-be-launched generation starship is a genius scientist of some sort, even the ones selling lunch in the food court (although management is surprisingly bad at doing thorough reference checks). It’s been a while since I read a character like that, and it’s pretty irritating.

    • Interesting! I have not heard of that book.

      This is such a common problem in older science fiction novels. I usually mention it in my reviews while remembering (and giving a little credit for) the fact that women and people of color have always been minorities in STEM fields. But since this book was updated in 2000, I felt like I could express my disappointment more strongly.

      Also, it REALLY bugs me when the SF is set in the future and there are no women scientists, as if these male authors could envision all this future high technology, space travel, etc, but it never crossed their minds that women might be entering their fields!

  2. Mark Pontin /

    ‘The Hercules Text: Asks interesting questions in an uninteresting way’ is exactly right. I have a slightly recondite pet theory about why that may be.

    I think McDevitt wrote the novel, which was his first back in 1986, by doing what first-time novelists and authors have been known to do, and ‘rewriting’ — basically, using as a template — another work by an existing artist that he knew to be structurally and thematically functional.

    For a couple of instances of this, Raymond Chandler rewrote Erle Stanley Gardner stories in his own style, while Larry Niven used a John Brunner Ace potboiler THE ATLANTIC ABOMINATION as the basis for his first novel, WORLD OF PTAAVS.

    In McDevitt’s case, I think he worked off the ‘stencil’ of Stanislaw Lem’s HIS MASTER’S VOICE, which Lem wrote in 1964 but which had just been translated into English and published in the U.S. in 1983. If you look at the Wiki, THE HERCULES TEXT is a point-by-point recapitulation of the same themes as Lem’s book —

    This is true even down to the schtick of the protagonist(s) desperately checking out SF writers for a clue as to what they might be dealing with. Here’s Peter Beagle’s review of Lem’s book in the NEW YORK TIMES in March, 1983. As Beagle starts out by noting:

    “At one point in this fascinating, alarming and occasionally frustrating novel, a scientist involved in a Pentagon-sponsored attempt to decode what may or may not be a ”letter from the stars” begins reading great swatches of popular science-fiction stories in hope of generating new ideas. ”Indeed, a mistake,” remarks the aging mathematician who narrates ”His Master’s Voice”: ”He had not read such books before; he was annoyed – indignant, even – expecting variety, finding monotony. ‘They have everything except fantasy,’ he said. … The authors of these pseudo-scientific fairy tales supply the public with what it wants: truisms, cliches, stereotypes, all sufficiently costumed and made ‘wonderful’ so that the reader may sink into a safe state of surprise and at the same time not be jostled out of his philosophy of life.’

    Read the whole Beagle review. Lem’s novel isn’t for everybody, but it’s arguably as intellectually grand as any SF novel ever written. McDevitt’s novel by contrast reworks exactly the same themes to make them into safe, middle-brow, accessible, American entertainment of exactly the sort that Lem’s narrator criticizes.

    It’s worth noting, too, that once this initial effort was out of the way McDevitt never did anything assaying these kinds of intellectualy ambitious themes again.

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