What would happen if a scientist wrote a science fiction novel? That was the question on many people’s tongues when the astronomer Carl Sagan’s novel Contact was published in 1985. The book is an interesting mix of hard science and fantasy, an exploration of the nature of faith and truth, and how politics can fuck everything up. It’s also a favorite of mine.
The hero of our tale is Dr. Ellie Arroway, an astronomer on a quest to find extra-terrestrial life. Ellie is the director of Argus, a group of scientists who search for signals from the heavens. One day, a computer picks up a signal, which turns out to be a series of prime numbers. It isn’t long before the world finds out, nor before the White House has swarmed the communications facility.
Part of the joy of Contact is that it reads like a science lecture. Sagan spends pages going into the minutiae of the science involved, carefully explaining the origin of the SETI program and how the satellites work. Sagan doesn’t treat the reader as an idiot, and you may find some of his explanations to fly over your head. That’s okay. A little cognitive dissonance does us all a little good.
Eventually scientists discover the message contains a document, a big one at that, being 30,000 pages long. The Russians conjecture it’s a blueprint for a machine. The White House frets about national security. Christian Evangelicals call it a sin. Ellie, being an atheist, argues it’s humanity’s duty to construct the machine.
The novel was written during the Cold War, and depicts the tension between the Soviets and the US . As a primer is discovered and the message decoded, the nations come to an unlikely truce as they promise to share their information in order to build the machine.
I won’t give the rest of the plot away, but I will add that the novel never goes where you expect it to. Sagan spent his life and career pondering the existence of life in the universe, and his book serves as a collective hope for our species. It also questions whether faith can only be limited to just a divine nature, and manages to please both atheists and religious people. The only group coming out with a black eye are politicians, who may find their characterizations, especially at the end, unfair. I found it a natural reflection of Washington as usual.
I mentioned the novel reading as a science lecture, but that is putting it mildly. Sagan’s pages are full of prose, long paragraph after long paragraph, often breaking the rule of “show not tell”. Many may find a fault with this. For example, Sagan takes thirty pages to tell us Ellie’s life story, and no dialogue mind you. If you like your novels to read fast, this isn’t for you.
My only problem with the novel is the very ending, which is just a snippet of prose. Ellie has learned her mother has died, and comes to the conclusion that sometimes small events can change our perceptions. It’s the perfect ending to the novel, but unfortunately is followed by a coda that completely forgoes the theme of the faith and straight out tells the reader that Ellie has discover what she’s looking for. It’s an attempt by Sagan to wrap the novel up in a pretty bow, but I felt it was misguided. Alas, it’s a small complaint and would be petty to suggest it distracts from the overall reading experience. To throw a stone into a lake may cause a ripple, but it won’t be the beginning of a tidal wave. I think Sagan would appreciate the enthusiastic response to this work of art, though he’d be the first to point out the ripples. I for one am glad for that.