I watched the movie version of this when I was rather young. Somehow, I still remember it pretty vividly. But back then, I had no idea who Carl Sagan was. It was only later in life that I learned that he is something of a cultural icon for a certain demographic of Americans, and now that I have found myself slipping into that demographic category, I have come to have an appreciation of the man as an advocate for science and rational humanism (and rational skepticism) through works like The Demon Haunted World. But I really no idea what he could do with a novel as well.
Contact is the story of humanity’s first contact with intelligent life from beyond our solar system. It follows the life of Ellie Arroway, a scientist who first discovered the alien signal and ultimately finds herself central to humanity’s coming together to build a machine and make contact with the distant aliens.
This turned out to be one of the best books I had read in a while. What really got my attention was how rich the level of detail was. Leading up to some a secondary characters backstory, Sagan goes as far back at the ancient China for details that come together in some very interesting ways. Details like this not only show either how polymathic or well-informed Sagan was, but his ability to incorporate that information into a larger narrative without getting too lost in irrelevancies. It also does much to show how broad and far reaching the author’s interests were. I was expecting this to largely a novel of science, and was pleased to find so much more in it.
Of course, when you write a book that is so complete, you are bound to get a whole lot of things wrong. Part of the story takes place during the millennium, and at that point the soviet union was finished. The soviet union (and American relations to it) form a pretty important part of that rich background I had mentioned previously. A lot of older science-fiction does, and some of it is fairly worse for it. For some reason I didn’t mind here, partially because everything else in the book felt so utterly realistically grounded. Another thing Sagan had no way of predicting was how modern parlance would take over the word Vegan. I found this to be much more jarring while I was reading. Sagan intends it to be vægən, as in an alien from the solar system of the star Vega, and not veːgən, people who insist on informing you about their dietary restrictions.
But even those two nitpicking points didn’t stop me from really enjoying this book.