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Newsweek "Like a good mystery, Contact keeps us curious to the end...ingenious and satisfying."
Surrounding the blue-white star in its equatorial plane was a vast ring of orbiting debris rocks and ice, metals and organics reddish at the periphery and bluish closer to the star. The world-sized polyhedron plummeted through a gap in the rings and emerged out the other side. In the ring plane, it had been intermittently shadowed by icy boulders and tumbling mountains. But now, carried along its trajectory toward a point above the opposite pole of the star, the sunlight gleamed off its millions of bowl-shaped appendages. If you looked very carefully you might have seen one of them make a slight pointing adjustment. You would not have seen the burst of radio waves washing out from it into the depths of space.
For all the tenure of humans on Earth, the night sky had been a companion and an inspiration. The stars were comforting. They seemed to demonstrate that the heavens were created for the benefit and instruction of humans. This pathetic conceit became the conventional wisdom worldwide. No culture was free of it. Some people found in the skies an aperture to the religious sensibility. Many were awestruck and humbled by the glory and scale of the cosmos. Others were stimulated to the most extravagant flights of fancy.
At the very moment that humans discovered the scale of the universe and found that their most unconstrained fancia were in fact dwarfed by the true dimensions of even the Milky Way Galaxy, they took steps that ensured that their descendants would be unable to see the stars at all. For a million years humans had grown up with a personal daily knowledge of the vault of heaven. In the last few thousand years they began building and emigrating to the cities. In the last few decades, a major fraction of the human population had abandoned a rustic way of life. 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.
Ellie would look up at Venus and imagine it was a world something like the Earth populated by plants and animals and civilizations, but each of them different from the kinds we have here. On the outskirts of town, just after sunset, she would examine the night sky and scrutinize that unflickering bright point of light. By comparison with nearby clouds, just above her, still illuminated by the Sun, it seemed a little yellow. She tried to imagine what was going on there. She would stand on tiptoe and stare the planet down. Sometimes, she could almost convince herself that she could really see it; a swirl of yellow fog would suddenly clear, and a vast jeweled city would briefly be revealed. Air cars sped among the crystal spires. Sometimes she would imagine peering into one of those vehicles and glimpsing one of them. Or she would imagine a young one, glancing up at a bright blue point of light in its sky, standing on tiptoe and wondering about the inhabitants of Earth. It was an irresistible notion: a sultry, tropical planet brimming over with intelligent life, and just next door.
She consented to rote memorization, but knew that it was at best the hollow shell of an education. She did the minimum work necessary to do well in her courses, and pursued other matters. She arranged to spend free periods and occasional hours after school in what was called "shop" — a dingy and cramped small factory established when the school devoted more effort to "vocational education", than was now fashionable. "Vocational education" meant, more than anything else, working with your hands. There were lathes, drill presses, and other machine tools which she was forbidden to approach, because no matter how capable she might be, she was still "a girl". Reluctantly they granted her permission to pursue her own projects in the electronics area of the "shop." She built radios more or less from scratch, and then went on to something more interesting.
She built an encrypting machine. It was rudimentary, but it worked. It could take any English-language message and transform it by a simple substitution cipher into something that looked like gibberish. Building a machine that would do the reverse — converting an encrypted message into clear when you didn't know the substitution convention — that was much harder. You could have the machine run through all the possible substitutions (A stands for B, A stands for C, A stands for D...), or you could remember that some letters in English were used more often than others. You could get some idea of the frequency of letters by looking at the sizes of the bins for each letter of type in the print shop next door. "ETAOIN SHRDLU," the boys in print shop would say, giving pretty closely the order of the twelve most frequently used letters in English. In decoding a long message, the letter that was most common probably stood for an E. Certain consonants tended to go together, she discovered; vowels distributed themselves more or less at random. The most common three-letter word in the language was "the." If within a word there was a letter standing between a T and an E, it was almost certainly H. If not, you could bet on R or a vowel. She deduced other rules and spent long hours counting up the frequency of letters in various schoolbooks before she discovered that such frequency tables had already been compiled and published. Her decrypting machine was only for her own enjoyment. She did not use it to convey secret messages to friends. She was unsure to whom she might safely confide these electronic and cryptographic interests; the boys became jittery or boisterous, and the girls looked at her strangely.
Soldiers of the United States were fighting in a distant place called Vietnam. Every month, it seemed, more young men were being scooped off the street or the farm and packed off to Vietnam. The more she learned about the origins of the war, and the more she listened to the public pronouncements of national leaders, the more outraged she became. The President and the Congress were lying and killing, she thought to herself, and almost everyone else was mutely assenting. The fact that her stepfather embraced official positions on treaty obligations, dominoes, and naked Communist aggression only strengthened her resolve. She began attending meetings and rallies at the college nearby. The people she met there seemed much brighter, friendlier, more alive than her awkward and lusterless high school companions. John Staughton first cautioned her and then forbade her to spend time with college students. They would not respect her, he said. They would take advantage of her. She was pretending to a sophistication she did not have and never would. Her style of dress was deteriorating. Military fatigues were inappropriate for a girl and a travesty, a hypocrisy, for someone who claimed to oppose the American intervention in Southeast Asia.
Beyond pious exhortations to Ellie and Staughton not to "fight," her mother participated little in these discussions. Privately she would plead with Ellie to obey her stepfather, to be "nice." Ellie now suspected Staughton of marrying her mother for her father's life insurance — why else? He certainly showed no signs of loving her — and he was not predisposed to be "nice." One day, in some agitation, her mother asked her to do something for all their sakes: attend Bible class. While her father, a skeptic on revealed religions, had been alive, there was no talk of Bible class. How could her mother have married Staughton? The question welled up in her for the thousandth time. Bible class, her mother continued, would help instill the conventional virtues; but even more important, it would show Staughton that Ellie was willing to make some accommodation. Out of love and pity for her mother, she acquiesced.
So every Sunday for most of one school year Ellie went to a regular discussion group at a nearby church. It was one of the respectable Protestant denominations, untainted by disorderly evangelism. There were a few high school students, a number of adults, mainly middle-aged women, and the instructor, the minister's wife. Ellie had never seriously read the Bible before and had been inclined to accept her father's perhaps ungenerous judgment that it was "half barbarian history, half fairy tales." So over the weekend preceding her first class, she read through what seemed to be the important parts of the Old Testament, trying to keep an open mind. She at once recognized that there were two different and mutually contradictory stories of Creation in the first two chapters of Genesis. She did not see how there could be light and days before the Sun was made, and had trouble figuring out exactly who it was that Cain had married. In the stories of Lot and his daughters, of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt, of the betrothal of Dinah, of Jacob and Esau she found herself amazed. She understood that cowardice might occur in the real world — that sons might deceive and defraud an aged father, that a man might give craven consent to the seduction of his wife by the King, or even encourage the rape of his daughters. But in this holy book there was not a word of protest against such outrages. Instead, it seemed, the crimes were approved, even praised.
When class began, she was eager for a discussion of these vexing inconsistencies for an unburdening illumination of God's Purpose, or at least for an explanation of why these crimes were not condemned by the author or Author. But in this she was to be disappointed. The minister's wife blandly temporized. Somehow these stories never surfaced in subsequent discussion. When Willie inquired how it was possible for the maid servants of the daughter of Pharaoh to tell just by looking that the baby in the bullrushes was Hebrew, the teacher blushed deeply and asked Ellie not to raise unseemly questions. (The answer dawned on Ellie at that moment.)
When they came to the New Testament, Ellie's agitation increased Matthew and Luke traced the ancestral line of Jesus back to King David. But for Matthew there were twenty-eight generations between David and Jesus; for Luke forty-three. There were almost no names common to the two lists. How could both Matthew and Luke be the Word of God? The contradictory genealogies seemed to Ellie a transparent attempt to fit the isaianic prophecy after the event — cooking the data, it was called in chemistry lab. She was deeply moved by the Sermon on the Mount, deeply disappointed by the admonition to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and reduced to shouts and tears after the instructor twice sidestepped her questions on the meaning of "I bring not peace but the sword." She told her despairing mother that she had done her best, but wild horses wouldn't drag her to another Bible class.
She was lying on her bed. It was a hot summer's night. Elvis was singing, "One night with you, that's what I'm beggin' for." The boys at the high school seemed painfully immature, and it was difficult especially with her stepfather's strictures and curfews — to establish much of a relationship with the young college men she met at lectures and rallies. John Staughton was right, she reluctantly admitted to herself, at least about this: The young men, almost without exception, had a penchant for sexual exploitation. At the same time, they seemed much more emotionally vulnerable than she had expected. Perhaps the one caused the other.
She had half expected not to attend college, although she was determined to leave home. Staughton would not pay for her to go elsewhere, and her mother's meek intercessions were unavailing. But Ellie had done spectacularly well on the standardized college entrance examinations and found to her surprise her teachers telling her that she was likely to be offered scholarships by well-known universities. She had guessed on a number of multiple-choice questions and considered her performance a fluke. If you know very little, only enough to exclude all but the two most likely answers, and if you then guess at ten straight questions, there is about one chance in a thousand, she explained to herself, that you'll get all ten correct. For twenty straight questions,the odds were one in a million. But something like a million kids probably took this test. Some had to get lucky.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, seemed far enough away to elude John Staughton's influence, but close enough to return from on vacation to visit her mother — who viewed the arrangement as a difficult compromise between abandoning her daughter and incrementally irritating her husband. Ellie surprised herself by choosing Harvard over the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She arrived for orientation period, a pretty dark-haired young woman of middling height with a lopsided smile and an eagerness to learn everything. She set out to broaden her education, to take as many courses as possible apart from her central interests in mathematics, physics, and engineering. But there was a problem with her central interests. She found it difficult to discuss physics, much less debate it, with her predominantly male classmates. At first they paid a kind of selective inattention to her remarks. There would be a slight pause, and then they would go on as if she had not spoken. Occasionally they would acknowledge her remark, even praise it, and then again continue undeflected. She was reasonably sure her remarks were not entirely foolish, and did not wish to be ignored, much less ignored and patronized alternately. Part of it — but only a part — she knew was due to the softness of her voice. So she developed a physics voice, a professional voice: clear, competent, and many decibels above conversational. With such a voice it was important to be right. She had to pick her moments. It was hard to continue long in such a voice, because she was sometimes in danger of bursting out laughing. So she found herself leaning toward quick, sometimes cutting, interventions, usually enough to capture their attention; then she could go on for a while in a more usual tone of voice. Every time she found herself in a new group she would have to fight her way through again, just to dip her oar into the discussion. The boys were uniformly unaware even that there was a problem.
Sometimes she would be engaged in a laboratory exercise or a seminar when the instructor would say, "Gentlemen, let's proceed," and sensing Ellie's frown would add, "Sorry, Miss Arroway, but I think of you as one of the boys." The highest compliment they were capable of paying was that in their minds she was not overtly female.
She had to fight against developing too combative a personality or becoming altogether a misanthrope. She suddenly caught herself. "Misanthrope" is someone who dislikes everybody, not just men. And they certainly had a word for someone who hates women: "misogynist." But the male lexicographers had somehow neglected to coin a word for the dislike of men. They were almost entirely men themselves, she thought, and had been unable to imagine a market for such a word.
More than many others, she had been encumbered with parental prescriptions. Her newfound freedoms — intellectual, social, sexual — were exhilarating. At a time when many of her contemporaries were moving toward shapeless clothing that minimized the distinctions between the sexes, she aspired to an elegance and simplicity in dress and makeup that strained her limited budget. There were more effective ways to make political statements, she thought. She cultivated a few close friends and made a number of casual enemies, who disliked her for her dress, for her political and religious views, or for the vigor with which she defended her opinions. Her competence and delight in science were taken as rebukes by many otherwise capable young women. But a few looked on her as what mathematicians call an existence theorem — a demonstration that a woman could, sure enough, excel in science — or even as a role model.
At the height of the sexual revolution, she experimented with gradually increasing enthusiasm, but found she was intimidating her would-be lovers. Her relationships tended to last a few months or less. The alternative seemed to be to disguise her interests and stifle her opinions, something she had resolutely refused to do in high school. The image of her mother, condemned to a resigned and placatory imprisonment, haunted Ellie. She began wondering about men unconnected with the academic and scientific life.
Some women, it seemed, were entirely without guile and bestowed their affections with hardly a moment's conscious thought. Others set out to implement a campaign of military thoroughness, with branched contingency trees and fat/back positions, all to "catch" a desirable man. The word "desirable" was the giveaway, she thought. The poor jerk wasn't actually desired, only "desirable" — a plausible object of desire in the opinion of those others on whose account this whole sorry charade was performed. Most women, she thought, were somewhere in the middle, seeking to reconcile their passions with their perceived long-term advantage. Perhaps there were occasional communications between love and self-interest that escaped the notice of the conscious mind. But the whole idea of calculated entrapment made her shiver. In this matter, she decided, she was a devotee of the spontaneous. That was when she met Jesse.
Copyright© 1985 by Carl Sagan
Posted November 4, 2004
I was astounded when I first watched 'Contact' the movie starring Jodi Foster. I then decided to read the novel by Carl Sagan. I was hooked...this was something I couldn't put down for quite some time. I absolutely was enthralled by Sagan's balance of love, astronomy, religion, and everything else imaginable. I was fascinated by Ellie Arroway, the main character and heroine. She was absolutely brilliant, courageous, and everything else an admirable astronomer should be. She held her head high in the face of opposition and broke through all obstacles facing her way. I cried, laughed, applauded, screamed, thought long and hard about universal possibilities, religous questions, and wanted more and more with the turn of each page. I appreciate this book almost more than any other I've read.
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Posted May 17, 2000
If there is one book that I had to pick as my favorite, this would be it. While it may give a lot of scientific detail, Sagan portays the work with great style and tact. His story centers around a scientificly spun story with true moral and intellectual implications that delve into the heart of the human soul. In the book issues such as the roles of politics in science, religion, love, humanity, etc. are discussed and opened up to the reader. If you have to read a book for the summer, or a break, this should be it.
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Posted January 28, 2014
I was quite disappointed in this book, started out amazing, then it just bogged down with a lot of techie, sciency stuff. The characters got lost in the very technical story, there was really no build up as to the excitement of the Message, and the Machine...well, it was almost a side story getting lost in all the droning on and on and on. A great disappointment.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 27, 2012
As is often the case, the book is much better than the movie. There were enough differences, some significant, between the two to keep the story fresh. Sagan did a beautiful job overall but I felt the science vs. religion debate was just beat to death. I know it played a significant part in the main character's development but come on, we get it already. The story itself definitley gives you the sense that there is so much more to the universe than the small rock we're standing on. I felt humbled by the thought. We (humans) were almost childlike in "their" eyes. It was like they were teaching us to walk. At some point they may teach us how to run. Great book overall.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 2, 2011
I was very surprised to find the science spokesperson wrote a piece of fiction with such human tenderness and sense of wonder, as well as being very interesting for the science and philosophy explored. I really identified with the numinous wonder of a child growing up and exploring the unknown. The book was better than the movie, in my opinion.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 26, 2007
i Contact /i is a really great story with some very interesting characters. But Carl Sagan was a scientist, not a fiction writer. While the book featured some interesting and even beautiful passages, it is generally overwhelmed with too much science and too much technical writing. This makes for a frequently boring read. The other problem I had was with the glaring contradictions. Ellie Arroway is a woman who has had a tough time being taken seriously in her field because of her gender, while the US has a highly-respected and twice elected female President. This is one of those few stories where the movie version was actually better than the book. There were too many characters, but not enough character.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 3, 2007
Sagan's vision of humanity's first contact with an alien species is thought provoking and realistic, right down to the nuts and bolts. Almost all possible consequences of the discovery is relayed, some positive, some negative, but all very believable. If you're interested in the movie, which was good, I would definately recommend the book, which is a more intensive (and yes, satisfying) depiction of the whole first contact scenario. A great read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 27, 2005
With the touching insight of Carl Sagan, Contact is the powerful tale tackling the hard subjects--everything from nationalism, religion, atheism, science, and overall, man's place in the universe. A MUST READ FOR SCI-FI FANS!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 22, 2004
Contact is truly an amazing masterpiece of literary work. It's not just another story, one that you read and then put away on a shelf to gather dust; it's an exploration into the very heart of human nature and back again. On the surface, there may seem to be too many characters for your average science fiction book, but this book was not intended to simply tell a good tale of fiction. Each character has a purpose in painting the view of humanity that is written in this book. And while some passages may seem slow, political, and generally irrelevant, they give you a deeper look into the structure of society and man's conception of this structure. Yet, while this book delves into the deeper meanings of life, it also is a good read for those simply looking for a science fiction story because, though I shudder to think of anyone doing this, the 'slow segments' of the book can be skipped with no loss of understanding of the plot. Contact is a work of genius, and it shows the true nature of people, the many questions starting with 'what if', and it brings together a captivating blend of pure science with a cleverly constructed fiction. For those who are seeking a wider view and a story with some real scientific plausibility, I strongly recommend this book. I know that it changed the way I think about some things in society, and made me begin to wonder about certain scientific concepts. This book will stay in my collection of favorites for a long time to come.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 4, 2003
Carl Sagan has to be the best scientist writer I have seen. This book was full of detail, and it also gives a lot of information that the movie left out. Everyone who likes science fiction, this is a must read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 15, 2003
This is just the book I needed!! I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It was a good contrast of beliefs for me. Carl Sagan deserves comments like "well written" or "good read". I reccomend it to anyone who's looking for a challenge.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 14, 2001
It's important to not draw any conclusions about this book till you've finished it. So many questions are addressed, and so many different philosophical points of view presented, it's tempting to try to second-guess the author's own perspective on the question of extraterrestrial intelligence. Specifically, did Carl Sagan believe in God, or not? But he doesn't truly reveal himself till the last few pages. And it's worth the wait; the story's closing is very satisfying. One caveat: The book can get pretty bogged down in the development of too many characters. I myself only really cared about Ellie Arroway and Palmer Joss.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 20, 2001
I loved this book! I was delighted with the blend of pure science and science fiction. The combination of the two made the story believeable, not just another sci-fi novel. Sagan's exploration of the human condition and the consequences and joys that it brings make for a book that I will remember for a long time, as a possible future and present for mankind and the universe.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 15, 2001
This is a book of ideas, questions, and observations that happens to involve a science fiction story. The plot is good, but the real import of this work lies beyond that. Sagan deals with the nature of faith, how faith relates to science, modern gender issues, as well as religious discrimination and discrimination against the non-religious. Economic hedgemony, abuse of natural resources and the blind pursuit of 'isms' are also important themes. The author was an excellent scientist so this book has a ring of truth to it and is entertaining. It is also interesting that he seems to have had fun detailing the inticracies of the characters' relationships (especially that of Ellie and Palmer). Read Contact for the philosophical issues that are often mentioned yet seldom fleshed-out in Western culture.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 8, 2001
Posted October 19, 2000
Dr. Sagan's first and only venture into the Science Fiction genre is somewhat disappointing. The long ramblings on religion and sociology, nuclear weapons reductions and the President of the United States being a woman are all prejudices that Carl Sagan had for most of his professional career. These only slowed the novel and weakened it where it needed to be strengthened rather than turned into moralistic propaganda. The movie was a step up, but having Ellie Arroway go on that Ride alone was more like reduction to a daredevil stunt than a scientific exploration mission. Also, religion was protrayed as a blackmail weapon due to the inability of most cultures and governments to separate religion, politics and science and attempt to reasonably cooperate with other Nations. I was somewhat disappointed, but I still wonder if First Contact will ever be made and will We be ready for it?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 5, 2000
This book by Carl Sagan is good reading, but there are many parts which the main character (Ellie) rambles on and on about some points. I found it annoying that she stayed on one subject for a long period of time even though she already had made her point. So I wouldn¿t recommend this book to any one with out patience. Even though the book has some boring parts it is not a bad book. It has a few interesting parts, but they are far and few between. Summing things up, the book Contact is basically about a girl Ellie who was very inquisitive. She was always taking things apart, like her father¿s old broken radio and fixing it. She was always contemplating things like Pi and how many decimals points follow it. Later, she receives a degree from a technical institute and begins working for SETI(Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). She receives and interprets a Radio transmission from Vega, a star in deep space. The rest you¿ll have to find out by reading the book yourself..Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 21, 2009
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Posted October 15, 2010
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Posted November 10, 2012
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