Carl Sagan
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Pocket Books, PB, © 185, 431 pp, ISBN #0-671-00410-7
Reviewed September 1997

Having seen the 1997 film adaptation of this book, I decided to read the original novel. As you may know, it deals with SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) finally getting a signal from another world, processing and translating it, working with the data in the signal, and then sending emissaries out to meet the people who sent the signal.

The selling point of Contact is that Sagan, one of the best-known astronomers in the world before his death, knew many, many details about the present nature of SETI, about what signals an alien race might send us, and what technology we presently have to be able to react to it. And on that score it does not disappoint: It's filled with a wealth of information, and all of the Earth-based elements are highly believable.

In a grander sense, though, it's somewhat disappointing. Many scientists do not believe that faster-than-light travel is possible by any means, but Contact employs FTL to get its protagonists out to meet the aliens. Sagan was clearly to some degree writing a polemic, an upbeat novel about contact with aliens that would galvanize humanity to strive for better things. I think the novel-as-fiction would have been better-served to have actually dealt with the issues of relativistic space travel, which would of necessity have made it a minor tragedy as its characters would have left behind everything they knew in pursuit of their goal.

The book does have some interesting characters, notable the protagonist, Ellie Arroway, who fights the proverbial glass ceiling to have a say and a part of the experience in contacting the aliens. But the science and the experience consume most of the book's focus, and as such, it sometimes plods along, covering an awful lot of detail that doesn't always serve to advance the story. It can be slow going at times, although Sagan proves to be a solid prose writer, which helps.

It's interesting to contrast the novel with the film. Arroway's background is very different in each; although her father's death is a major factor in either case, there's a lot more going on in the novel. Also, the book was written during the Cold War, and is clearly an artifact of that time, as US-Soviet relations are a major plot point; the film features none of this, and excises a major Russian character (in favor of a blind character who does not appear in the book). In the film Ellie heads into space by herself, whereas in the book an international team of five is sent. Finally, the book ends with a minor comment on the nature of the universe (which may or may not speak to Sagan's theological opinions) which is absent from the film. (The film deals with theology in a much more direct and ham-handed manner.) In a broad sense, the two are very similar, but they differ greatly in the details.

Contact is by no means a great book, though it clearly has its own form of value. But it did spawn a pretty good movie - which is in fact a much more realistic science fiction film than the vast majority of SF films - and so the book has to be counted as worthwhile on that point, as well.

hits since 13 August 2000.

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