Carl Sagan
Contact Cover



Simon & Schuster, 1985
Intended Audience: Adult
Sexual content: Mild
Ace/Genderqueer characters: None
Rating: PG
Writing style: 4/5
Likable characters: 4/5
Plot/Concepts: 5/5

Dr. Ellie Arroway has had a sense of scientific wonder since childhood, and devoted years of her adult life to radio astronomy and the search for intelligent life on other worlds. When she and the rest of her team at Argus pick up a transmission of prime numbers from near the star Vega, a pattern emerges which seems to be an attempt at communication. Once the Message is deciphered, the nations of Earth must decide what to do with it, and what to think of the ones who sent it.

I gave this book such a high score on Plot/Concepts because I doubt many other books reach or surpass the amount of thought Sagan put into how events play out. He explores exactly how an alien species might try to communicate with us, as well as how the many cultures and subcultures of the world might react. I enjoyed the differences in how each nation approached the problem of how to build the Machine as the Message instructed, and how the necessity of cooperation on that front influenced international policy on nuclear weapons and other issues. Not only does Sagan give great attention to the broad social implications of such an event, he also touches on how it affects people personally, especially Ellie. While in some chapters the summary of national or religious reactions to the Message seem almost satirical, others hit far too close to what we know of our own history and the way political and religious fervor can often stem from deep-seated fears. There are good guys and bad guys in every camp, though, which helps to keep the book from seeming too preachy either for or against science or religion, even though that sort of battle is played out in the media from the moment the Message is received.

I was especially impressed at how well differing views were presented in the book, so that even those who seemed like mindless extremists were eventually given a kind of acknowledgement—yes, truth is not always easy to prove, and sometimes you can know something beyond doubt even if you don't yet have a way to prove it to others. Ellie and Palmer Joss, a firm believer in Christianity, begin at complete odds and come to respect one another's faith in their respective ways of discerning the nature and meaning of the universe. Even the doomsday predictions of frantic extremists are given a kind of respect, because the way in which events unfold makes it easy to understand why some people's fears get the better of them. Eventually some characters who seemed reasonable are then shown to be paranoid conspiracy theorists in their own right, and the way Sagan set up the plot so that certain facts could be misconstrued was pretty impressive.

The idea of communicating via mathematics as a universal language seems realistic, which makes it all the more exciting because of the sense that it could really happen someday, and is even a likely mode of contact in the event that intelligent beings are out there. It also gives an appropriate sense of how little we know and how great our potential (and need) for growth is. It makes the aliens reachable, knowable in a sense, but still as foreign, inspiring, and even intimidating to us as the most nebulous notion of God. The effect can be summed up by the following thoughts from chapter 24, related to Ellie's experience with the Machine: "There might, she thought, be as many categories of beings more advanced than humans as there are between us and the ants, or maybe even between us and the viruses. But it had not depressed her. Rather than a daunting resignation, it had aroused in her a swelling sense of wonder. There was so much more to aspire to now."

Sagan's writing style is patient and plodding in some ways, which may not be an easy adjustment for those used to suspense or action-packed adventures. Still, there is a kind of intellectual suspense which keeps the pages turning, and a sense of emotional investment grows unforced as the reader is taken along for the ride through political and personal dialogues of a changed world. Because the book covers all of Ellie's life up to the end of the Machine project, there is a lot of summarizing. But some of my favorite parts of the book were not necessarily scenes with much external dialogue, but moments of internal dialogue, such as when Ellie is staring out an airplane window contemplating the view of the Earth and what an extraterrestrial being might think of us at a long-distance glance, or when during childhood she laid on the grass and thought about the earth spinning around the sun and for a moment thought she might fall into the night sky. Carl Sagan is well known for his ability to pull away the stereotype of science as a cold and emotionless discipline, and reveal a deep sense of wonder, humility, and even spirituality.

Ellie is not the only good character, either, although her story is explored more deeply than that of anyone else. There are four other characters who accompany her in the final stages of contacting those who sent the Message, and each are individuals, not blank stereotypes of their respective nations—one other woman, and three men. Ellie's parents play an important but subtle role, as does her professor, her lover Ken, and a couple of popular religious leaders. Although some of these characters did seem flat or stereotypical at first glance, they developed into people of much greater depth, and many of them grew and changed throughout the course of the project.

I especially appreciated the realistic but progressive handling of gender issues. Even though Ellie is a devoted scientist who obviously wants respect from her male peers, she feels no need to compromise her own sense of femininity. On the other hand, though femininity seems important to her, it is not at all a central focus of her character. She did not easily accept the derision or dismissal of her male peers throughout her scientific career, but it did still occur. Similarly, the President of the United States is a woman, and while most people treat her with respect befitting her station, there is mention of sexist reactions from certain groups and individuals. Both she and Ellie are depicted as flawed human beings but are not subjected to the sort of docile/"feminazi" dichotomy that often pervades the media these days. Sex is not a big part of this book and Ellie's intimate experiences with men are more of a small footnote rather than a subplot. As such there isn't much that should be uncomfortable for a repulsed reader and the characters are easy to relate to, but I hesitate to label any of them as asexual or genderqueer.

Usually my love for a book comes from love of the characters or the clever way in which a story is told. Sometimes aspects of the world will thrill me enough to make up for any deficits in character development or writing style. But every once in a while the book itself and its question or message becomes a sort of context for my own life—a reference point in my own history and in the general history of human thought. I remember seeing the movie adaptation of Contact as a child and feeling a resonance with the message which has stayed with me for years even though I forgot all the details of the plot until I saw it again years later. Now I can happily say that the book not only carries a better, richer version of that same message (a message which, like the Message, has far-reaching implications), it is also a fine piece of writing with real characters and excellent plot execution. It is one of those books that everyone should read, not because it will make you "smart" in the academic sense, but because it provides the kind of perspective that has always been necessary for the success of our species, especially in this international age.