Contact is a science fiction novel by Carl Sagan published in September 1985. It follows the life of Ellie, a woman who becomes interested in science at a very young age, but has a hard time entering the male-dominated field, but eventually earns her doctorate and becomes the head of a massive project to search for signs of extra-terrestrial life. As the year 2000 approaches, her project appears to be losing funding, but they discover an encoded message from outer space. A massive media craze ensues, as scientists try to make sense of the message and governments and religions demand to control the project.
My first experience with Contact was from seeing the movie shortly after it came out. I liked it, but my friend Nick explained that it was terrible compared to the book. Years later, I saw a first edition hardcover on sale at the Montrose Blueberry Festival and bought it for $1. I started to read it with apprehension, not believing an astronomer could write a compelling work of fiction, but I quickly found myself really being drawn into the book and loved it.
I have a first edition hardcover and have read it, and listened to an audio book recording.
— This section contains spoilers! —
- So few sci-fi novels have a strong female lead character, so Ellie is a wonderful change of pace. Sagan does a great job at articulating all the bullshit women have to deal with when they work in a male-dominated field. But Sagan doesn't make her a goddess, she has plenty of faults, she's not very good at dealing with people, has father issues, problems with authority, makes bad relationship decisions, forgets to call her mother, and so forth, all of which makes her very human.
- Being written by not just a scientist, but a science communicator, Sagan mixes in a lot of great science education. Perhaps a bit too much for people who don't like as much science in their sci-fi, but not me.
- The global fervor is addressed on how it affects the scientific, political, cultural, and religious communities, and I think Sagan does a great job at fairly and accurately depicting how they would respond.
- The book uses a wide variety of vocabulary and uses it well.
- Sagan's depiction of the near-future Earth is both realistic (countries are still distrusting) and hopeful (the US has its first female president).
- The idea of an extremely ancient race of beings who created a massive intergalactic highway system and then disappeared without a trace is quite mysterious.
- In the end, the book has a really nice feel-goodness to it. The fact that much more advanced aliens send the Earth an olive branch and help them along their path to the future is much more comforting than bug-eyed monsters hell-bent on eradicating the human race.
- I don't think Sagan did a good enough job of explaining why the aliens would leave the crew high and dry, without any evidence of their mission at all.
- Sagan overshoots 1999 technology with old folks homes that orbit the Earth and holographic pictures. He also gives the human race too much credit by suggesting that we would stop buying rags like the National Enquirer (if only!).
- When I first read it, I liked the idea of having a message hidden in pi by the architect of the universe, but, the more I thought about it, I prefer that the universe be a natural phenomena. I also think Sagan gave a bit too much lip service to religious people with its inclusion and how Ellie accepts the message into her worldview and makes peace with a preacher.