the Little Red Reviewer

Contact, by Carl Sagan

Posted on: December 27, 2013

Contact, by Carl Sagan

published in 1985

where I got it: paperback swap

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Don’t know who Carl Sagan is?   the horror!  Get thee to his wikipedia page, pronto! And then put Cosmos (the original. not the new ones they made off the old soundtrack) on your Netflix.

Contact was written in the 1980’s, and the only thing that made it feel dated was that cell phones and e-mail never show up.  Ellie has to drag a telefax machine around with her when she travels.  It’s all late 80s technology. And yet. We went to the moon on the computing power of a Commodore64, which means I can completely believe that all that’s needed to translate an alien message is a radio telescope, a sliderule, and a fax machine.  Time waits for no one, and aliens don’t wait for the invention of the i-pad.

Eleanor Arroway always loved radios. She took them apart as a child, and as an adult became one of the only female radio telescope directors. Obsessed with SETI (The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), Director Arroway was able to ensure her “farfetched” sky scanning projects got the majority of the telescope time.  This is of course, a novel about first contact, so it’s not a spoiler to tell you that an alien message is received.

The message comes from Vega, and at first all we hear is a pattern of prime numbers.   There’s got to be more to it than someone shouting prime numbers, right? Of course there is.

Underneath the prime numbers message is a visual image of some of the first powerful television signals to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.  What was the Vegan’s first image of Earthlings?  Hitler, welcoming people to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.  Embarrassing, to say the least, that the first image aliens get of us is Hitler.  And underneath that are other messages, including thousands of pages of indecipherable writing.

Much of this is gone through very quickly, as Sagan is trying to get to the meat of the story. Receiving an alien message is one thing, but how the world reacts to it is what’s important. Ellie and her fellow scientists are used to sharing discoveries and knowledge with the global scientific community,  but world power governments would prefer to keep everything secret. It was interesting to watch Ellie fight with US Military head honchos (and win) when it came to working with Soviet scientists to figure out the message. There’s even some crowdsourcing happening, when scientists are unable to crack the code, they make chunks of it available to the public to see if any armchair cryptographers can figure it out.

The alien message does bring humanity together, encouraging us to focus on the fact that we’re all humans, we’re all from Earth.  If there is some huge galactic empire that we’re about to be invited to join, it doesn’t care what city or state or country you are from, it cares what planetary system you are from, what Star you call home.  Contact is probably the most optimistic first contact novel ever written. I kept waiting for David Brin’s Existence to hit me in the same way that Sagan’s Contact did, all those years ago when I read it for the first time.

Sagan populates the book with a cross section of humanity,  scientists of all ages and backgrounds, even a few religious leaders.  There are a few fascinating conversations between Ellie and the preacher Palmer Joss about God, skepticism, and how not being alone in the universe could change everything, or change nothing, depending on your beliefs. If you’ve seen the movie, they made Palmer Joss a romantic lead, and in the book, he’s a pretty minor character who exists for the sole purpose of pitting Ellie’s agnosticism against religious belief. In the book, the religious aspects are certainly touched on, but they are not the focus of the story.

The message turns out to be instructions for a machine. But a very expensive machine that would do what, exactly? Take humans to Vega? Allow an alien invasion to begin?  How much are people willing to believe? How much are we willing to have faith in, when we can’t see what’s on the other side?

Contact is hard science fiction, so the focus is on radio astronomy, the workings of radio telescopes and  the physics of outerspace.  There isn’t a lot of deep characterization or heartbreak, or feels. Much of the dialog feels more like a college lecture than natural conversation.  However, this is Carl Sagan, who is an even better science communicator that Richard Feynman.  Reading this book you can’t help but get excited about learning everything you possibly can about astronomy and astrophysics and light speed and radio waves and how the universe works.

This isn’t one of the best book reviews I’ve ever written (far from it, in fact), and I’m having trouble articulating how much I enjoyed this novel.  It’s one of those few hard science fiction novels that transcends genre to become a mainstream novel.  I’m often nervous lending science fiction out to my friends, too often they get 40 pages into the book and hand it back, saying it was too weird, or too complicated, or any other polite way of saying “thanks, but I don’t like science fiction”.  Contact I’d lend out in a heartbeat, knowing that if someone had never read a science fiction book before that this is something they’d have no problem getting into.

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15 Responses to "Contact, by Carl Sagan"

I sit reading your review thinking ‘I may have read this one,’ nope, saw the movie.

Nothing wrong with this review at all, your points came across fine.

the movie was good, but man, the book is fantastic! I wish they’d play the movie more often on TV, so people don’t forget about it.

I read this last year and my feelings about it were completely different. I had a tough time reading it, sometimes because I didn’t understand the science (and felt rather daft!), or because I was totally bored. There were some discussions that I found compelling, but for the most part it was torture, and I found the final outcome of the message to be deeply disappointing. I can see how it influenced books like Brin’s Existence, but for me Existence was the one with the impact and the fascinating ideas, even though reading it could be just as challenging.

There are some very, very slow sections of the book. I felt the first hundred pages or so were incredibly slow, learning about Ellie’s time at college, how she felt about her professors, blah blah blah, so I can totally understand being bored. I was only able to get through some of that stuff because I knew there was cool stuff coming.

In my opinion, Existence was an easier read. I think I just have a soft spot for Carl Sagan! ;)

It’s probably no surprise hat I saw the TV series when it first appeared, Sagan’s odd way of speaking, sort of stretched out, ignored for the imagery (at the time quite good) took over.

The book (I read the hardcover the week it came out) was his effort to show how he thought things would come down if such an event happened, SETI was in the news at the time. The film was okay, but much was cut for time reasons. I’m not convinced that this book influenced Brin, unless he said it did.

I have no idea if Contact inspired Existence, but Existence kept popping into my mind while I was reading Contact. They are the two titles that come to mind when I think First Contact But The Aliens Don’t Physically Visit Us.

I feel like they cut all the cool science and solidarity out of the movie, and only focused on the religious aspects. But who is gonna go see a movie about a bunch of scientists chatting? We wanna see a movie that talks about our struggles with faith (be it with religion or belief in something, in anything), and a handsome guy doesn’t hurt either.

I’d take the scientists talking instead of the faith conversation.

Wow. There’s a book out of the blue. We used to watch Carl Sagan in science class, discussing the “billions and billions of stars.” Never read anything by him, but saw the movie (wasn’t a huge fan).

Not a fan of the movie, I mean. Carl Sagan was fun to watch.

Cosmos is so wonderful, isn’t it? I never get sick of watching those original episodes. What a way to get a kid interested in the universe!

Agreed! This is a book in which the idea really surpasses the quality of the writing. Sagan manages to convey the magnitude of what finding another civilization would mean without pandering. Great stuff. I actually thought the film adaptation was great, too.

I love that Sagan talked about the planet wide implications of an alien message. it was great to have characters from across the world interacting, instead of just the World Powers (and by that, I mean the US), taking over.

I think I’d have liked the film more if I watched it before reading the book, instead of right after. While I was watching it, all I could think was “why did they change that???” “that didn’t happen in the book!” “why did they cut that?”

Enjoyed this review. I have seen the movie but not read the book. My brother recommended to me recently, I think I will get to reading the book some time. This gives me some warning to get through the slow spots.

Hi Tracy, thanks for visiting!

you know how some books you can zip through in a few days because they are so fast paced? this one is the opposite. Let yourself savor it, don’t rush through it, don’t worry about how long it takes to read it, and you’ll do just fine. :)

Loved the book, wrote a sequel (#ContactAscension). I cant publish (because of copyright). So I am now providing it free to the world on reponderance.com.
Again it is “hard” science fiction. Carl made the big splash, I take the ripples and allow them to compound through constructive interference. The result is a book that digs into the enigma of Contact and the paradoxes of Quantum Mechanics…

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About this redhead, etc.

Redhead is a snarky, non-politically correct 30-something who reviews mostly science fiction and fantasy and talks about all sorts of other fun scifi and fantasy geekery. She once wrote a haiku that included the word triskaidekaphobia.

This blog contains adult language and strong opinions. The best way to contact her outside of this blog is twitter, where she is @redhead5318 .

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