by Carl Sagan

Cover image

Publisher: Pocket Books
Copyright: 1985
Printing: October 1986
ISBN: 0-671-43422-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 434

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Contact is a standalone first-contact science fiction novel. Carl Sagan (1934–1996) was best known as a non-fiction writer, astronomer, and narrator of the PBS non-fiction program Cosmos. This is his first and only novel.

Ellie Arroway is the director of Project Argus, a radio telescope array in the New Mexico desert whose primary mission is SETI: the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence by scanning the skies for unexpected radio signals. Its assignment to SETI is controversial; there are radio astronomy projects waiting, and although 25% of the telescope time is assigned to non-SETI projects, some astronomers think the SETI mission should be scrapped and Argus fully diverted to more useful research. That changes overnight when Argus picks up a signal from Vega, binary pulses representing the sequence of prime numbers.

The signal of course doesn't stop when the Earth rotates, so Ellie and her team quickly notify every radio observatory they can get hold of to follow the signal as it passes out of their line of sight. Before long, nearly every country with a radio telescope is involved, and Russian help is particularly vital since they have ship-mounted equipment. The US military and intelligence establishment isn't happy about this and make a few attempts to shove the genie back into the bottle and keep any further discoveries secret, without a lot of success. (Sagan did not anticipate the end of the Cold War, and yet ironically relations with the Russians in his version of the 1990s are warmer by far than they are today. Not that this makes the military types any happier.) For better or worse, making sense of the alien signal becomes a global project.

You may be familiar with this book through its 1997 movie adaptation starring Jodie Foster. What I didn't know before reading this book is that it started life as a movie treatment, co-written with Ann Druyan, in 1979. When the movie stalled, Sagan expanded it into a novel. (Given the thanks to Druyan in the author's note, it may not be far wrong to name her as a co-author.) If you've seen the movie, you will have a good idea of what will happen, but the book gives the project a more realistic international scope. Ellie has colleagues carefully selected from all over the world, including for the climactic moment of the story.

The biggest problem with Contact as a novel is that Sagan is a non-fiction writer who didn't really know how to write a novel. The long, detailed descriptions of the science and the astronomical equipment fit a certain type of SF story, but the descriptions of the characters, even Ellie, are equally detailed and yet use the same style. The book starts with an account of Ellie's childhood and path into science written like a biography or a magazine profile, not like a novel in which she's the protagonist. The same is true of the other characters: we get characterization of a sort, but the tone ranges from Wikipedia article to long-form essay and never quite feels like a story.

Ellie is the most interesting character in the book, partly because the way Sagan writes her is both distant but oddly compelling. Sagan (or perhaps Druyan?) tries hard to show what life is like for a woman born in the middle of the 20th century who is interested in science and I think mostly succeeds, although Ellie's reactions to sexism felt weirdly emotionless. The descriptions of her relationships are even odder and the parts where this book felt the least like a novel, but Sagan does sell some of that tone as reflective of Ellie's personality. She's a scientist, the work is the center of her life, and everything else, even when important, is secondary. It doesn't entirely make the writing style work, but it helps.

Sagan does attempt to give Ellie a personal development arc related to her childhood and her relationships with her father and step-father. I thought the conclusion to that was neither believable nor anywhere near as important as Sagan thought it was, which was off-putting. Better were her ongoing arguments with evangelical Christians, one of whom is a close-minded ass and the other of which is a far more interesting character. They felt wedged into this book, and I'm dubious a realistic version of Ellie would have been the person to have those debates, but it's a subject Sagan clearly has deep personal interest in and that shows in how they're written.

The other problem with Contact as a novel is that Sagan does not take science fiction seriously as a genre, instead treating it as a way to explore a thought experiment. To a science fiction reader, or at least to this science fiction reader, the interesting bits of this story involve the aliens. Those are not the bits Sagan is interested in. His attention is on how this sort of contact, and project, would affect humanity and human politics. We do get some more traditional science fiction near the end of the book, but Sagan then immediately backs away from it, minimizes that part of the story, and focuses exclusively on the emotional and philosophical implications for humans of his thought experiment. Since I found his philosophical musings about agnosticism and wonder and discovery less interesting than the actual science fiction bits, I found this somewhat annoying. The ending felt a bit more like a cheap trick than a satisfying conclusion.

Interestingly, this entire novel is set in an alternate universe, for reasons entirely unexplained (at least that I noticed) in the book. It's set in the late 1990s but was written in 1985, so of course this is an alternate future, but the 1985 of this world still isn't ours. Yuri Gagarin was the first man to set foot on the moon, and the space program and the Cold War developed in subtly different ways. I'm not sure why Sagan made that choice, but it felt to me like he was separating his thought experiment farther from our world to give the ending more plausible deniability.

There are, at the time of the novel, permanent orbital colonies for (mostly) rich people, because living in space turns out to greatly extend human lifespans. That gives Sagan an opportunity to wax poetic about the life-altering effects of seeing Earth from space, which in his alternate timeline rapidly sped up nuclear disarmament and made the rich more protective of the planet. This is an old bit of space boosterism that isn't as common these days, mostly because it's become abundantly clear that human psychology doesn't work this way. Sadly, rich sociopaths remain sociopaths even when you send them into space. I was a bit torn between finding Sagan's predictions charmingly hopeful and annoyingly daft.

I don't think this novel is very successful as a novel. It's much longer than it needs to be and long parts of it drag. But it's still oddly readable; even knowing the rough shape of the ending in advance, I found it hard to put down once the plot properly kicks into gear about two-thirds of the way through. There's a lot in here that I'd argue with Sagan about, but he's thoughtful and makes a serious attempt to work out the political and scientific ramifications of such a discovery in detail. Despite the dry tone, he does a surprisingly good job capturing the anticipation and excitement of a very expensive and risky scientific experiment.

I'm not sure I would recommend this book to anyone, but I'm also the person who found Gregory Benford's Timescape to be boring and tedious, despite its rave reviews as a science fiction novel about the practice of science. If that sort of book is more your jam, you may like Contact better than I did.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-12-13

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