J.M. Williams's Reviews > Contact

Contact by Carl Sagan
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Anyone who has read a few of my reviews knows that I am a hard reader to please. I really thought this one was going to do it for me. The book starts so strong, and had me hooked from the opening pages. This initial momentum was fueled by two critical factors: 1) a deep and interesting character that I immediately cared for, and 2) an approach which highlighted the wonder of science in the eyes of the young.

I could see much of myself in the young Ellie Arroway. It is a hard thing to explain how someone growing up can become so enamored with numbers and concepts--I myself was more interested in the latter, favoring biology over physics. Carl Sagan does an incredible job conveying this mystery of nerdy introverts. This strong character development and examination of science keeps the narrative in a sprint for about the first third of the novel.

Then it all slows to a crawl. The middle of the book drags much to slowly and for far too long. And in the humdrum, that wonderful character that brought us in is all but lost. Her emotional context--the loss of her father in her youth--which is a critical link of beginning and end, is invisible here. Instead, the author bombards us with a dull mess of no-longer-relevant Cold War politics and mis-applied futurism. While it is important for a book examining the human reaction to alien contact to look at the political effects, in practice this book ends up being nothing but characters sitting around and talking about Soviet social controls and American defense concerns. Little actually happens on stage.

Regarding the futurism, not only are the predictions provided necessary for the narrative, they focus on the entirely wrong issue. Rich people living in orbit in order to extend their lives relates little to a story about communication and social development. Ironically, though Sagan clearly took the time to consider how contact and new technology would change mankind's relationship with space, he seemed to offer no time to the question of how it would change our relationships with each other. At the end of the novel, which is set at the turn of the millennium, the characters are still communicating by printed fax and telephone. This is despite the fact that the precursors to the internet emerged before the book's release in 1985. With the rapid development of personal computing technology, anyone who devoted even a sliver of effort would have anticipated significant changes in communication. It is hard to judge old science fiction for its successful or failed predictions, since one would have understand the perspective of that time. Even so, there were clear signs that were ignored in favor of extravagant sensationalism that does nothing to advance the story.

And then there is the ending. Without offering any spoilers, I will simply say that the conclusion of the book is disappointing. This is in part because nothing is resolved. Also, for a book that seems intent on addressing the science vs. religion debate, the author utterly fails to take a side, instead choosing to appease both sides with ambiguity. Doing so places a wholly unsatisfying cap on the whole work.

Carl Sagan always had a way of making science fun and engaging. This book is no different. The author is at his best when he is discussing complex scientific concepts in down-to-earth terms. But a novel cannot subsist on concept alone; there must also be strong characters and plot. This book runs out of steam far too quickly with the former, and largely fails with the later.

I wish I could recommend an alternative with similar ideas, but I don't have one. I just know that this is probably not the book you're looking for if you want to read about the effects of alien contact.

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Reading Progress

December 2, 2017 – Shelved
December 2, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
November 10, 2018 – Started Reading
December 13, 2018 – Finished Reading

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