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.

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