Carl Sagan, Contact (1985)

The film version of Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel, Contact (1997), seems to divide people into “love it” and “hate it” camps.  Personally, I love it: it’s elegant, has an imaginative story and, of course, stars Jodie Foster as Dr Eleanor Arroway, so I was looking forward to reading the novel on which it was based.

The story has a simple premise: Dr Eleanor Arroway, Director of Project Argus, which uses radio telescopes to search for extraterrestrial life, discovers a message contained in a signal coming from the direction of the star Vega.  This message turns out to be the instructions from a far more advanced civilization for building a mysterious machine, a machine that appears to be designed to transport a group of people somewhere in the Universe. The rest of the novel explores the consequences of this discovery and the questions it raises for the characters.

All in all I enjoyed the book. I like big themes and philosophical questions in my science fiction and Contact delivers both with great enthusiasm. Should humans build the machine?  Will it divide or unite humanity?  If they do manage to build it, who will get in and switch it on? What impact will contact with extraterrestrial life have on us as a species?  What is the relationship between faith and science?  Did someone create the Universe? Has someone been shaping its development? I loved the big ideas, the imaginative take on the Universe and humanity’s place within it, and also enjoyed spotting all the influences on Star Trek and, especially, Babylon 5.

It was refreshing to read a novel in which the lead character is an older woman (Arroway is in her forties during the main part of the story, which is older than her character in the film version). I wrote a separate post about Ellie as a contribution to Godard’s list of 100 Women in SF, so I’ll refer you to that post rather than repeat myself here. Suffice to say, from a feminist perspective, I think the character is largely successful and Sagan gets in a fair few points about sexism in science.  I also liked the international angle of the book, something which is lost in the film where the novel’s global effort is replaced with the exceptional, white, American individual, something that rather undermines Sagan’s message.

But I don’t think Contact will be to everyone’s taste.  The prose is solid at best, and flat at worst, and I felt that Sagan tended to favour detail, especially scientific detail, over the emotional development of his main characters.  It was originally written as a screenplay in 1979 and does have the feel of a fleshed out film script with too much left out for the director to fill in visually.  I liked it because I’m interested in the subjects it addresses, but aside from a few moments, I can’t say it really engaged me emotionally and there were some boring tangents that could have been edited down.

Possibly the biggest weakness in both the film and novel is the Evangelical Christian Minister, Palmer Joss.  In the film, he’s Ellie’s romantic interest, and in the book, at least a potential romantic interest, but I find him irredeemably creepy in both texts! I think this attempt to force a truce between science and fundamentalist religion fails because it’s contrived and I really don’t believe in their relationship in the novel or the film.  I found the ending a little strange and I’m not quite sure what Sagan is trying to say with it, though that could be me because I wasn’t in a good place when I read this novel.

I’d say that Contact is probably best read as a supplement to Sagan’s non-fiction work, Cosmos, because it’s really a fictional exploration of the issues he raises in that book.   If you don’t like too much hard science in your science fiction, then it may not be for you – stick to the movie instead.

On a related note here’s an article telling us why we need to talk about aliens

Crossposted to Flaming Culture

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One thought on “Carl Sagan, Contact (1985)

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