Monday, March 15, 2010

Book Review: "Contact" by Carl Sagan

How would we react if some day, out of the blue, we received some sort of intelligent message from outer space? How would the world change with the realization that there really are other intelligent beings in the universe? Would it change our politics, our social structure, our religion?

That's the question at the very heart of Contact. Ellie Arroway, a brilliant radio astronomer (she uses telescopes to listen for radio emissions from outer space) one day stumbles on a repeated signal coming from the vicinity of the star Vega. Through the use of SCIENCE! and complicated MATH, she and other scientists discover that it's a coded message to build a machine. What the machine will do, no one has any idea, and a lot of time is spent in trying to figure out if this machine should even be built in the first place.

That's the larger plot in a nutshell, but it's really a backdrop to the real meat of the story. Sagan introduces a lot of characters, each from very different backgrounds and nationalities, the better to try and give us as many perspectives regarding the message as possible. What he really wants to do is try and explore how different people would react to something like this. We have Ellie, who is a scientist but also somewhat of a romantic, so she takes the facts as they are while letting her imagination go wild about aliens and other worlds. We have a Palmer Joss, a pastor who argues with Ellie about God and religion, and how the message affects the view that God created and is constantly watching over the Earth. The great thing about these arguments is that they're not the cheap "you're wrong, and I'm right" bullshit that gets thrown around in most arguments of this sort. Sagan makes both characters equally intelligent and passionate, and it's pretty great to read. We also see the perspective of the President of the USA, her military adviser, and their counterparts from other countries around the world. The book is full of dialogue and argument, all of it changing as new levels to the message appear. There's really not a lot of action, and there are spaces that cover years as people argue about the wisdom of building the machine, who should go on it, what it will do, what will happen to the world, etc.

It gets a bit slow in parts, but I was rarely bored by it. The parts that I felt drag dealt with very complicated science and mathematics, the kind of stuff that makes me cross-eyed and I can't even begin to understand. Thankfully, though, these are pretty rare in the book and I didn't feel too bad about, well, skipping large paragraphs of what was gobbledygook to me. But other than that the book is pretty exciting, and the final chapters are just brilliantly done and unexpected. The only other problem with the book, though it's really not Sagan's fault at all, is that it was written in 1984, and some things might feel a little dated. But it's a testament to how strong the book is in that it still holds up well today.

The best thing about the book, to me, is how strong Sagan's female characters. After years and years of reading about vapid, largely stupid women protagonists (most written by women), it was refreshing to get a character like Ellie Arroway. She's brilliant and she knows it, and she's had to fight her way into being accepted by the scientific community. She's strong and imaginative, and doesn't take any bullshit. I loved her. Sagan also makes the President of the USA a woman, but it's just a fact he throws out, and it's never made into a big deal. It's just so rare to see not one, but two strong female characters in one book, and I was very happy about it.

So don't expect a lot of action or craziness with this book. It's thoughtful and takes its time. And it's a brilliant look at humanity and how we each react to different things, how we look at the world and our place in it. I recommend it if you want a more ponderous read than usual. And don't worry, it's nothing like the movie (which I liked, but I know a lot of people hated).

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