Carl Sagan’s Contact (book) – a review

I’ve been on a big Carl Sagan kick lately. It started when I realized that all 13 episodes of Cosmos were available on Hulu. Somewhere between laughing at Dr. Sagan’s haircut and secretly wondering if I too could get away with wearing a red turtleneck with a corduroy jacket, the beauty and amazement of what he was saying washed over me. He did an incredible job of exploring the complexity and the beauty of science without dumbing it down. Amazingly, even 30 years later, very, very little of Cosmos feels dated.

As a chaser to my refreshing revisitation of Cosmos, I decided that it was finally time for me to read Contact. It had been on my reading list since the movie came out (10+ years ago). My brother and sister both read it and loved it. And wow! It was amazing, and much more complex than the movie. Curiously, I think the thing I liked most about the book was the startling amount of social commentary that Dr. Sagan packed into it. Our inherent fear of the unknown struggling against our desire to explore; the inertia of entrenched social and political systems; the irony that those of us who yearn for and dream about a much bigger picture sometimes make such a mess of the more intimate details of our lives; the incredible stupidity of some aspects of capitalism; and of course, the relationship between science and religion (and the intersection between the two – the numinous). And unlike any of the characters in the many, many iterations of Star Trek (the comparison is unfortunate but inevitable whenever discussing science fiction), the characters in Contact are complex and nuanced – believable, not like cardboard cutouts or action figures.

The scientific questions Dr. Sagan raised are nothing to sneeze at either. If there are other civilizations in the universe, how could we find and contact them? Vastly different organisms must use vastly different systems of communication on perhaps vastly different time scales. But the common ground for all of us is the language of physics, which is based on discoverable, testable, provable universal absolutes; so that’s the place to look for (or send) a message.

“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” This sentence alone is reason enough to read the book. Where else in the annals of science fiction (excepting the excellent film Serenity, of course) can you find a work that speaks so eloquently about love? Or an author who even bothers to try? And without love, what’s the point? When you divorce love, emotion, caring from your subject, no matter what it is, it loses all relevance.

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