Carl Sagan Contact

“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.”

Carl Sagan, Contact

Carl Sagan’s contact is the purest form of speculative science-fiction. It takes a present-day world and imposes on it a remote but completely plausible scientific premise. In Contact, Carl Sagan asks, how would the human race react if we suddenly received a message from an alien civilisation.

Carl Sagan Contact
It’s a book cover

The story follows scientist Ellie Arroway as she navigates the science, politics, and religion of a world forced to acknowledge the existence of a technologically superior extra-terrestrial civilisation.

The book explores the real world processes that would occur should such a signal ever be received and builds from the real-life anomaly dubbed the Wow! signal in 1977.

Contact occasionally drifts into corny American romanticism (“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”) and Star Trekkian waffle, but the stresses and strains of Ellie’s struggle dealing with international organisations, all fighting for a piece of the limelight, are extremely convincing, and written with a huge amount of background knowledge. Hey, it is Carl Sagan after all.

But the real impact comes in the last third, where Sagan expertly juggles the foreign concepts of human beings interacting with a higher intelligence and man’s understanding of the divine. Normally I’d be turned off by this type quasi-religious sentimentality, and it could have come across as patronising, but it’s dealt with so deftly that I felt that I’d had a peek into the box of the theist’s experience. Only for a second, mind.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

While some parts of the book can get a little preachy, and Ellie’s backstory occasionally drowns the reader in sentimental goop, the science on top of which the story sits, and Ellie’s struggle convince the world that her research is sound, keeps the stpry ticking along.

Contact isn’t for everyone, and probably not even for every science-fiction fan, but I thought it was pretty good.

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