Contact by Sagan, Carl, 1985

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One of the most interesting themes in SF, and also one of my personal favorites, is the theme of first contact. The theme is not exactly unique to SF - think of European contact with the New World, Roman contact with various barbarians, etc.- though these days it would probably seem so. In SF "first contact" stories deal with mankind's first contact with alien races. Even if you exclude all of the uses of this theme in Star Trek, the genre is chock full of examples. And although it is difficult for me to say for certain which one of the many first contact stories is my favorite, my attention is frequently drawn to two in particular: Listeners, by James Gunn, and today's selection, Contact, by Carl Sagan. Sagan's novel made an enormous splash when it came out: Sagan was world renown as a charismatic, handsome, brilliant and likable popularizer and explainer of very advanced astronomy and physics concepts, and was already associated with the PBS television show Cosmos, in which he essentially explained everything in the universe. Personally I consider Cosmos so well done that it was hard for me to see how Sagan ever could have topped it with another non-fiction product; and in fact he never really did. But when Contact came out I really had to stop and ask myself whether he had in fact outdone himself. I think the answer to that question is yes.

If you have read both books, it is next to impossible for you to ignore Gunn's The Listeners as a possible source of inspiration for Sagan. Although Gunn has credited various scientific papers Sagan produced as a young man, I think that there is some truth to that idea. Both novels tell the story of the receipt of a mysterious message from space by sympathetic radio astronomers, then go on to describe the sociological fallout that results after translation. Both novels also focus heavily on religious themes - Gunn's from a scriptural perspective, Sagan's from an institutional, though both involve conflict between scientists who are pure of heart and clear of mind and skeptical and charismatic religious leaders who seem to have ulterior motives.

Contact is the story of the receipt of a message from an alien intelligence by a radio astronomer named Ellie Arroway. Her character in the novel was richly detailed was easily the best literary element of the story. Sagan went back to the early years of Ellie's life to tell her complete story, but one of the two most important aspects of Ellie's character was her agnosticism. The message contained detailed plans for the construction of a machine with an uncertain purpose. While Ellie dedicated herself to the translation of the message and the construction of the machine, the debate outside raged over the theological implications of the message and the machine itself.

The other important aspect of Ellie's character was her sense of wonder, which I think Sagan did better than anyone in the entire genre has ever done before, Arthur C. Clarke included. In my opinion Sagan's story was down on all fours with Gunn's; both dealt with a message from an alien intelligence, both detailed a religious response to that message, both used the government in an adversarial role to the scientists, and both used the a religious-like sense of wonder to change the character's attitudes about their place in creation. Gunn did this by focusing the characters on the importance of their jobs while Sagan showed the characters the wonders of creation, and in this regard Sagan clearly was superior, but the feelings one experiences when reading the books are identical.

For those of you who enjoyed the film adaptation of this book starring Jodie Foster, you should pick up the book, because it is much better. The film makers did not deviate from the broad story elements, though they did do a significant amount of character consolidation, geographical and numerological juggling, they eliminated a few of the less important sub-plots and much of the detail of the culture of the galactic civilization that sent the message. One theme where the book and film were congruent with each other was the role of faith in the human experience. As a matter of fact, this book paints a very sympathetic picture of the human race without failing to acknowledge and witnesses all of the nasty habits we have. It was so well done that I wondered if Carl Sagan might have missed his true calling. Yea, right!

The thing of it is, some were turned off by this book because Sagan played such strong games with faith; others because in the end he presented a view of the universe that is so centrist - rooted so firmly smack-dab in the middle of the scientific and religious perspectives - that nobody with any heart could accept it. He set himself up for a big fall with with this one. I, eternally a centrist in most matters, think that he did a pretty good job. Others will probably always disagree.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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