"Contact" by Carl Sagan

ContactContact by Carl Sagan

Without even noticing, just as astronomy entered a golden age most people cut themselves off from the sky.

I saw the movie based on this book when I was a teen and it was in theaters, and I’ve been getting more into Carl Sagan the past few years. I’ve enjoyed watching Sagan’s Cosmos series (and Tyson’s sequel to it), and I’ve read some of Sagan’s non-fiction before. This was the first time I had read any of Sagan’s fiction, and I found it interesting – it has given me a lot to think about.

The story centers around Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer who was the first to discover the first message from another civilization. The first section of the book, The Message, centers on Arroway;s work with other scientists in trying to decipher the meaning of the message. This effort is complicated not only by political and religious interference (the book was written when the Cold War was still in effect, with obvious implications on the international efforts), but also by the way that various levels of the message are hidden. Of course, there are also interpersonal complications as Arroway has friendships and rivalries with various other scientists and religious figures (these play out very differently than they did in the movie adaptation). Additionally, we learn of Arroway’s troubled relationship with her mother and step-father.

When the message is finally decoded, the world moves on to the second stage, building The Machine, which is both the name given to the mechanism described by the message and the name of the second section. Many new industries are created and important geopolitical matters again interfere as the world struggles to build a new machine with components and technologies that no human understands.

Finally, in the last section, The Galaxy, Arroway and four other scientists from around the world enter the machine as it is activated. From their perspective, they travel through wormholes through the galaxy to a “Grand Central Station”, where the advance aliens learn about humanity through them and present themselves through the avatars of the lost beloved ones of each of the travelers.

Fortunately, they return safely to Earth with new understanding of the galaxy, the universe, physics, and mathematics after a day of travel and discovery. Unfortunately, the entire process appeared to take only 20 minutes from the perspectives of their Earth-bound observers, and their space ship never seemed to leave. This leads to powerful governmental forces implying that everything was just a clever and expensive hoax, leading to Arroway and her follow travelers being forced into seclusion while they try to rebuild their personal lives and also to find some proof of their experience.

Some parts of the book seemed dated: it was written in the 1980s and was set in the 1980s and 1990s. As I mentioned earlier, he assumed the the Cold War would still be going on instead of having ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Other parts showed other attempts at predictions that didn’t come true – he imagined that the super-rich would have been living permanently and comfortably in low-earth orbit by the late 1990s, which obviously didn’t happen.

Despite those failures, some aspects seemed to be prescient: when government official spins a conspiracy theory to explain why and how he thinks a small group of scientists perpetuated a hoax on the world, I couldn’t help but think of persistent global warming deniers who insist that a small group of scientists in the real world have concocted enough data to fool all the other scientists and observers around the world about the ways that the Earth’s climate has recently changed.

I found some of Sagan’s quirks amusing: he frequently referred to Chiliasts/Chiliasm without really defining it (everyone else seems to prefer “Millennialism “). Also, Sagan’s then-secret love of marijuana came through in a detailed paragraph in which Arroway is amused by the legalized pot scene in Paris (sadly, another failed prediction).

As a professional astronomer himself, Sagan was obviously well-suited to the necessary discussions and imagined discoveries regarding astrophysics in the book. I was more impressed, though, with his interpersonal observations. Arroway has a series of sexual relationships in the course of her life, but she never has a primary relationship. Sagan not only demonstrates that her atheism and personal character enable this approach to life, but he also shows how it affects her, for both good and ill. More poignantly, the end of the book brings more focus and clarity to her strained relationship with her mother and step-father, pointing out that Arroway had trouble decoding some secrets right in front of her while she was focused on decoding a message from 26 light years away. Sagan was much more capable at exploring this relationship than I would necessarily expected.

Overall, Sagan explores science, religion, and interpersonal communication while telling a compelling story. This is a good book, and I look forward to watching the movie again sometime to compare with it.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.