"Macroscope" by Piers Anthony (1969)
"'I don't know.' That was the irony of it. He had no evidence there was anything to find. 'But if there is any help for us, that's where it has to be. They - the galactics, whatever they are - must be hiding something. Otherwise why have such a program at all? They can't really be trying to destroy us, because this is a self-damping thing. I mean, a little of it warns you off, just as it did for the probs. But the discouragement would really be more effective if there were no signal at all. The signal itself is proof there is something to look for. It is tantalizing. It's as though - well, interference.' He hoped."
Piers Anthony is a naturalized American citizen who now resides in Florida. He has written a TON of books, and most of them are not very good. He often boasts that he has written a novel for every letter of the alphabet, and within this vast catalog are many, many series, each consisting of several books, and each book consisting of several hundred pages. If you stacked his books from floor to ceiling, you'd probably run out of room before you ran out of books.
All of which makes him sound like a hack, doesn't it? And maybe he now is. But Macroscope was written very early in his career, and it's better not to judge it against later, far inferior works. The Piers Anthony to be found in 1969 is very different from the same author in 2015. You could say something similar about most other other sci fi "greats." Their early output - the books upon which their reputations rest - often overshadows what came after.
In the world of Macroscope it is the early 1980s, and the nations of the world have banded together to create the macroscope, a kind of telescope that can peer across vast interstellar distances. This new invention allows us to see alien worlds in detail for the first time, and to finally discover evidence of life on other planets.
Enter Ivo Archer, a young man who is himself the survivor of another, failed experiment in social engineering. Ivo is called upon to join the crew of the macroscope, and shortly thereafter he becomes entangled in the lives of three other individuals resident aboard the space station where the macroscope is kept.
What follows is a sprawling adventure across the solar system, across the galaxy, and beyond. Along the way Ivo and his three companions embark upon a journey of self-discovery, and it is the counterpoint between their level of self awareness and the awesome alien technologies they encounter that informs many of the critical moments in the book.
It's all very involving, though readers put off by the "hard" variety of science fiction may want to avoid this book. The author goes into great (sometimes too much) detail with regard to the phenomena they encounter, and it doesn't always make for the easiest reading. There are also a few passages that seemed unnecessary to me, as when Groton attempts to explain astrology to Ivo, or some of the group's hallucinatory experiences near the end of the book. These passages felt like aborted short stories from earlier in the author's career, and they might have been better used elsewhere. The "astrology" passage in particular almost brings the book to a screeching halt.
Even so, Macroscope is one of the weirdest, most interesting science fiction novels I've read in a long time. It's not perfect, but given the time in which it was written, and given the material it chooses to explore, it scores highly. It made me wonder what else Piers Anthony might have written - before he dedicated himself to churning out novel after novel, and series after series.
Yes, having written a novel for every letter of the alphabet is an impressive achievement - if you don't think about it too hard - but having written a book like Macroscope is something an author can truly be proud of.