29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2006
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Contact is grand, it is epic, and it is vast in it's hypotheses and plotline. However, it is also one of the most touching and personable books you will ever read.
I agree with others who have said that the twists and turns in the plot are fantastic. No doubt. But my favorite thing about this book is Ellie's character - her tenacity, her passion, and her undaunted *faith* while yet an athiest and a scientist. Sagan develops an array of interesting characters, with different backgrounds and belief systems, who respond to the first-contact experience in unique ways. As much as Contact is a story about first-contact with aliens, it is as much or even moreso a pondering about humanity, our strengths and weaknesses, and the delicate differences through which we strive to find common ground.
You should know that there are a few significant differences between the book and the movie (I did like the movie very much by the way, and felt Jodie Foster did a superb job as Ellie). The following are "minor spoilers". In other words, they are subtle hints at what you may have missed if you only saw the movie, but, I have not outright told you what is in the book either:
1) Palmer Joss's character looks quite different in the book, and has a different background, than the hot-bodied heart-throb portrayed in the movie by McConaughey (McConaughey did well with the part written for him, in my opinion). Also Ellie does not have a physically intimate relationship with Joss, although she does with more than one other character in the book.
2) Ellie's mom and stepdad have key roles, while her deceased dad does not appear as often.
3) Ellie is not the only person who meets the Caretakers (aliens).
4) During the first contact with the alien ("her dad"), the conversation is much longer and more detailed. The alien shares paragraphs of information about the outside universe, what they have discovered, an intriguing discussion on pi and the secrets this number holds, and what they feel the future holds for other worlds in the galaxy. This was a significant difference from the movie, though I can see why Zemeckis needed to shorten some of it due to its extensiveness.
5) The book has two fantastic twists at the end which the movie did not include. The first one revolves around something Ellie learned about pi during her conversation with the alien. I was surprised the movie did not include it, as it was such a creative and masterful conclusion. The second has to do with Ellie's stepdad, who does not appear in the movie.
There are other differences but these were the most significant ones for me.
If you are on the lookout for books with a similar theme/feel, try Jack McDevitt's "The Engines of God" and "The Hercules Text", especially the latter.
And on a side note - Hey Nick, How about a SEQUEL?
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2006
Format: Mass Market Paperback
You are about to embark on a journey through time and space, and get the opportunity to observe and evaluate the very thoughts of the author and ppreciate the author's scientific intuition. You will assimilate the moral, ethical, and philosophical issues that arise from the discovery of the "Message" and the building of the "Machine." Most importantly, you will discover that a relationship exists between scientific and philosophical disciplines, and enjoy some good old fashion story telling mixed in just for fun.
To understand the book is to understand the man. Our distinguished author has many credits to his name. He was the Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University. He was part of the team responsible for the Viking, Mariner, and Voyager Expeditions. He received NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service. He was past chairman of the Division for Planetary Sciences and the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Four hundred of his scientific and popular articles have been published. Additionally, he was the author and co-author of several other books including : "Intelligent Life in the Universe," "The Cosmic Connection," "The Dragons of Eden," "Murmurs of Earth," "Broca's Brain," "Comet," his most famous - "Cosmos," "A Path Where No Man Thought," an expose' of the nuclear winter scenario, and his last - "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors." He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in literature in 1978; he was also a champion of both human and Earth rights. But for all his brilliance, intuitiveness, and achievement, Carl Sagan recognized his own mortality and insignificance in the Universe.
Contact. Only Carl Sagan could devise this simple, one word name for his first fiction novel; the title so eloquently and completely describes the central plot of his story - contact with an advanced galactic civilization and, perhaps, more - the identity of which is: to be announced!
Given his credentials, it is not surprising to me that Carl Sagan chose the subject of extraterrestrial contact for his first fiction novel; it so perfectly reflects his own interests: Cosmology, SETI, and CETI activities; SETI and CETI, incidently, refer to 'Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence' and 'Contact with Extraterrestrial Intelligence' respectively. His novel names real places, among them: the Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico and the Argus Array in Socorro, New Mexico. He conducted SETI activities at both these facilities. Indeed, his first fiction novel is a reflection of his own fantasies and ambitions of locating alien intelligence. With his collaborator and colleague, Ann Druyan, he achieved excellent results with "Contact."
In the late 1980's, an intelligent radio source (a message)is received from the vicinity of the Vega star system in the constellation of Lyra. The signal contained many levels of information encoded by various modulation methods and astronomers found: a re-broadcast of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, a set of prime numbers, and finally, elaborate instructions to build a machine. It's the "Machine." Extraterrestrials are telling us they know we're here. Several years were needed to decode the instructions and build the Machine. During this time, great political, philosophical, religious, and scientific debates took place to determine the purpose, implications, and ramifications of the now controversial Machine. The Machine is eventually determined to be a vehicle by which five Earth travelers would be able to journey to Vega and be greeted by the Message senders. The Machine, do decahedron in shape, is completed and, on New Year's Eve - 1999, it is activated with 5 selected travelers on board. Within a matter of minutes, the travelers visit several spectacularly beautiful star systems before finally reaching their destination and meeting the Message senders, the "Caretakers."
The travelers find that the Caretakers are a conglomeration of cultures that have been around for half a billion years. After determining that the expanding Universe will eventually spread itself too thin to allow for the formation of new stars and galaxies, the Caretakers decided they would harness and corral extraneous matter using the gravity effects of black holes and other devices, and cause a sufficient concentration of the matter to insure the continued rebirth of new stars and galaxies. At times, they "closed off" sections of the Universe until needed.
Does Dr. Sagan have an imagination, or doesn't he?! The Caretakers are certainly the ultimate ecologists. Like a galactic version of Johnny Appleseed, they have taken the task of re-planting the Universe! The Caretakers' true appearance is never revealed because they appear to each of the Earth travelers as the travelers' loved ones. Dr. Ellie Arroway, our heroine and main character, talks with her dead "father" and learns that the Caretakers have an "emerging civilization division" that makes contact with cultures such as Earth, and invites them for a visit and tour. The Caretakers have watched many civilizations come and go but believe the Earth has hope for survival.
Dr. Arroway's assigned host, her "father," talks with her about the possibility of a hidden message buried deep with the value of "Pi," perhaps 10 to the 20th power digits beyond the decimal point. Dr. Arroway ponders the idea. But visit time is almost up! The Caretakers escort the travelers back to their craft and, without proof of their visit, send them home. Ellie later investigates the properties of Pi and makes a gargantuan discovery!
A WORD ABOUT STORY ACCURACY
Above all, Carl Sagan is a scientist. Based on what I know about him from his previous works, he apparently assumes nothing and questions everything. He is a stickler for detail. He retains that child-like wonder and imagination of the world around him - and of the Universe in which we reside. Accordingly, he left little to chance while weaving his story.
A transmission emanates from the Vega star system. Vega is about the right age, the right size, and the right spectral range to spawn a planetary system conducive to supporting an advanced civilization. It is also 26 light years away. The transmission, received about 1988, contained an encoded re-broadcast of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The period between 1936 and 1988 is 52 years; a round-trip radio transmission from Earth to Vega and back would take 52 years. Dr. Sagan later weaves the speed of light limit into his story when the Earth travelers are accused of perpetrating a hoax by government officials. The travelers are informed that the Message stopped at the moment the Machine was activated. With their limited minds, the government officials "know" that it should take 26 years for news of Machine activation to reach Vega. They refuse to believe that the Vegans could have broken the speed of light barrier. Dr. Sagan shrewdly used his "writer's license" with respect to the speed of light issue. As Isaac Asimov put it in his book The Roving Mind: "What do science fiction writers do?......better writers know of the speed of light limit and get around it by assuming that in the future, new technologies will be available. They talk about moving through 'hyperspace,' or through 'subspace'; they make use of a 'subetheric drive' or a 'space warp'.
But let's get back on track. Our distinguished author's work is more accurately described as a science and philosophy text book with a story woven in to connect these things. I estimate that 65 percent of the book would remain if the story were removed. Among the multitude of scientific notions "Contact" explores are the descriptions of various radio transmission modulation methods and the properties of exponential growth. Through his Ellie Arroway character, Dr. Sagan points out that one cubic centimeter of water (about one thimble full) contains 3 x 10 to the 19th power molecules whereas the entire Universe contains 1 x 10 to the 80th power elementary particles. A numerical difference of only 61 (in terms of powers of ten) is the difference between a few drops of water and all the matter in the entire Universe! In addition, the reader learns about worm holes, black holes, the birth and death of stars, bright infrared and x-ray emission sources, precession of the Earth's axis, Keppler's three laws, and much more. Speaking of Johannes Keppler, Dr. Sagan - the little devil - cleverly and surreptitiously slipped Keppler's proposed model of the solar system into his story. Dr. Sagan's Machine took the form of a do decahedron enclosed by three concentric rotating, mutually perpendicular hemispheres he calls benzels. In his paper entitled Mysterium Cosmographicum, published in 1596, Keppler borrows the Greek Mathematicians' discovery of the five - and only five - regular solids. A regular solid is one in which all sides are the same. In Keppler's model, the five solids are nestled one-in-the-other, separated by concentric spheres. One of these regular solids is a do decahedron, formed of twelve pentagons. Is the similarity between Keppler's model and Dr. Sagan's Machine a coincidence? I don't think so. Dr. Sagan is not only brilliant, he's sneaky. "Contact" may someday be used as a textbook.
Speaking of textbooks, consider the following riddle. What does one get when one combines the fundamental parts of the book "Cosmos" with a fictional story? Answer: "Contact." As I previously mentioned, "Contact" IS Dr. Sagan's way of telling us his dreams. Consider the following examples:
Contact: p.77 - Ellie imagines the Message as the "Encyclopedia Galactica" when it is first received.
Cosmos: pp.291-315 - An entire chapter is entitled "Encyclopedia Galactica." This chapter is a speculative accounting of how another civilization might communicate with us.
Contact: p.100 - Ellie explains to the President that the transmission from Vega has messages over messages in different levels of modulation - what she calls a "palimpsest." Cosmos: p.314 - "But the most likely case is that interstellar communication will be a kind of palimpsest, like the palimpsests of the ancient writers short of papyrus or stone who superimposed their messages on top of preexisting messages."
These are but a few of the many parallels that exist between "Contact" and "Cosmos." Is there any doubt that Dr. Sagan is telling us his greatest ambition - his greatest dream?
SCIENTIFIC INSIGHTS EXPLORED
Scientific insight is an understatement in "Contact." Dr. Sagan wasted no time with the development of his Ellie Arroway main character and our heroine. As a champion of civil and human rights, he naturally gave us a female astronomer and a female President. He meticulously describes Ellie's hard struggle to overcome harsh prejudices and resistance to her achieving her goal of becoming a radio astronomer and scientist in this male dominated profession. He also took great care to give her a perpetually inquisitive mind that questioned everything. She is a master of "Why?" From child through adulthood, she wondered about everything from the way vacuum tubes worked to - the Bible's compatibility with science to - the physical makeup of the Universe. Her curiosity parallels Albert Einstein's comment that a passion for comprehension is a necessary component of the scientific mind.
Dr. Sagan's Ellie character also follows in the best traditions
of women devoted to space exploration: Henrietta Leavitt, the Harvard astronomer who devised a stellar distance measuring method in 1912; Jocelyn Bell, the Cambridge astronomer who discovered what we now call "pulsars" in 1967; Linda Morabito, the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) engineer who discovered active volcanos on Jupiter's moon, Io in 1988; and, most poignantly, astronauts Judy Resnik and Christa McAullife who gave their lives in the pursuit of space exploration.
Through his various characters and situations, Dr. Sagan also poses the questions of technical civilizations being self limiting through self destruction; the probable numbers of other cultures in the Universe based on favorable conditions; are we too dumb for other civilizations to bother with; are we really fundamentally happier with the benefits of science - each of these concerns shared by Isaac Asimov, among others. A religious leader in the book offers these criticisms of scientists: scientists keep findings to themselves; only share information in bits and pieces; over-estimate what they know, under-estimate what people know; taught us how to annihilate ourselves. This same religious leader attempts to identify God as the source of the Message. He incredibly points out that Vega was the "North Star" about ten thousand B.C. when the Earth's axis was at the other side of its precession cycle (precession is a wobble in the Earth's rotation axis). This era marks the emergence of civilization and the concept of gods. It is Divine Providence that the guiding star then is the origin of this message now, he claims. Does Dr. Sagan dig into the depths of detail, or doesn't he?
Dr. Sagan, again through his Ellie character, does not allow the Bible to escape scrutiny. Ellie, in conference with not one but two prominent religious leaders, chairs a great marathon debate that scrutinizes biblical accuracy. Pro Bible arguments from the religious leaders focus mainly on claims of fulfilled Bible prophesies: "The coming of the savior is foretold in Isaiah fifty-three, in Zechariah fourteen, in First Chronicles seventeen. That He would be born in Bethlehem was prophesied in Micah five. That He would come from the line of David was foretold in Matthew one.....the Ministry and Suffering of Jesus are foretold in Isaiah fifty-two and fifty-three, and the Twenty-second Psalm. That He would be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver is explicit in Zechariah eleven....and the Bible speaks of our own time. Israel and the Arabs, Gog and Magog, America and Russia, nuclear war - it's all there in the Bible." Undaunted, Ellie waits for the right moment to return fire. Among her first salvo of rebuttals: The prophecies are often abstract and vague, ambiguous and imprecise - open to a wide range of interpretations.....even straightforward prophecies don't seem to jibe - like Jesus' promise that the Kingdom of God would come within the lifetime of some people in his audience.....passages that seem fulfilled are highlighted and the rest are ignored.
She continues by asking why God's communication with us in contemporary times isn't made perfectly clear. Why doesn't the Bible contain information that no mortal person would have known at the time - such as the Sun is a star....or Mars is a rusty place with deserts and volcanos....or a body in motion tends to remain in motion....or nothing travels faster than the speed of light? Why is there no mention of such things like "Two strands entwined is the secret of life"....or why hasn't He put a giant crucifix in orbit around Earth....or place the Ten Commandments across the face of the moon? Why no more burning bushes or pillars of fire or a thundering voice from the sky saying "I am that I am?" Why does He remain so cryptic - why doesn't He rattle our cages each generation or so? The marathon philosophical debate ends with all participants adjourning, satisfied with their respective offerings but not swayed by the others' positions.
Strikingly, "Contact" contains a table of contents not unlike that of an omnibus text book. "Contact" takes us on a tour that introduces us to the unique properties of Pi .. scientific investigation and hypothesis .. contributions of Greek science and mathematics .. our solar system .. the known properties of the Universe .. black holes .. do decahedrons .. exponential powers .. the Milky Way .. stars' life-cycles .. the Renaissance astronomers .. probability of extraterrestrial intelligence .. probability of our survival .. our insignificance .. our propensity toward greed and corruption .. our pollution problems .. our place in the Universe .. and much more. Science, religion, politics, psychology, philosophy, and their relationships to each other - it's all there - in "Contact."
Dr. Sagan's message to his readers is multi-faceted. He tells us who we are, where we've been, what were doing, and where we're going. He tells us we need to make the right decisions now if we are to have a desirable future; he tells to be scientists, to have an open mind; he counsels us to control our arrogance; he demonstrates the distinct possibility of life elsewhere in the Cosmos; but most significantly, he tells us WHO HE IS. Although Dr. Sagan is no longer with us, I feel his message is still very much alive.
But for all his brilliance, scientific knowledge and intuitiveness, skepticism, and resourcefulness, Dr. Sagan still held the door open to the idea that there may be a . . . Hey - read the book!
"Contact" isn't for everybody . . . but . . . it should be.
SOME PERSONAL THOUGHTS
I first enjoyed reading this book when it was first published. I recently read it again to enhance my appreciation of it because I was able to convert my increased knowledge of the sciences from my schooling into a greater understanding of Dr. Sagan's "Message."
Dr. Sagan issued a disclaimer at the end of his book, telling the reader that no character in the book is a close portrait of a real person. I don't think this is entirely true. I can't help believe that there isn't at least a smidgeon of similarity between the persona of the Ellie Arroway character and that of Dr. Sagan or, perhaps, his colleague and collaborator, Ann Druyan.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2006
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Science fiction/fantasy written by someone who knows science is refreshing. Reminds me of Asimov. Or a more accessible Feynman. I mean that it the best way possible.
The book touches on many subjects, including academic egos, technology, religion vs science, science vs government, government vs government. The book revolves around the means that some totally unthinkable culture might communicate a complex message. The latter was of course Sagan's passion and was the whole reason for the book.
It also touches on issues such as Your Sneaky Government, sexuality, and sexual bias with a 70's academic slant (not in an in-your-face way however.)
Basically, everything Sagan had to deal with is represented. He says the characters aren't real. I think he's lying :-D
What happens in the book? Sometime in the mid-to-late 80s, a dedicated, brilliant, and somewhat boring radio-astromomer is Director of a radio astronomy facility. One of her dishes gets an interesting signal. Of course, things snowball. The novel finishes sometime in the beginning of the new millinium... That's all the spoilers you get!
How did it read? Pretty good. The characters tend to be a very believable mix of pettiness, heroism, strength, brilliance, and quirkiness. Even the heroine has her share of issues.
Recommended. While I rated it a 4, it was more of a 3 in a literary sense, but it is a _worthwhile_, thought-provoking book. It made me want more science and didn't give it. Sagan's such a tease.