Contact is a science fiction novel by Carl Sagan published in September 1985. It follows the life of Ellie, a woman who becomes interested in science at a very young age, but has a hard time entering the male-dominated field, but eventually earns her doctorate and becomes the head of a massive project to search for signs of extra-terrestrial life. As the year 2000 approaches, her project appears to be losing funding, but they discover an encoded message from outer space. A massive media craze ensues, as scientists try to make sense of the message and governments and religions demand to control the project.
My first experience with Contact was from seeing the movie shortly after it came out. I liked it, but my friend Nick explained that it was terrible compared to the book. Years later, I saw a first edition hardcover on sale at the Montrose Blueberry Festival and bought it for $1. I started to read it with apprehension, not believing an astronomer could write a compelling work of fiction, but I quickly found myself really being drawn into the book and loved it.
I have a first edition hardcover and have read it, and listened to an audio book recording.
— This section contains spoilers! —
- So few sci-fi novels have a strong female lead character, so Ellie is a wonderful change of pace. Sagan does a great job at articulating all the bullshit women have to deal with when they work in a male-dominated field. But Sagan doesn't make her a goddess, she has plenty of faults, she's not very good at dealing with people, has father issues, problems with authority, makes bad relationship decisions, forgets to call her mother, and so forth, all of which makes her very human.
- Being written by not just a scientist, but a science communicator, Sagan mixes in a lot of great science education. Perhaps a bit too much for people who don't like as much science in their sci-fi, but not me.
- The global fervor is addressed on how it affects the scientific, political, cultural, and religious communities, and I think Sagan does a great job at fairly and accurately depicting how they would respond.
- The book uses a wide variety of vocabulary and uses it well.
- I love how scathing Ellie is against willfully ignorant religious people.
- Sagan's depiction of the near-future Earth is both realistic (countries are still distrusting) and hopeful (the US has its first female president).
- The idea of an extremely ancient race of beings who created a massive intergalactic highway system and then disappeared without a trace is quite mysterious.
- In the end, the book has a really nice feel-goodness to it. The fact that much more advanced aliens send the Earth an olive branch and help them along their path to the future is much more comforting than bug-eyed monsters hell-bent on eradicating the human race.
- I don't think Sagan did a good enough job of explaining why the aliens would leave the crew high and dry, without any evidence of their mission at all.
- Sagan overshoots 1999 technology with old folks homes that orbit the Earth and holographic pictures. He also gives the human race too much credit by suggesting that we would stop buying rags like the National Enquirer (if only!).
- When I first read it, I liked the idea of having a message hidden in pi by the architect of the universe, but, the more I thought about it, I prefer that the universe be a natural phenomena. I also think Sagan gave a bit too much lip service to religious people with its inclusion and how Ellie accepts the message into her worldview and makes peace with a preacher.
- "You're an interesting species. An interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other."
- "We all have a thirst for wonder. It's a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I'm saying is, you don't have to make stories up, you don't have to exaggerate. There's wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature's a lot better at inventing wonders than we are."
- "Your religion assumes that people are children and need a boogeyman so they'll behave. You want people to believe in God so they'll obey the law. That's the only means that occurs to you: a strict secular police force, and the threat of punishment by an all-seeing God for whatever the police overlook. You sell human beings short."
- "If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why didn't he start the universe out in the first place so it would come out the way he wants? Why's he constantly repairing and complaining? No, there's one thing the Bible makes clear: The biblical God is a sloppy manufacturer. He's not good at design, he's not good at execution. He'd be out of business, if there was any competition."
- "Anything you don't understand, you attribute to God. God for you is where you sweep away all the mysteries of the world, all the challenges to our intelligence. You simply turn your mind off and say God did it."
- "There are huge advertising budgets only when there's no difference between the products. If the products really were different, people would buy the one that's better. Advertising teaches people not to trust their judgment. Advertising teaches people to be stupid."
- "...You think if I haven't had your religious experience I can't appreciate the magnificence of your god. But it's just the opposite. I listen to you, and I think, his god is too small! One paltry planet, a few thousand years -- hardly worth the attention of a minor deity, much less the Creator of the universe."
- "She had to fight against developing too combative a personality or becoming altogether a misanthrope. She suddenly caught herself. 'Misanthrope' is someone who dislikes everybody, not just men. And they certainly had a word for someone who hates women: 'misogynist.' But the male lexicographers had somehow neglected to coin a word for the dislike of men. They were almost entirely men themselves, she thought, and had been unable to imagine a market for such a word."
- "In the presence of so many of her friends, she had felt an undercurrent of loneliness."
- "You've tapped yourself in some sort of fifth-century religious mania. Since then the Renaissance has happened, the Enlightenment has happened. Where've you been?"
- "Sometimes she would be engaged in a laboratory exercise or a seminar when the instructor would say, 'Gentlemen, let's proceed,' and sensing Ellie's frown would add, 'Sorry, Miss Arroway, but I think of you as one of the boys.' The highest compliment they were capable of paying was that in their minds she was not overtly female."
- "Adolf Hitler! Ken, it makes me furious. Forty million people die to defeat that megalomaniac, and he's the star of the first broadcast to another civilization? He's representing us. And them. It's that madman's dream come true."
- "She had spent her career attempting to make contact with the most remote and alien of strangers, while in her own life she had made contact with hardly anyone at all."