Matthew's Reviews > Contact

Contact by Carl Sagan
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's review
Jul 15, 2007

liked it
bookshelves: fiction, god
Recommended for: most people
Read in July, 2007

(pre) discussions on science and religion with an atheist friend in the US led her to give me her battered copy of this. anticipating a good read and will start on it asap.

(post) I quite liked Contact, though it was, especially toward the end, very different from what I expected. I thought Carl Sagan might come down more on the side of science, and at the start, when introducing Ellie the astronomer vs Pastor Rankin the crazy narrow minded evangelist, he was, but toward the end I wasn't really very sure what he thought. I mean, its pretty clear he's an awesome physicist and is probably on the side of science in the science vs religion debate - Ellie seems to be the vehicle for his personal point of view - but I'm not quite sure he thought that religion was all that baseless. Ellie after all has a quasi religious experience, as she herself points out, and is put in a situation where she and a small group have an experience that is (nearly) empirically unprovable and the 'explanation' is that it was all a huge hoax. And while the Pastor Rankin character is obviously a strike against irrational and narrow minded Christians, the Palmer Joss character is a lot more enigmatic, and less easily dismissed.

Otherwise, though, I'm a lot cooler on Contact than many reviews on GoodReads are. Sagan's a good writer, but he's not a novelist. The language is complex but straightforward rather than lyrical, the plot is well-thought and the characters interesting but appear (to me) a little too transparently as vehicles for ideas.

Still, it is interesting to see things as agnostic scientist Ellie sees them. It appears to me what Sagan's trying to get at is that you can't give up rationally trying to account for all the evidence there is, and that if your theory can't account for everything, or there are competing theories that can both account for everything, or certain evidence that no theory can at present account for, then you have to remain agnostic, open to changing your conclusions.

Also managed to get through Ernst Mayr's This is Biology... essentially a glance at the various fields of biology and how they evolved (pun not intended!). Mayr's is the book I expected Sagan's to be - an account of science that categorically denies the possibility of creation, by making various statements about the widespread acceptance of the fossil record, the age of the earth, gradual continuous evolution of one species into another, etc. He doesn't really present the evidence itself though.
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