The novel “The Hercules Text” by Jack McDevitt was published for the first time in 1986.
Abnormal cosmic signals from a pulsar are detected by the Hercules project’s radio telescope, causing considerable excitement among NASA scientists. Harry Carmichael works at the agency’s administration and needs to get the details explained by the scientists, who tell him that the signals’ characteristics point to an artificial nature.
The signals cease for some time and then restart with the sending of a considerable amount of data. Their decipherment reveals a great variety of information with mathematical formulas and other scientific data but with the passage of time also what seem philosophical texts and poems arrive, whose translation turns out much more complex and ambiguous.
Jack McDevitt started his writing career in the early 1980s and published short fiction for a few years. In 1986 he published his first novel, the first version of “The Hercules Text”, set during the Cold War. The changes in the world situation but also the evolution of technologies such as the Internet led to a revision of the novel, which in 2000 was republished together with “A Talent for War” in the omnibus entitled “Hello Out There” and once again on its own in 2015.
The subject of communications with extraterrestrial intelligence is older than science fiction and has become more sophisticated with the development of media during the 20th century. In the 1970s the subject had a further development thanks to discussions about the kind of language that could be used in a message of that type, which must be understood by really alien beings. The discussions also concerned the possible means that could be used to send interstellar signals.
In his debut novel, Jack McDevitt chooses a remarkable means of communication, a pulsar, a type of neutron star that normally emits very regular signals. For this reason, when a pulsar stops sending signals and then emits them at a rate that indicates a mathematical series, the NASA scientists who detect them immediately realize their artificial nature.
A part of the novels about the reception of signals from alien intelligences focus on the efforts made to decipher them. Jack McDevitt’s approach is different, focused on the consequences of receiving those signals and the information they contain. Various scientists are important characters in “The Hercules Text” but the protagonist is Harry Carmichael, who is part of the administration staff and is out of his league in the new situation. He’s also useful because he has limited scientific knowledge so scientists must explain things to them in simple terms and this also allows readers in the same situation to understand the most complex parts.
Harry Carmichael’s job is more and more in contact with the White House with the progress of the deciphering of the signals received because the reactions to those communications quickly become a political problem. The various scientists offer considerations about possible progress in their fields thanks to the information received from the aliens but there’s also a priest who reflects on the religious consequences of those messages and a psychologist who tries to understand how the aliens think. Between chapters the author also inserts newspaper headlines that show some effects of the information revealed to the public or even of just rumors about them that leaked.
All these factors can have a number of unpredictable repercussions and for this reason the contents of the messages are carefully examined by the White House before revealing any information to the public but this choice also has its repercussions.
The relationships between the USA and other nations are a part of the consequences of receiving alien messages but in my opinion also the main problem of the novel. The various signals are received over a long period so initially it could be plausible that for a stroke of luck only at NASA they noticed the anomaly in the signals coming from a pulsar but there are several radio telescopes around the world so that becomes more and more unlikely with the passage of time.
Personally, I also had a problem with the initial part of “The Hercules Text” because of Harry Carmichael’s personal story. Initially his problems with his wife and their consequent separation are important but that’s a type of plot that I find very boring so I found that part really heavy, not a nice thing in a novel in which there’s practically no action. Carmichael’s family is also used to show some possible consequences of the information received from the aliens but I think Jack McDevitt could have avoided a soap opera element.
Despite these complaints, in my opinion “The Hercules Text” works in describing the possible consequences of receiving messages from an alien intelligence that also contain scientific information more advanced than those known to humans. The single considerations are not particularly developed but concern various possible repercussions offering food for thought. If you’re interested in the subject, I think it’s worth reading.