Book Review: Contact by Carl Sagan

“In the scant few decades in which humans have pursued radio astronomy, there has never been a real signal from the depths of space, something manufactured, something artificial, something contrived by an alien mind.

And yet the origin of life now seemed to be so easy — and there were so many billions of years available for biological evolution — that it was hard to believe the Galaxy was not teeming with life and intelligence.”

– from Contact by Carl Sagan

Contact by Carl Sagan
So many alien contact stories, especially those presented in movies, show a hostile force invading the Earth, forcing the human race to rally together in order to fight back. This is perspective is often driven by humanity’s history of violence and colonization, as well as human paranoia, such as with 1950s alien invasion movies as a metaphor for Cold War fears.

While I’ve enjoyed many an alien invasion stories (most recently, Falling Skies), I find myself drawn to and prefer first contact stories that are more positive or, at least, more ambiguous.

I think that is part of what made me love the movie Contact so much, when it was released in 1997, that story of ambiguous first contact with alien life based in scientific plausibility. It was a story not wholly built on paranoia and allowed for interesting perspectives to come through — How would people and government and religious groups react if an alien signal arrived from space? Plus it featured a complicated woman, heading the scientific investigation, played by the amazing Jodie Foster. I still get chills just rewatching the movie trailer.

“I’ll tell you one thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space.”
— from Contact (movie version)

It’s taken me a long time to get around to reading the novel, but it’s been on my to-read list ever since I’ve seen the movie. I’m so glad I did.

Both the novel and the movie generally follow the same storyline: a team of scientists, lead by Ellie Arroway, discovers a radio signal in space, from the star Vega, and begin to decode a message that ultimately leads to an astounding adventure. But whereas the movie, due to it’s limited time frame to unfold the story, is extremely American-centric, the book allows for space and scope to expand into a look at how other nations handle the situation, as well as presenting a more thorough understanding the science. It’s the science and the knowledge that the Earth rotates that makes the international scope necessary — a single array of telescopes can only capture the signal from Vega for a short part of the day or night before the Eart rotates away and looses contact with the signal, requiring a global network of radio telescopes along every longitude.

Another thing the book expands upon wonderfully is the character of Ellie, who we see from her birth up through her team’s first discovery of the signal and onward. It shows a determined and intelligent woman, who find through science and discovery a sense of wonder in the world and how it works. And, since the story is primarily told from Ellie’s point of view, that sense of wonder is settled into the necessary scientific explanations throughout the book, making me want to look at the world with new eyes.

In the face of proof of intelligent extraterrestrial life, the book posits, the world began to grasp a feeling of greater perspective and unified perspective that we are all human. As a result, the Earth’s most powerful nations, the U.S., Russia, and China, began to dismantle their nuclear stockpiles as a part of renewed negations. Reading this, I couldn’t help but cry and long for some signal to reach us. Our world, in which the world news seems to present announcements of new, bloody conflict everyday, could use a shift in its universal perspective.

“My fondest hope for this book is that it will be made obsolete by the pace of real scientific discovery,” writes Sagan in his Author’s Note. We’re not quite there yet, I don’t think, but I hope we will get there.

My rating: 5 Stars.