'Contact' - Book Review

by Carl Sagan

I remember Carl Sagan from my childhood - I would have been 15 when "Cosmos" was broadcast, and I thought he was an egotistical, over-explaining pedant. Don't get me wrong: I liked the show - I just wasn't a big fan of him. Because of that, and despite my love of the movie version of "Contact," it took until now for me to read this book. It turns out his voice as an author is radically different from his voice as a TV presenter, and in most ways better: he surely doesn't over-explain as an author, you need to pay attention. Although he's still a bit long-winded.

The main character from the movie is much the same - Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway is a very intelligent child who grows into a hard-working radio astronomer and SETI ("Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence") scientist. Her career is languishing (SETI is considered fringe science in the book as it is in our world) when it gets one hell of a kick in the pants from an ET broadcast originating in Vega. She fights for, and eventually gets, a seat on the might-be-a-spaceship Machine that the message describes.

But the book, like the movie, is less about aliens than it is about humanity - particularly the divergences and similarities of science, belief, and religion. I found Sagan's introduction of Ellie at the beginning of the book particularly effective, a series of vignettes of her at different ages - a dedicated scientist from an early age. And he had a fine selection of quotes starting each chapter. Overall I found the book a bit too long and rambling: the movie loses some important subtleties from the book and is occasionally over-acted, but mostly it's better focussed on the points it wants to make about science, belief, and religion.

"I wish to propose for the reader's favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it." - Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays, I (1928)

As technology developed and the cities were polluted, the nights became starless. New generations grew to maturity wholly ignorant of the sky that had transfixed their ancestors and that had stimulated the modern age of science and technology. Without even noticing, just as astronomy entered a golden age most people cut themselves off from the sky, a cosmic isolationism that ended only with the dawn of space exploration. [Sagan]

If we like them, they're freedom fighters, she thought. If we don't like them, they're terrorists. In the unlikely case we can't make up our minds, they're temporarily only guerrillas. [Sagan]

The casually dressed scientists ... spilled out of doors, where, illuminated by cigarettes and starlight, some of the discussions continued. [Sagan]

"The God whom science recognizes must be a God of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business. He cannot accommodate his processes to the convenience of individuals." - William James The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

Drumlin, like many others she had known over the years, had called her an incurable romantic; and she found herself wondering again why so many people thought it some embarrassing disability. Her romanticism had been a driving force in her life and a fount of delights. [Sagan]

"I don't see how the governments could convince people this is a hoax," she said. "Really? Think of what else they've made people believe. They've persuaded us that we'll be safe if only we spend all our wealth so everybody on Earth can be killed in a moment - when the governments decide the time has come." [Sagan]

The book also introduced me to the terms "chiliast" (chiliasm is "the doctrine of Christ's expected return to reign on earth for 1000 years; millennialism" - I lost track of how many times he used this word) and "ecdysiast" ("a facetious word for 'stripper'" created by H.L. Mencken(?)).