Carl Sagan’s professional career under the auspices of the Department of Astronomy at Cornell led to him authoring close to 600 scientific papers and publishing over twenty books (fiction & non-fiction). In spite of the copious literature Sagan left behind, he is perhaps most remembered for his involvement in the documentary series Cosmos, A Personal Voyage, which more or less served as a platform for him to promulgate his intimate knowledge of astronomy and SETI to the masses. Following the show, Carl Sagan’s rather brief and modest exposition of Astronomical / SETI lore metastasised into a full blown industry of which Contact was to become a singular by-product.
Contact, being Sagan’s only work of fiction, does not skirt around the myriad interests Sagan has, but rather embraces them full on and incorporates them into the story. This has of course resulted in critics lambasting him for being too preachy and for flouting story-telling conventions. The criticisms levied, make the claim that Contact is not so much a story as it is a platform for Sagan to disseminate some of his more controversial views. Story elements if any are then thought to be mere circumlocution. However, the more educated, technically adept readers, have found it to be a groundbreaking piece of work, if not for its storytelling, then for its realistic portrayal of real life science and for its illuminating social commentary.
Contact is the only work of fiction that Sagan has ever written. It was originally written as a screenplay with Sagan only hastily adapting it into novel form, when movie interest and production ground to a halt for seemingly inexplicable / uncontrollable reasons. Prior to the novel’s release, expectations were high. Simon & Schuster is rumoured to have offered Sagan a 2 million dollar advance for the writing of the novel. At the time, this had been one of the largest sums of cash ever offered to any author for an unwritten book. Upon its release, Contact flew off the shelves, and by year’s end was safely inducted into the bestseller list, a joyful, and not wholly unexpected turn of events.
A year after Sagan passing away, a theatrical film based on the book was released. The movie served to be a fitting epitaph for the man who had enlightened so many on the wonders of the universe. It had a high turnout, high grossing and as a result its popularity has since eclipsed that of its progenitor. Nowadays, whenever Contact is mentioned, it is usually with reference to the movie and not the book.
The story told in contact revolves around various interesting characters but the main protagonist (i.e. the character whose intimate thoughts and feelings get thrust to the forefront) is Dr Ellie Arroway. At the outset, Arroway’s past, one that exemplifies that of the precocious scientist-to-be, gets presented to the reader. In one scene she disassembles a transistor radio in order to find out how it works. Later on we see her as an eminent astronomer stationed in a radio telescope observatory located in New Mexico. Like all of her clan, she remains wedded to her work. Sadness, and death are also elements of her past that are touched upon. The death of Arroway’s father, Theodore, when she is a mere child, affects her deeply. Even though Theodore is like a raw wound to Arroway he remains a vital and permanent fixture in her life. His words and dogmatic stance inform the plot’s progression and even decide the outcome of a variety of important events later on in the novel.
As hinted at by the novel’s title, Arroway’s career as an astronomer, in a desolate area of New Mexico experiences a boost when ‘contact’ is made. An unknown radio signal coming from the direction of the star Vega, is shown to be transmitting a series of prime numbers. Additional analysis reveals, that a strange video, Hitler’s 1936 speech at the Summer Olympics in Berlin is also embedded inside the transmission. This causes the scientific world to erupt in a frenzy. Arroway’s world turns topsy-turvy as she is suddenly thrust into the limelight.
After a much more thorough analysis another message is found to be embedded inside the transmission and it is deduced that it is actually not a message as such but rather a series of instructions on building a ‘Machine’. When the message cycles back on itself and the primer or key is elucidated, the instructions get revealed in full detail. The Machine, as it is now finally called, is an enigma. It is not certain just what type of machine it is (a conveyance, a nuclear weapon, etc.) With no clear answers to these questions being found in the transmission, all the major nation states involved in the project, argue and squabble over how to handle the situation. After a while it is decided that construction of the Machine will commence at two locations (USA & the Soviet Union).
Barring a few major setbacks, like the huge explosion that destroys the American Machine components (& incidentally kills Arroway’s PhD supervisor Dave Drumlin), the Machine’s construction proceeds at a rapid pace. The social upheavals caused by the Machine’s construction, particularly the proliferation of eschatological dogma, is an issue that is explored in a significant portion of the latter half of the book. It is here that Arroway meets and has fruitful interactions with some of the stronger personalities in the novel: James Hadden & Palmer Joss. Palmer Joss is a Christian fundamentalist whose views are diametrically opposed to Arroway’s but whose boyish good looks and accomodating demeanor endear him to his followers and to a lesser extent Arroway herself. James Hadden is an enigmatic billionaire whose interests ran the gamut from Cybernetics to television advertising scramblers. Hadden plays a key role in the Machine’s construction. He grows to even greater prominence when the Machine is completed and turned on.
Following the Machine’s completion, Arroway is picked as part of a handful of scientists who will first try it out. The cohort of scientists includes Abonneba Eda (a Nigerian physicist credited for coming up with the Theory of Grand Unification), Xi Quiaomu (a Qi Dynasty aficionado) and Devi Sukhavati (an Indian doctor of high-standing and Arroway’s close personal friend). Once turned on, the Machine transports its passengers to the center of the galaxy through various wormholes at a rapid pace. Throughout the journey Arroway records some of the keynote events using a VHS recorder, but the magnetic fields generated by the machine somehow wipe the contents.
Upon their return, all the journey participants find out that the entire trip had taken no more than an hour. Moreover, the transmission from Vega has seemingly stopped. Hadden one of the key masterminds behind the machine’s construction is also dead and missing. Since the machine cohort is unable to prove that their journey occurred in the allocated timespan, conspiracy theories run rampant, and as a result the relationship between the different world governments and the Machine project becomes strained. Arroway plans to exonerate the group by proving that there’s a secret message hidden in the number (pi), a critical piece of information that the enigmatic Vegans had seen fit to share.
The novel ends with Arroway discovering that the circle is embedded 10^20 places into the base 11 representation of pi.
Contact dips into the field of Astronomy farther than any fiction book of its ilk ever has. Throughout the novel’s progression, Sagan presents the scientific field with scalpel-sharp accuracy. No piece of technical information is presented without a thorough explanation of its tenability. The central tenets of the Scientific Method are presented in great detail and are adhered to immaculately. Depending on how familiar you are with Astronomy or how open you are to learning new things this may turn out to be the books’ greatest strength or biggest source of frustration.
Additionally, Carl Sagan’s prose is impressive. While he has a penchant for gargantuan words & obscure scientific terminology, he uses them deftly and skillfully. From an aesthetic standpoint, the writing in Contact is consistent, illuminating and delectable. Contact being Sagan’s only work of fiction means that we will never see again a SETI story so fully realized. This is unfortunate as Sagan’s fictional stories rival and even in some cases surpass those of Science Fiction heavyweights like Asimov and Heinlein.
Contact’s strongest critics resign themselves merely to nitpicking. This, if nothing else, should be evidence enough that the book is worth examining. Contact sold quite well, so locating it in your local thrift shop or Chapters should not be too difficult. If you manage to find it, grab it and take a look, you will not be disappointed.
10 dodecahedrons out of 10