September 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

contactContact by Carl Sagan


I collect quotes from the books I read. I used to write them down on index cards and keep them in a file box. One day I decided to organize them, and I found that the one source that I found to be most quotable was Contact. Its balance of science and faith struck a chord with me, which makes sense, since during the time I read it, I was still struggling with my feelings about God and spirituality.

Now, I’m listening to the book as an atheist, and it’s a different kind of experience. The science component of the book is strong, enough so that I wonder if Sagan originally approached the story as an outline of a thought experiment on first contact, and decided to develop it into a fictional story. Strangely, the faith aspect of the book is also strong, even stronger than I remember. It feels stronger in the movie, as Ellie is presented with having to decide if she believes in something despite the overwhelming lack of evidence to support it, but the book pretty much comes out and says the universe was designed. It surprised me, especially when Sagan seemed to be a full-on atheist.

The book differed from the movie in other ways, including the number of people who travel in the machine. In the movie, it’s just Ellie; in the book, she’s one of a team of five, all of whom are convinced that what they experienced is real. The movie also reinforces that idea (18 hours of static, anyone?), but the book returns the agency to the characters themselves instead of to an outside, unknown-to-the-main-characters scene.

I had also forgotten how much hand-waving Sagan brings to the story. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on the science of how the machine works, but gets away with it by having the scientists of Earth reverse-engineer it to understand it completely. The ending with the aliens is also anti-climactic, as Sagan makes them absentee overseers, with no one getting the answers they want. For it to end that way, I would prefer that the story remain on Earth, with the scientists speculating.

I know Sagan was concerned with the threat of nuclear war in the era in which he wrote the book, but it feels oversimplified and laughable that he uses that as a primary factor for why the aliens contacted Earth. Maybe I’m oversimplifying the threat of nuclear war now, but to look at it now, thirty years on, is like reading about the Red Scare in the 1980s; it’s so far removed that it doesn’t seem like the concern Sagan makes it out to be.

I still enjoyed the book, partly for the nostalgia, partly for the recognition (it was fun to hear the quotes I had written down so long ago), and partly for the characters. Sagan isn’t a bad novelist, even if he isn’t the greatest, either. He relies a bit too much on telling instead of showing, but he also avoids info-dumps. Since he approached science as something to teach instead of preach, that doesn’t surprise me. There are parts of it that sound like they were written for a nonfiction book about first contact, and there are pieces of it that feel borrowed from his other nonfiction books, but it’s a solid examination of the idea, populated with interesting characters.

I dropped my rating a point after finishing this, not because it was bad, but because it didn’t have the same resonance I remembered from the first reading. This isn’t Sagan’s fault, but it is true that what you get out of a book depends on what you put into it, and in this case, losing your faith has a big impact on a book that’s mostly about faith. Still, I’d recommend the book to anyone who enjoyed the movie, since it gives an alternate look at the trip through the machine.

Started: September 6, 2018
Finished: September 19, 2018

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