In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake pioneered the concept of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) with Project Ozma.
In 1961, the BBC ran a seven-part TV show called A for Andromeda about a SETI success story, later made into a book by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot.
Sometimes forgotten science fiction is worth pursuing when it is first to explore a new idea.
I’m reviewing the novelization, and my edition is the 1964 Crest paperback. Only one complete episode and fragments of other episodes exist for the original television series, which featured Julie Christie in an early role. According to Wikipedia the idea was developed by Fed Hoyle, an astronomer and author of The Black Cloud, and expanded with characters and dialog by television producer John Elliot, who wrote most of the script, and probably the novelization, but Fred Hoyle is given top billing. Hoyle was a noted astronomer and I’m sure his name sold the book.
I wish the original television serial was available, because the clips on Youtube make it look pretty good for a 1961 science fictional TV show. The show was remade in 2006, but is not available on Netflix yet. Youtube does have the complete “Face of the Tiger” episode in 8 video parts – this will give you an idea of what it was like.
However, we do have the whole book if you’re willing to track down a used copy, because it’s been out of print since 2002, and never widely circulated.
As far back as 1896 Nikola Tesla suggested using radio to contact ETs, and in 1924 radio audiences had to endure 5 minute blocks of radio silence hoping astronomers could hear broadcasts from Mars, so the idea has been around for awhile, but it was never used all that much in science fiction.
The basic plot of the story is scientists discover a signal from space with instructions to build a computer, which then decodes further instructions for building life forms. Two other movies, along with A for Andromeda have covered this topic in film, first the 1955 This Island Earth, and more recently with the 1997 Contact. In all three, the early part of the story is about making SETI contact, and the rest of the story is about following the alien instructions. This Island Earth was based on a book by Raymond F. Jones, a long forgotten minor SF writer who had some moderate successes in the 1950s and 1960s. Contact, of course was based on Carl Sagan’s novel, and it’s probably the most famous SETI story.
James Gunn took a more realistic look at the idea in The Listeners from 1972, by having the story span a hundred years. Any real SETI conversation will take centuries if not thousands of years. Jack McDevitt tackled the subject in 1986 in The Hercules Text. Less well known, is His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem, first published in 1968 in Poland, but with English translations still in print.
All of these stories deal with common themes and issues surrounding the impact of SETI contact. A for Andromeda was written during the early days of the cold war, so in that story, the message from the stars was mostly kept secret from the public. I don’t want to tell you much about A for Andromeda in this section because there’s not a whole lot of dramatic plot develop, so why give away what little there is. I read A for Andromeda just after reading The Day of the Triffids, and unfortunately Andromeda pales in comparison, because Triffids is a gripping classic page turner. A for Andromeda is an interesting read, especially if you like to read stories about messages from space, which I’ve discovered that I do.
Strangely, science fiction has seldom used SETI as a theme, even though it’s probably the most realistic of all alien contact methods. There are thousands of alien invasion stories, which says so much about our paranoia and lack of knowledge of physics and the reality of space travel. If we’re to make first contact with alien intelligences who live on planets orbiting nearby stars, the odds are almost 100% it will be through SETI contact.
I thought it interesting in A for Andromeda that the story was less about aliens and more about getting technology to uplift Great Britain’s falling status as a world power. It was also about computers and scientists working for secret government projects, and how the government has to spy on their own people because of national and industrial espionage. I got the feeling while reading A for Andromeda that the writers might have been influenced by Ian Fleming.
A for Andromeda is not a bad read, but it’s not a great one either – I’d mostly recommend it for the science fiction historian.
Analysis with Spoilers
Don’t read beyond this point if you haven’t read the novel and still plan to read it.
The aliens who send the message in A for Andromeda are very smart. They give instructions to build a computer that queries the Earthmen about what they know and then customizes the message and results for them. When the computer is finished it queries about the biological life on Earth, and then gives instructions for building a DNA sequencer. Then it produces a strange Cyclops creature that has a symbiotic relationship with the computer. From this experiment the computer learns more about Earth biology and then builds a beautiful young woman that the scientists call Andromeda. Part of the book is about her education. The novel doesn’t deal with artificial intelligence, but it gets very close.
As usual in these stories, some scientists are gangbusters to move forward as fast as possible hoping for a big technological payoff, while other scientists contemplate the horrors of what the aliens might be planning. In This Island Earth, A for Andromeda and Content, the message has instructions to build something. This is great for developing a novel plot, but I’m not sure if it’s realistic. Would we ever follow such instructions without many back and forth messages of getting to know the folks at the other end of the SETI phone line?
All these novels have another common problem – how to present alien intelligence that’s greater than our own? In This Island Earth the message turns out to be local, and the instructions to build a machine, a test to prove the scientists worthy of further contact and a flying saucer ride. The moviegoers are taken to a distant planet. In Contact, Jodi Foster is sent on a fantastic worm-hole jaunt to meet some rather god-like aliens, but upon her return her story is disbelieved. Most alien contact stories are about invading Earth, or weird comedies like Men in Black. Star Trek and Star Wars are both famous for developing alien diversity, but how serious have they ever been? Vulcan and Klingons aren’t very realistic aliens.
Science fiction seldom deals with the actual problems of SETI, making first contact and the dynamics of languages. A for Andromeda handles the later problem by having the human form Andromeda commune telepathically with the computer. Most real scientists believe our initial conversations will be about math, which will lead to physics, chemistry and eventually biology. It will take a long time before we get to religion, philosophy and technology.
In the end, Andromeda is accidently killed before she can communicate what she might know about distant worlds. The computer is destroyed before it’s real mission is revealed. In other words, Hoyle and Elliot chicken out rather than speculate about what the aliens might really want. There is a sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough, but I haven’t read it or seen the TV show. It is available as a special DVD edition along with the remaining fragments of A for Andromeda, but it’s not available in the U.S. The Andromeda Breakthrough is available for digital rental and sale through Amazon, but I haven’t been tempted, it more about espionage.
Like I said in the first section, A for Andromeda is pleasant but mild read, mostly likely to appeal to readers who study SF literature.
JWH – 7/1/12