Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: His Majesty’s Dragon

Book Name: His Majesty’s Dragon
Author: Naomi Novik
First Published: 2006

Naomi Novik was born in New York in 1973 and raised on Long Island. Novik learned to read at an early age and her favorite books were by J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Austen. She studied English Literature at Brown University and did graduate work in Computer Science at Columbia University. She became involved in the design and development of the computer game Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide, but soon realized that she enjoyed writing books more than creating video games.

Novik’s first novel is His Majesty’s Dragon which is the beginning of the Temeraire series. She has won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Several of the Temeraire novels have gone on to be New York Times bestsellers and the books are options by Peter Jackson to be turned into a movie or television series in the future.

She is a member of the board for the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), an organization dedicated to the promotion of fan fiction, fan videos, and real-person fiction.

Novik is currently a resident of Manhatten and is married to entrepreneur and author Charles Ardai. They have one child.

“And we must still try or we would be leaving our friends to fight without us. I think this is what you have meant by duty, all along; I do understand, at least this much of it.”
― Naomi Novik, His Majesty’s Dragon

His Majesty’s Dragon begins in the year four (1804) during Britain’s struggles in the Napoleonic war with France. This is a tale of alternate history where dragons are alive and well and an accepted part of the landscape. They come in many sizes and breeds. Some spit fire or acid, others can turn on a dime in the air. When a dragon hatches, humans “put it in harness” in order to control the creature and use it for the war. Each dragon imprints on a human who becomes it companion and Captain.

The HMS Reliant captures a 36-gun frigate during battle and the crew discovers that a dragon egg was being ferried within. Captain William Laurence declares the dragon egg a prize. The egg is about to hatch and Laurence gathers his officers together in the hope that the hatchling will imprint on one of them. The small black dragon with unusual six spines on his wings chooses Captain Laurence, much to his chagrin. Laurence names his new charge “Temeraire” after a second-rate French ship that was also captured and brought into service for England. The name means “reckless”.

Laurence and Temeraire are inducted into Britain’s Aerial Corps. Laurence is used to the Royal Navy where the world is spit and polish formal and he is much respected as a ship’s Captain. He is in for a shock by the change of his status when he joins the Corps. The Captains who do battle with their dragons are an informal lot and the Corps itself is looked down upon as the least of all the branches of service. Still, despite the hardship to his character and career, Laurence develops an affection for the young dragon. He learns that Temeraire is a Chinese Imperial dragon, one that is meant to bond with an emperor and is the second most rare type of dragon in the world. Only a Chinese Celestial, known for its powerful breath of “divine wind”, is more rare.

Life in the Corps takes adjustment, but Laurence and Temeraire train together to become a battle unit. He and his dragon adopt a flight and ground crew that supports Temeraire in his care and during battle. Laurence also meets the mother of one of his crew, Jane Roland, with whom he develops a relationship.

During the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), Napoleon’s navy and aerial strength is diminished. The moral of the Captains and their dragons is high during this victory for England, but during their celebrations, a Captain and his mortally wounded dragon arrive at Dover with important intelligence. Napoleon does not plan to send his troops by sea as expected, instead he will send them by air using transports hauled by dragons. This news ends the celebrations as the Captains prepare their dragons for combat, knowing that they will be outgunned and outnumbered.

Laurence and Temeraire fly out with their formation to meet the French aerial armada, their mission is to destroy the transports. It is the final test of their team: The young dragon who is deemed unlikely to develop a breath weapon and the former seaman transformed into a flight captain. Can they meet the challenge ahead and save Britain from Napoleon’s armada? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

His Majestey's Dragon Book CoverI’ve been a fan of books about dragons starting with McCaffery’s creations on the planet of Pern. I am also a huge fan of Jane Austen and Tolkien, so when His Majesty’s Dragon came on the bookshelves in 2006, I purchased a book immediately. I was transported into a “flinklock” world of the battles between Britain and France due to Napoleon’s rise to power in the early 1800’s. There was one little change in the history of this book, dragons were real and a part of the art of war, much like elephants were used in battle in India and other South Asian countries throughout history, but these giant creatures have wings.

Novik has a way of blending the fantasy elements into the details of her alternate history story that make these ideas seem natural and believable. The tale is mainly about the relationship between Captain Laurence and the dragon Temeraire and how they become comrades in arms and close friends, but the world building that surrounds these two characters is what makes the book shine. There is somewhat uneven pacing in places. I found the training section to be slower than the progressive battle scenes with the dragons and their onboard crews shooting with powder guns at the enemy. The romance between Laurence and Jane Roland was less than to be desired and perhaps could have even been cut out.

My favorite parts of the book is when Temeraire is a dragonet onboard the HMS Reliant and the budding relationship he has with the Captain of the ship. The antics of the young dragon are incredibly cute, rather reminding one of training a new puppy. I enjoyed the Aerial Corps where the conduct is casual and more modern than Laurence is used to and WOMEN are also Captains of the fighting dragons since one of the breeds will only accept a female as its bondmate. It gives a modern edge to this 19th century tale that is a breath of fresh air. (Forgive the pun.)

His Majesty’s Dragon is the first of a series, the final book coming out in 2016. Novik is an excellent author and sure to please fans who would not mind a little fantasy and dragons mixed in with their historical regency era fiction.

The Temeraire Series:

His Majesty’s Dragon (2006) / Temeraire (UK)
Throne of Jade (2006)
Black Powder War (2006)
Empire of Ivory (2007)
Victory of Eagles (2008)
Tongues of Serpents (2010)
Crucible of Gold (2012)
Blood of Tyrants (2013)
League of Dragons (forthcoming, 2016)

Book Review: Nemesis

Book Name: Nemesis
Author: Louise Cooper
First Published: 1989

Louise Cooper began writing stories at a young age, more to entertain her friends than for any other reason. She was not fond of school and would tuck herself away to write stories in the classroom. At the age of fifteen, she persuaded her parents to allow her to quit school altogether and they agreed to it! She never looked back.

Cooper wrote her first novel when she was still a teenager and it published when she was twenty years old. She moved to London in 1975 and took a job in publishing before moving on to become a full-time writer in 1977. During her life, she has published more than eighty fantasy and supernatural novels, both for adults and YA.

She married Cas Sandall and they lived in Cornwall, England with their black cat, Simba. Cooper loved music, folklore, cooking, and gardening. In 2009, Cooper unexpectantly died from a brain aneurysm.

“Hope…which is whispered from Pandora’s box only after all the other plagues and sorrows had escaped, is the best and last of all things. Without it, there is only time. And time pushes at our backs like a centrifuge, forcing us outward and away, until it nudges us into oblivion.”
― Ian Caldwell, The Rule of Four

Nemesis is a modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, but with a Celtic twist. Anghara Kalingsdaughter, Princess of the Southern Isles, is an impulsive, headstrong girl in her teens. She is content with her life and the man she is promised to marry but is jealous of her younger brother who will inherit the crown because he is male.

The kingdom is built on the rubble of an ancient civilization. All that remains is a solitary tower built by a people whose name is forgotten. Her people’s oral tradition sang warnings of the danger presented by the “tower of regrets” and give a reminder of the folly of attempting to take to much from the Earth Mother. With each passing generation of her people, those warnings grow fainter and why the tower is forbidden is also forgotten, shrouded in mystery.

One day the princess is riding near the forbidden tower and her inner curiosity propels her to question why the tower of regrets is forbidden. Due to her youth and recklessness, Anghara enters the tower and discovers a box in the center. She opens the box and is horrified when seven demons spring forth and are released into the world.

The Earth Mother comes to Anghara, terrified and shamed by what she has unleashed. The goddess informs the princess that she must pay for her trespass by seeking out and destroying each of the seven demons. Until her mission is complete, she is made immortal and will never die. Her identity is removed, no longer is she a princess of the royal house. Anghara takes on the name of Indigo. It is the color of mourning among her people.

Newly transformed, Indigo sets off on her mission. She learns that her entire family has been slaughtered by the demons she has freed and her betrothed is condemned to a half-life in purgatory until she can rescue him. She is hindered by her nemesis, an evil copy of herself with supernatural powers. Indigo is joined by a companion, a talking wolf, who is her only friend as she hunts the demons based on the seven evils of Greek myth. Will she succeed in her quest to rescue her lover Fenran and regain her mortality?

Nemesis Book CoverThis was one of those books I discovered while I was an adolescent myself. I felt a strong connection to Indigo and her quest. The pace of the story was fast and each novel was unique in plot and the dangers that Indigo faced. Louise Cooper is better known for her Time Master series, but I feel that the Indigo Saga is equally as strong. I like the fact that it features a female protagonist who faces challenges more with her brain than with brawn. While the novels are considered YA, I feel that as an adult they are as enjoyable as they were when I was in middle school. I see more to the story now than I did when I was young and have a greater appreciation for the characters.

It is a hard series to find. The books have been out of print for many years and copies are hard to come by. I do not believe that ebook versions are available at this time. If you can find the books, they are well worth the effort.

The Indigo Saga:

Nemesis (1989)
Inferno (1989)
Infanta (1990)
Nocturne (1990)
Troika (1991)
Avatar (1992)
Revenant (1993)
Aisling (1994)

Book Review: The Eye of the World

Book Name: The Eye of the World
Author: Robert Jordan
First Published: 1990

Author Robert Jordan (born James Oliver Rigney, Jr.) was born in the late 1940s in Charleston, South Carolina. As a child, he was fond of reading, especially the books of Mark Twain and Jules Verne. As an adult, he served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a gunner with the US Army.

Returning to the states in the early 1970s, Jordan went back to school at the Military College of South Carolina. He studied the sciences and following the gaining of his degree started work as a nuclear engineer for the Navy.

Writing had always been his passion and in the late 1970s, he began to write novels of various genres, under different pen names. Robert Jordan was his final pen name in which his fantasy books were gathered. His most famous fantasy series is The Wheel of Time which has sold 44 million copies globally and was the basis for a role-playing game, soundtrack album, and a computer game. The ideas and title of the series were inspired by Hindu Mythology.

Jordan had many other concepts waiting to be written in the fantasy genre, he was waiting to start them once he finished The Wheel of Time. However, fate was not kind to him. In March of 2006, he announced publicly that he had cardiac amyloids, a rare blood disease. He was given four years to live. He underwent chemotherapy and took part in a study for a new drug that might have helped him. It was all to no avail. Jordan passed away in September of 2007 with his Wheel of Time series unfinished.

After his death, his wife selected Brandon Sanderson, an up and coming epic fantasy author, to complete the Wheel of Time series based on the notes that her husband had left behind. Robert Jordan had written the epilogue and a few chapters, but little more of the final book. Sanderson took up the challenge but found that the story was so complex that he needed three rather long books to finish the Wheel of Time properly.

“As the Wheel of Time turns, places wear many names. Men wear many names, many faces. Different faces, but always the same man. Yet no one knows the Great Pattern the Wheel weaves, or even the Pattern of an Age. We can only watch, and study, and hope.”
― Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World is the first book of a long fantasy epic series that features a cast of main characters instead of a single hero. It has a huge cast of characters and the story unfolds, chapter by chapter, via the viewpoint of a different rotating protagonist. It is a complex tale with many twists and turns.

The story begins in a land known as the Two Rivers which has been all but cut off from the rest of the world for at least a thousand years. It is a rural place of small villages and isolated farms. During the spring festival, young Rand al’Thor notices a stranger watching him. A man whose cloak doesn’t move in the wind. He tells his father about the stranger, but he is gone when his father looks.

They arrive in the village of Emond’s Field for the festival and Rand hooks up with his two friends. Perrin, the apprentice to the village blacksmith and Mat, a comedic prankster. They both mention that they have seen this same stranger watching them. In the village, there are visitors come for the festival. Aes Sedai Moiraine and her warder protector Lan. Moiraine gives each of the three boys a coin; she calls it a token for future work she may ask of them.

Rand and his father return home, but are attacked by creatures known as “Trollocs”. Rand’s father is wounded during the attack. In his delirium, he tells his son that he is adopted, a foundling he picked up on a mountaintop during the Aiel War. Rand takes his injured father back to the village in the hope that the Aes Sedai can use her magic to heal his father. She does heal his father, but she tells Rand, Mat, and Perrin that the Trollocs are after them personally. The strange man who watches them is a “Myrddraal”, a creature of darkness, and the three must leave the village for their own safety and that of their people. The three decide to leave with Moiraine and her Warder. At the last minute, Rand’s girlfriend Egwene joins them. She desires to become an Aes Sedai herself and this is a good excuses to leave Edmond’s Field. A wandering minstrel named Thom also comes along.

The party flees Emond’s Field and travel toward the town of Baerlon. There they meet a young woman named Min who claims that she can see auras around Rand and his friends. While there, their village wisdom Nynaeve find them and says that she wishes to bring the boys home for their own good. This causes her to be at odds with the Aes Sedai who is having enough trouble protecting the boys from Trolloc attacks on the road.

In Baerlon, the boys begin to have dreams where a man clad in black names himself Ba’alzamon and tells them that they will serve him and the Dark One. Moiraine wishes to bring the boys to the city of Aes Sedai, known as Tar Valon, where they can be better protected. She uses her channeling magic, called The One Power, to scare off whitecloak soldiers in Baerlon who wish to harm the boys. While their inn is set on fire, the party escapes.

Away from Baerlon, the group is forced to seek refuge from the Trollocs in an abandoned city called Shadar Logoth. Even the Trollocs fear to enter the city. In the city, the boys go exploring and meet a man called Mordeth who casts no shadow. Mat steals a dagger from him. The boys manage to get away from the man, but this episode worries the Aes Sedai and her Warder enough that they decide to split the party up.

Perrin and Egwene cross the river and try to make their way to Tar Valon on their own. On the way they encounter a man who can talk to wolves. He claims that Perrin has this ability too. As they continue to travel, Perrin and Egwene come to a “stedding”, which is the home of “Ogiers”, giant sized people who live incredibly long lives. Their home has magical protection from Trollocs, however Perrin and Egwene discover that Whitecloaks have also come. The Whitecloaks take a disliking to Perrin due to his association with wolves, which they regard as evil.

Nynaeve, Lan and Moiraine depart Shadar Logoth together. Moiraine senses that Nynaeve also has the one power and can channel it, but she is untrained. Without the schooling of the Aes Sedai of Tar Valon, she may die. Nynaeve resists the idea, but in the end she accepts that she will need to become an Aes Sedai and agrees to go to Tar Valon with Moiraine. Nynaeve casts her eye on the intrepid Lan and the two begin to fall for each other, which causes complications for Moiraine who is bonded to the man via the one power. Via the coin Moiraine had given Perrin in Emond’s Field, the Aes Sedai is able to track him and Egwene. The trio arrives to save the pair in the nick of time from the Whitecloaks.

Mat, Thom and Rand leave Shadar Logoth in a boat and eventually arrive in the city of Caemlyn. Mat becomes increasing paranoid on the journey. Unknown to the boys, he is being magically poisoned by the dagger he stole from Mordeth in Shadar Logoth. In the city, Rand meets a young Ogier named Loial, who at first mistakes him for an Aiel and tells Rand that he must be a “ta’veren”, a man who fate wraps itself around. Rand is eventually taken to see Queen Morgase where a seer has a foretelling that Rand is at the center of all the destruction that is to come to Caemlyn. While it is commented that Rand looks like an Aielman, his accent is that of the Two Rivers. The Queen decides that Rand may go free since she is familiar with the people of the Two Rivers.

Moiraine and her party arrive in Caemlyn and connect with Rand and Mat. Moiraine uses the one power to heal Mat of the poison from the dagger. The group learns that the Dark One plans to use an object known as The Eye of the World in a place called the Blight. Loial the Ogier knows how to use a magical passage called “the ways” and takes the group to the Blight via this method. There Rand must confront Ba’alzamon, using the budding power within him, to claim the objects that are contained in the Eye of the World.

The Eye of the World Book Cover

I was first introduced to The Wheel of Time saga by gaming friends that were hooked on the roleplaying game based on the novels. In order to play the game, it was necessary to read the books. It did not take me long in The Eye of the World to become completely hooked on this series and soon would go on to read the rest of the novels.

I had an opportunity to hear Robert Jordan read from his final work-in-progress novel, the one that would eventually turn into three volumes written by Brandon Sanderson, at the San Diego Comic Con a few months before his death. The room was packed with hundreds of breathless people, waiting to hear Jordan read from his much anticipated book. He was seated and did not wish to move about much due to his illness, but his voice was strong and clear. The words captivated the audience.

When he died with the final book unfinished, I was one of those heart-broken fans that wondered if I would ever hear the end of the tale by one of my favorite authors. When his wife commissioned Brandon Sanderson to finish the series, I was uncertain if this young author had the chops to write The Wheel of Time. I checked out one of his first novels, Elantris, and saw the quality of his work. I had nothing to worry about. Sanderson has gone on to become one of the top writers in the epic fantasy genre today.

The Wheel of Time Saga

The Eye of the World (1990)
The Great Hunt (1990)
The Dragon Reborn (1991)
The Shadow Rising (1992)
The Fires of Heaven (1993)
Lord of Chaos (1994) Locus Award nominee, 1995.
A Crown of Swords (1996)
The Path of Daggers (1998)
Winter’s Heart (2000)
Crossroads of Twilight (2003)
Knife of Dreams (2005) Final novel completed by Robert Jordan.
The Gathering Storm (2009) Completed by Brandon Sanderson.
Towers of Midnight (2010) Completed by Brandon Sanderson.
A Memory of Light (2013) Completed by Brandon Sanderson, epilogue by Robert Jordan.

Book Review: Neuromancer

Book Name: Neuromancer
Author: William Gibson
First Published: 1984
Nebula & Philip K. Dick Awards winner, British Science Fiction Award nominee, 1984. Hugo Award winner, 1985

William Ford Gibson was born in the late 1940s and remained in the United States until the Vietnam War. Like many of his generation, he evaded the draft during the late 1960s by emigrating to Canada. There he became entrenched with the pervading counterculture of its day. Eventually, he settled in Vancouver, British Columbia and became a full-time author.

Gibson’s early works are bleak, dystopian stories about the effect of cybernetics and computer networks on humans beings. His short stories are published in popular science fiction magazines. The themes, settings and characters developed in these stories culminated in his debut novel Neuromancer. This book was unique in its scope and subject matter. It detailed a world that was unimaged at that time, but helped to define the world we live in today. Terms such as “cyberspace”, “matrix” were created by him in the novel and the concept of the internet can find its seeds there as well. Neuromancer was a critical and commercial success and birthed the cyberpunk literary genre.

Most of Gibson’s fame resides with Neuromancer and the Sprawl Trilogy it spawned, but he is also known as one of the important developers of another genre, the science fiction genre of Steampunk. His novel The Difference Engine, written with co-author Bruce Sterling, is considered one of the primary books that formed the ideas of the genre. It should be read along with the works of Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter when reading to understand the roots of the Steampunk genre.

“All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void…”
― William Gibson, Neuromancer

It is the future and in the dystopian underworld of Chiba City, Japan, Henry Dorsett Case is a man who is unemployable due to the damage to his central nervous system by a powerful drug administered as a punishment for theft. Addicted to drugs and near suicidal, Case canvases the “black clinics” for a miracle, a cure that will allow him to once again access the global computer network in cyberspace, a virtual reality known as the “Matrix”.

He is rescued by an augmented “street samurai” who works for an ex-military officer called Armitage. Molly Millions needs Case’s skill as a hacker for a job and she arranges for Case to be healed. It is not long before Case learns that he has been double-crossed, for along with the “cure”, sacs of the poison that had crippled him before have been surgically placed inside his body by Armitage. If Case doesn’t follow through with the job, he will be right back where he started. Case and Molly are joined by a thief/illusionist named Peter Riviera.

The team’s first data theft is stealing a copy of the mind of a man named McCoy Pauley. He is a brilliant hacker who was Case’s mentor. They intend to use his electronic mind to aid them in their next job. As they work together, Case and Molly begin to form a romantic attachment.

The group next heads to an L5 space habitat known as Freeside. It serves as a luxury resort and casino for the wealthy and as the residence of the powerful Tessier-Ashpool family. The group’s mission is to break into the Villa Straylight and hack into an AI known as Wintermute.

What is Wintermute? It is half of a super-AI entity that was designed by the Tessier-Ashpool family to circumvent the Turing Law Code governing AIs to keep them restricted and safe for humans. Wintermute is housed in a computer mainframe in Berne, Switzerland and was programmed with a need to merge with its other half, Neuromancer, which was installed in a mainframe in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Should the two halves make a whole, a super-intelligent AI entity would be formed.

Case is tasked with entering cyberspace to get through the Turing-imposed software barriers. At the same time, Riviera is to gain the password to the Turning lock code from the current CEO of the Tessier-Ashpool family corporation. It is believed that Riviera will pose an irresistible temptation to her. Once learned, this password must be vocally spoken into a terminal in the Villa Straylight at the same moment when Case gets through the barriers in cyberspace.

Will Wintermute find its AI better half to find its destiny or will the law protecting humanity prevail? You’ll have to read the book to discover what happens in the end.

Neuromancer Book CoverI first read Neuromancer sometime around 2005. Cyberpunk as a genre had been established for quite some time and the concepts were a known quality, slowly growing more mirrored in the reality of the real world. When I decided that I wanted to take a look at the book that spawned the genre of cyberpunk and the ideas of hacking into computer systems or jacking the human mind into a machine, it made sense to seek out the holy grail of Neuromancer.

My first response to the clutter of prose and jargon-heavy “inside jokes” by this self-proclaimed techo-geek, was to roll my eyes and wonder what the heck were the award givers of the 1980s thinking? Why honor this writer of clunky prose who was obviously thumbing his nose at those of us who were not residents of silicon valley.

I had forgotten the reason I had gone back to read Neuromancer in the first place.

Gibson is not a hacker. He is not an engineer or an apple specialist designing the next hardware leap. Neuromancer is not about technology per se. What is Gibson? An artist that saw the direction that people could be heading and used this knowledge to create a fictional world where humans had an increased dependence on tech, more detachment between people due to constant interaction with machines and a blurring of lines between nations as we all tap into the global inner-world of cyberspace. He created a vision of what cyberspace, artificial intelligence and the merging of man to machine could be.

What is amazing is that this one book, Gibson’s debut novel, created a firestorm of inspiration to an entire generation of teenagers, novelists and technologists of the 1980s to think, “Wow, this is unique and too cool.” And then to inspire them to CREATE that world that they had only read about.

That my friends, is great literature. Neuromancer, although having dated technology and prose that is difficult to dive into until you get used to Gibson’s style, is a book that should be read. It is a blueprint of the world we live in today and a cautionary tale of what yet may come.

Sprawl Trilogy

Neuromancer (1984)
Count Zero (1986)
Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)

Book Review: Contact

Book Name: Contact
Author: Carl Sagan
First Published: 1985
Locus Award for Best First Novel in 1986.

Dr. Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees at Cornell and gained a double doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1960. He became a professor of astronomy and space sciences as well as a director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He would go on to take a leading role in NASA’s Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo expeditions to other planets.

Dr. Sagan received many prestigious awards in his field of study. As a scientist trained in both astronomy and biology, he has made large contributions in the study of planetary atmospheres, surfaces and the history of the Earth. For twelve years, he was the editor-in-chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. He was a co-founder and President of the Planetary Society, a one hundred thousand strong organization that is the largest space interest group in the world.

An author or co-author of twenty books, including The Dragons of Eden (1977) which won a Pulitzer. His other books include Contact (1985), Pale Blue Dot (1995), and The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark (1996).

Sagan produced and starred in the PBS series, Cosmos, which won Emmy and Peabody awards and brought the concepts of science into the living rooms of everyday people. The series was watched by 500 million people in 60 countries. A book by the same title came out in 1980 and was on the New York Times Bestseller List for seven weeks.

Co-Producer with his wife, Ann Druyan, Sagan turned his popular novel Contact into a major motion picture of the same name which starred Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey in 1977. At the time, Sagan was struggling with bone cancer and two years before his film would be seen the theaters, he lost the battle and passed away. His wife gives the following account of her husband in his last moments in the epilogue of Sagen’s last book Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium: “Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other’s eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever.”

“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” ― Carl Sagan, Contact

Fate comes into play in many factors of a life, a planet, and a universe. It was pure luck that the radio telescopes of the Argus project happened to point at Vega at exactly the right time in the night sky. If not, then the scientists would never have picked up the repetition of prime numbers that showed the first sign of life beyond our own planet. This is the theme of Contact, based on Sagan’s studies as an astrophysicist and philosopher, he gives his idea on how our world might reaction to the knowledge of extraterrestrial life.

This is the story of Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, an astrophysicist and radio telescope engineer. She is a scientist working on the SETI project, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We learn about her childhood and college years as a curious girl who loses her father at a young age. She becomes a rebel who asks questions about religious contradictions and turns to science as the answer.

After college and graduate school, she joins SETI and what is known as the Argus project, a large radio telescope array that is designed to search the universe. Late one night, a signal is picked up. Prime numbers being repeated. The signal is confirmed to be coming from the star system of Vega, twenty-six light years away. Not only prime numbers are transmitted. Two more messages are sent from Vega. One is a playback of the first Earth transmission into space, a speech that embarrasses many, but also a blueprint from a machine, one that is designed to transport people elsewhere.

There is much debate about the machine among the political forces of the Earth. There are also religious forces that wish to find answers. Two prominent American preachers, Rev. Billy Jo Rankin and Palmer Joss meet with Eleanor to talk about the religious implications of the message from Vega. As more about the machine’s blueprint is recorded, the more the tensions between the religious and the scientific communities increase.

The machine from Vega is built but later is destroyed by a bomb placed on one of its parts. The American who was supposed to travel in the Machine is killed in the explosion. A second machine is built near Hokkaido, Japan. Eleanor is chosen to be America’s representative along with four others from other nations to use the machine to travel.

The machine is activated and the five explorers are shot through a wormhole. They enter a sort of cosmic mass transit system, viewing many star systems along the way. Eventually, they end their journey near the center of the galaxy where a docking station is the end of the line.

The five humans are deposited on what appears to be an Earth beach. When the others go off to explore, Ellie remains behind on the sand. She is surprised when instead of an alien, she is greeted by her long dead father. Eleanor and her “father”, who is one of the aliens who took the form to help make Ellie more at ease, talk about Earth’s place in the universe and how they traveled to this place. It is suggested that there may be a Creator after all and her “father” suggests that to find the signature of this Creator, she look at the number pi.

The five humans return to Earth using the same method that took them to the way station. Instead of the eighteen hours that they knew was their travel time, they are told that they were only gone for twenty seconds. There is no evidence to back up their claim for being gone as long as they had and since the camera Eleanor carried only recorded static, there is no proof of their journey through space.

Did Ellie and the others actually travel to the center of the universe or are they having delusions? Is the great machine nothing but a big hoax? Can their story be believed simply on faith? You will have to read the book to find out.

Contact Book CoverMy first exposure to Dr. Sagan was via his PBS series Cosmos. Decades later I can still hear that lilting melody of its theme like a perpetual earworm. The show introduced me to concepts of science as a child and sparked not only an interest in the planets and the world around me, but in science based fiction as well. The man had a way of explaining complex subjects in a way that was easy to understand. As I studied science, his name would come up time and again and I realize that his television series and books were only a small part of the amazing accomplishments this man gave to the world. I found the movie Contact to be wonderful in its idea of a great machine that would take us to the stars and that he chose a female protagonist to do the job. In the seventies, this was not a common occurrence. I am not surprised that his first novel won a Locust award for excellence. Contact is a book that I can recommend to people that enjoy “hard science fiction”. While there is some relationships that go on in the book, the focus is on the technology and scientific concepts that make the wonders in the book happen.