In the 1980s the world is still under threat of nuclear annihilation, memories of the Bay of Pigs nightmare are still fresh and the Cold War is still very much a fact in the world's political life. Carl Sagan is at the height of his popularity. UFO sightings still occur with astonishing regularity. SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) is making headlines in the popular scientific press. The right wing fundamentalist Christian movement in the USA is gathering a full head of steam and preachers with the oratorical skill of Billy Graham can pack a stadium to the rafters. Radio astronomy is a relatively new science. The Roman Catholic Church is sensing that it is a diminishing influence in the first world so it is looking to increase its flock by ensuring its power base in the third world is strong. A woman in a position of influence or power is a rare phenomenon. The "publish or perish" culture in scientific circles outside of the Soviet Union is in full bloom.
This is the world in which Ben Bova has a team of radio astronomers detect a signal in orbit around Jupiter that is clearly the work of an intelligent extraterrestrial species. No space opera, hard-boiled action or fantastic imagined scientific technology here, I'm afraid! Bova simply asks us to contemplate how a real 1980s world with 1980s technology would react if it knew that an intelligent space-faring alien creature was headed in a craft towards earth.
What a simple but effective premise for an engaging story!
On the down side, Bova has taken a purely melodramatic, almost laughably soap opera approach to the development of the relationships between his characters in the story. The men in the story are either heroes or wimps and the chauvinism that they exhibit toward the single strong female character in the tale is beyond outrageous. That said, Bova has created a provoking tale of the possible effects of a close encounter of the third kind on world politics, religion, relationships, science, culture and mainstream life in the USA.
Despite the fact that virtually everything about the story is now seriously dated, it is simple (and I would suggest useful) for the reader to examine today's world and ask themselves the very same question. What would my world become if I suddenly KNEW that we were not alone, that we were about to be visited by an ambassador of an intelligent species that was clearly possessed of technology well beyond anything we could produce and whose motives, culture and language were completely unknown to us?
I thank Ben Bova for providing me with a basis to contemplating that most provocative question.
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