Contact by Carl Sagan

Contact by Carl Sagan

Reviewed by C.S.A.

Mass Market Paperback, 434 pages, 1985

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: When the movie came out in 1997, my dad took me to see it. I was amazed at the amount of science that went into this remarkably human film, and my friend Michael bought me the book for my birthday. That, at least, is why I read it the first time. I have read it at least a dozen times since.

Synopsis: At the turn of the millennium, a message is received from another planet bearing signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence. An international team of travelers is hand-picked by a world-panel to represent Earth and meet the aliens who sent the message to Earth. Among them is Ellie Arroway, the woman who discovered the message. Beginning with fragments of her childhood, the story delves deeply into Ellie’s psyche as she sits at the forefront of a unique opportunity to create history.

Why you should read this book: Much of the best science fiction looks outward as a means of comparison, leading readers to look inward and examine their own humanity. Contact is clever and serious and extremely well-written. Though Sagan is a scientist, he has firm understanding of what it takes to develop a character. In creating Ellie, he lays all of her strengths and all of her faults on the table. Rather than judging her, he creates for the reader a sense of Ellie’s values, ultimately allowing her to be her own judge. Contact is a splendid tapestry of science and art; if you have ever had faith in anything – be it religion, science, or someone close to you – you should read this book.

Why you should avoid this book: Although Sagan’s prose is phenomenal, Contact does get very technical at times. Most of the science is very comprehensible and down-to-earth, but if the ‘science’ side of science fiction scares you, this book may not be for you.

Opening paragraph:

By human standards it could not possibly have been artificial: It was the size of a world. But it was so oddly and intricately shaped, so clearly intended for some complex purpose that it could only have been the expression of an idea. Gliding in polar orbit around the great blue-white star, it resembled some immense, imperfect polyhedron, encrusted with millions of bowl-shaped barnacles. Every bowl was aimed at a particular part of the sky. Every constellation was being attended to. The polyhedral world had been performing its enigmatic function for eons. It was very patient. It could afford to wait forever.

Fabulous quotes:

“I asked him, If he could talk with a stone, could he communicate with the dead?” Xi told her.
“And what did he say?”
“He said the dead were easy. His difficulties were with the living.”

At a few hundred kilometers altitude, the Earth fills half your sky, and the band of blue that stretches from Mindanao to Bombay, which your eye encompasses in a single glance, can break your heart with its beauty. Home, you think. Home. This is my world. This is where I come from. Everyone I know, everyone I ever heard of, grew up down there, under that relentless and exquisite blue.

Also recommended: Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland, Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card.

Fun tidbit: Carl Sagan was particularly concerned with scientific accuracy in Contact, so as he was writing the novel, he contacted another prominent astrophysicist, Kip Thorne, and together they worked out much of the science behind Contact. The research they did for Sagan’s novel was both original and accurate; Contact generated interest in a field of science that had not been touched since Einstein’s death.

© Clara Sherley-Appel 2004-2007

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