Contact, by Carl Sagan
Posted December 27, 2013on:
published in 1985
where I got it: paperback swap
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.