A guest post by Jake Christensen
“The Message, Ellie believed, was a kind of mirror in which each person sees his or her own beliefs challenged or confirmed.” (p. 127, Chapter 8, “Random Access”)
The above quote sums up the human drama that drives Carl Sagan’s masterwork of science fiction: Contact. I came to this novel by way of seeing and loving the film adaptation starring Jodie Foster. The book contains the same intelligence and thoughtfulness but, as novels usually do, offers a richer and more expansive story.
Contact’s author, Dr. Sagan, was unquestionably one of the most important and respected scientists of the 20th Century. In a sense, the novel is a culminating treatment of Sagan’s deeply held views. It dramatizes what he believed are the strengths and weaknesses of humans, and the integral role science can play in our survival and progress.
The plot of Contact centers on the discovery of a radio signal from outer space that appears to be of intelligent origin. The signal becomes known as “The Message,” and people of every persuasion imbue it with their own beliefs as the story progresses. Meanwhile, world leaders struggle to decipher and respond to the signal using science. The climax of Contact is a grand voyage to the center of the galaxy.
In a genre that often neglects character development, Contact boasts a fully-realized protagonist: Ellie. She first appears as a highly inquisitive and precocious youth. As Ellie matures into the scientist who discovers the radio signal, she proves to be the antithesis of the “mad scientist” stereotype. But neither is she an impossibly angelic puppet for Sagan’s worldview.
Though Ellie is functionally the main character, it could be argued that the real protagonist of Contact is humankind. Sagan depicts life on earth from top to bottom. Everyone from world leaders to insects play a key role. And though the prose occasionally lumbers, especially when Sagan explains the intricacies of radio astronomy, the plot stays on course.
At its core, Contact emanates Sagan’s empathy and enthusiasm for all life. Furthermore, this is not a work of absolute dystopia or utopia. The story sports a tempered optimism, provided humankind is willing to face hard truths and do what it takes to mature and succeed. Given Sagan’s scientific foresight, Contact is more relevant today than when it was first published.
You may like this book if… you enjoy exploring how science and culture intersect, you value balanced in-depth discussion of global issues, you are in the market for an epic story with a great female protagonist.
You might not like this book if… you restrict your sci-fi intake to swashbuckling space opera with laser blasters and schmaltzy romance, you just don’t enjoy technology-based stories, you think that science is all good and religion is all bad, or vice versa.
Jake Christensen is a Michigan-based writer who plys his trade doing marketing for a small business. He is also an avid blogger and reader. His personal blog, Childe Jake’s Pilgimage, mixes everything from space enthusiasm to humor (http://thejakefoyer.blogspot.com). Elsewhere online Jake has written for EncoreMichigan.com and WheatandTares.org. Via good oldfashioned hardcopy he has contributed to The Planetary Report and enjoyed two professional readings of his full-length play Jarvis Becomes Poe. Having written this whole paragraph, he is now in search of coffee.
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