(A Book Review)
There is probably as much science in science fiction as there is in Scientology.
But if you can get past that technicality, it’s hard not to appreciate the breadth of this genre. Sci-Fi is a staple in modern literature that uses the premise of a far distant future to highlight challenges beyond our current horizon. Contrary to its name, it is seldom about science. Instead, it depicts an alternative version of our world which urges us to think creatively about our future.
Carl Sagan’s Contact is no different. It follows a similar setup as many other Sci-Fi novels, but has a definitively different focus and feel. The basic premise is straight forward – A scientist working for SETI discovers a signal one day from a nearby system containing a manual for what appears to be a transportation device. The world then erupts over disagreement on what to do with it, which leads to international turmoil and great political/scientific maneuvering.
The book is conveniently divided into three parts: the Message, the Machine, and the Galaxy.
What I liked:
- Ahead of its time
For a book published in the 1980s, the use of a female protagonist in a science-heavy role was a bold move. I’m sure it was Sagan’s intent to push back at sexism in science, but he nonetheless created a very relatable character in Ellie Arroway. She was strong enough to stand on her own, but not so overwhelming as to dwarf the competence of others. I thought that was a nice balance especially given the large gender divide in STEM fields today.
- Dynamic perspectives
For a lack of a better word, this novel did a fantastic job of taking an extraordinary event and using it as the basis to analyze various social and cultural behaviors. In particular, the book highlighted a number of themes that are fresh to the Sci-Fi genre: the relationship of science and religion, how governments jockey for position, how science can be communicated to the public, and so on.
The number of themes may feel overwhelming at times, but each idea was sufficiently concrete to be viewed independently. Sagan also took a very realistic approach to the themes above, which at times equals less-than-exciting narrative. For example, the fact that signals travel extremely slow meant that it took years for a coherent message to even come through.
- Beautifully written
Not to be overlooked amongst all the substance is a beautifully written book. When I usually read novels that have certain elements of suspense (Dan Brown, Agatha Christie…), I tend to skim parts fairly quickly to find out what happens next. Here, I found myself re-reading passages because of how elegantly they were written. Words alone certainly can’t portray the beauty of our planet, but reading Contact left me in awe of the vast space we look up into.
What I didn’t like:
- A little fantasy would be nice
For all the detailed analysis of probable scenarios under such an unexpected event, there were also numerous parts in the book where a little imagination was allowed. In particular, the third section of the book titled “the Galaxy” could have been a playground for experimental ideas. But instead of hypothesizing on how unearthly things could work and look, Sagan took a more conservative path that left me a little disappointed.
Sagan’s background as an astronomer may have discouraged him to take a leap from reality, but I think the appetite for it would have been all right given its very Sci-Fi appeal.
- The balance of science and art
A combination of Sagan’s background with the books arguably bloated number of themes meant that the read can be dry at times. And while I can appreciate the detail in explaining the complex themes around politics and governments, the actual scientific explanation for some of the cosmic observations were way beyond me. I skipped those parts.
To sum it up – Carl Sagan’s Contact is a book that really can’t be spoiled. The entertainment value of it doesn’t come from a clever twist towards the end, but with Sagan’s take on how the public, the governments, and the scientific communities will behave.
I mentioned in the beginning that Sci-Fi is often a forum for abstract discussions of our future. To that end, Sagan was outstanding. The discovery of a message is very conceivable (compared to an invasion of alien fleets), and the resolution was both satisfying and insightful.