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Past BOTM discussions > Contact - Carl Sagan; Buddy Read 9/2020

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Kristel (kristelh) | 4144 comments Mod
Buddy Read for September 2020, led by Dawn. Contact by Carl Sagan.
Reviews go here; https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...


Amanda Dawn | 1113 comments Hey all, Welcome to September’s Buddy read of Carl Sagan’s “Contact”. I have yet to read the book or see the movie, but I love Sagan’s science work and old episodes of “cosmos” so I’m excited to get into this one. To start us off:

Author bio: Carl Sagan (born Nov. 9, 1934 in Brooklyn, N.Y., U.S.—died Dec. 20, 1996, Seattle, Wash.) Sagan attended the University of Chicago, where he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in physics in 1955 and 1956, respectively, and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960.Sagan was Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University. He did important research on planetary atmospheres, in astrobiology, and on the origin of life on Earth. He made his reputation primarily as a spokesman for science and a popularizer of astronomy. In the 1970s and ‘80s he was probably the best-known scientist in the United States. In 1980 Sagan reached the height of his public fame with the television series Cosmos, which he wrote with his wife, Ann Druyan. The accompanying book, with the same title, became a best seller. It was followed by several other books, including the science-fiction novel Contact (1985), which in1997 was made into a successful film. Sagan sometimes used his prestige for political purposes, as in his campaign for nuclear disarmament. Sagan received numerous awards and honours, including the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1978 for his book The Dragons of Eden.

Novel Summary: It is December 1999, the dawn of the millennium, and a team of international scientists is poised for the most fantastic adventure in human history. After years of scanning the galaxy for signs of somebody or something else, this team believes they’ve found a message from an intelligent source—and they travel deep into space to meet it. Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sagan injects Contact, his prophetic adventure story, with scientific details that make it utterly believable. It is a Cold War era novel that parlays the nuclear paranoia of the time into exquisitely wrought tension among the various countries involved. Sagan meditates on science, religion, and government—the elements that define society—and looks to their impact on and role in the future. His ability to pack an exciting read with such rich content is an unusual talent that makes Contact a modern sci-fi classic.

Questions:
1. How did you find the heavy science/mathematical aspect of the novel: did you find it interesting, confusing, etc. Did you learn anything in this respect?

2. Some people have described this book as “drier” than most science fiction novels, while others have praised it for its “realism”: do you feel like it struck the right balance between realism and excitement? Why do you think Sagan chose to make the tone of this book so different from many sci-fi alien encounter stories?

3. Sagan named the protagonist-Elle Arroway- after 2 historical figures: Eleanor Roosevelt and Voltaire (whose real last name was Arouet). Why do you think he chose these two figures to name her after, and what does it reflect about Elle?

4. One of the core themes of this book is about the value of the combined efforts of humanity, from people from different disciplines, countries, backgrounds, demographics etc. How is this demonstrated in the book? How does it reflect a political stance about the time it was written in? How important is this message now?

5. How does the book explore the contrasts and intersections of science and faith? How do feel about scenes like the one with the Foucault pendulum that explore science as faith?

6. What is your impression of how the alien life is represented in this book? Did you like the entropy plotline/the hints of the precursors who built the wormhole system?

7. Finally, how did you like the book? Do you feel like it deserves its place on the list?

Discuss!


Amanda Dawn | 1113 comments So I finished this one this week and absolutely loved it. I’m going to wait for other people to read before I start discussing though.

Just out of curiosity, who is planning to read this one this month?


Kristel (kristelh) | 4144 comments Mod
I've started it and enjoying it.


Kristel (kristelh) | 4144 comments Mod
#1. The heavy science aspect was just fine. I didn't need to "know" it. I found it interesting as I found listening to Carl Sagan when he was on TV as interesting. I am not sure I "learned" anything in regards to science, at least not anything I am going to retain.

#2. I think this one is not easy to read as I have tried to read in previously and did not make it. The audio was a great help and I was able to get it done finally! I gave it only 3 stars on readability remembering that I've tried and failed previously. I don't think it really captured the "fear" that would have been triggered. It failed there so in that regard, to dry. Because in reality this would have been pretty scary stuff.

3. Not sure.....

4. It smacked of globalism (1985) and makes the book very relevant to the current issues. I think globalism according to what I could find probably started sometime after WWII but it probably goes back to Babel.

5. I thought the book was a bit one sided at first but was fully surprised at the coverage given to the other side of the issue. I liked the picture of science as faith cause really it is true. Some things science claims is "faith" based and not 'proven beyond doubt'.

6. It was interesting but disappointing that the "aliens" never really had an image (was that a cop out) and that they just took the pictures of memories. I liked how it played into the ending and I can so see that ending cause that ending gave comfort to those who don't like change.

7. I liked the audio. I think it was well done. Does it deserve to be on the list? That is a good question. I think I recall that Sagan had the movie in mind when he wrote the book. He really wasn't writing the novel for the novels sake. There are others on the list who wrote for the TV/Movie rather than the purpose of novel. Did anyone actually watch this movie? Was it any good. I think it's okay on the list because of its topics; SETI, globalism, political vs science, etc. The black holes, worm holes, etc. So maybe it worked as a more modern version of first contact.


message 6: by Amanda (last edited Sep 12, 2020 04:48PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amanda Dawn | 1113 comments Kristel wrote: "#1. The heavy science aspect was just fine. I didn't need to "know" it. I found it interesting as I found listening to Carl Sagan when he was on TV as interesting. I am not sure I "learned" anythin..."

Glad you enjoyed it too, Kristel. I liked reading your answers.
I think I'll launch into the questions too since at least 1 other person has read and responded to it.

Questions:
1. I enjoyed this aspect: I agree with Kristel that while science is the underlay of the book, you don’t really need to get it or learn anything new to appreciate the book. I work in science, but not astronomy or engineering so I liked reading about a different field. As well, some of the math based code stuff was cool, as well as the explanation of transcendental numbers.

2. I mean I gave it 5 stars, so it definitely struck the balance of realism and excitement for me. I think the tone was largely chosen to reflect how a first contact would actually look like, instead of an action movie where aliens are the draping (like in things like Independence Day). I agree with Kristel that way more hysteria probably would have been triggered by this in real life and Sagan may be giving the collective culture too much credit there (I mean look at covid conspiracy nonsense happening right now). But, we also do kind of just go on with our day to day life in even in the presence of wild news if we can do nothing about it (I kind of think the current pandemic works as a sort comparison for that, as does pictures I’ve seen that I’m obsessed with of people just walking through the Balkans war in the 90s to work), so to some degree I think it’s still realistic.

3. I thought this was really cool. I interpret this as representing a woman who is a trailblazer in what is often seen as a masculine profession (like Eleanor Roosevelt), and also someone who stakes their beliefs on reason and evidence (as Voltaire was a leading figure of the enlightenment and a huge critic of organized religion). Both of these encapsulate Elle perfectly.

4. It definitely reflects an endorsement of egalitarian globalism. This is really demonstrated in the book through the diverse crew of the machine, gender, nationality, and discipline wise. Also, in the way that Elle works with the soviet scientists as peers despite differences between the political structures of their countries. I think this really reflects a desire for a friendlier future given the book was written near the end of the cold war. But, this is still such a huge message for the current times given the rise of nationalism, ethnocentrism, and proto-fascism in what were previously a lot of stable democracies. It also reminds me of the ethos of Star Trek- especially the original series, and how diversity in the crew and cooperation among cultures on Earth as always a key part of the utopian dream.

5. I loved this aspect of the book, especially since it didn’t take the tired false equivalence route that too many people trying to make this point fall into of “science is just like religion because it requires belief” (which the less sympathetic evangelical character definitely makes in the book). But rather it goes for the “science and reasons are legitimate complete belief systems that can carry the same sense of emotional fulfillment and wonder that religion gives other people” that I loooved (especially since some people like to come at the ‘science and reason as a belief system is cold and sad and wonderless’ angle that I hate). The whole point of the Foucault pendulum is that Elle knows she can stand in it because of repeated evidence and it follows the laws of physics- things that are not related to blind faith. She even pushes back on the point that “why are scientists skeptical of everything else like religion but take science at face value?” by saying that we don’t. We’re good scientists when we are skeptical of scientific claims as well: we need to see repeated data, we form hypotheses in a way that says we’ve proven other factors are not the case, we spend so much of our careers critiquing and demanding more evidence from our peers (seriously, I do so much free work for my boss tearing apart other people’s manuscripts before they can be published). That’s the whole basis of the peer review system. She also brings up how scientific understanding is frequently being rewritten because since it is formed by imperfect people who have biases and imperfect technology to observe everything, it is not always right immediately. But, this is a strength because it means we never stop questioning things and then can adapt our understanding as the facts evolve. Science is also my “faith” because it isn’t about faith at all. I also love that Ranking and Joss are contrasted as characters of faith, differentiating evangelical yahoos from sophisticated people of faith who aren’t enemies of science. I’m a lifelong atheist and current scientist, but I have many friends who are strongly people of faith and I love having deep conversations with them. Elle and Joss’s conversations in the book remind me of these, which made me so happy. I thought it was one of the strongest aspects of the book.

6. I kind of liked that they communicate through neurological means and therefore take form from people’s memories. I thought it was cool, and given that they are so advanced and have the ability to change entropy, I feel like it is reasonable to assume that they can communicate this way, and may even be non-corporeal to our understanding. I liked that the book left their motivations a little sparse, but introduced the ideas of combating entropy- something that doesn’t seem too petty or human for an advanced species.

7. Loved it! It was a book about a brilliant female scientist that is part of an international citizen-of-the world type troupe, who has a lot of brilliant conversations with a cool preacher about faith belief and morality, meets chill aliens in a way that touches on the idea of legacy and the meaning of existence, talks about science and reason as a wondrous belief system, and sets petty nationalism as the real villain. It was so many things I want from a book lol. I would definitely keep it on the list as a great example of secular philosophy and sci-fi realism. Haven’t seen the movie previously, but I do want to now.


Gail (gailifer) | 1413 comments I am surprised how much I enjoyed this. The writing, although not extraordinary, was clear and the plot and the discussions about science and religion really moved me along.

Questions:
1. How did you find the heavy science/mathematical aspect of the novel: did you find it interesting, confusing, etc. Did you learn anything in this respect?

I did learn a bit although my scientific foundations are quite sparse. However, I stopped a few times to look things up and a great deal of this book's science from 1985 appear to be considered theoretically possible still.
I enjoyed these bits.

2. Some people have described this book as “drier” than most science fiction novels, while others have praised it for its “realism”: do you feel like it struck the right balance between realism and excitement? Why do you think Sagan chose to make the tone of this book so different from many sci-fi alien encounter stories?

I think it did strike a nice balance. It certainly didn't race along and one never felt that the big bad alien was going to come popping up out of a person's torso or even that the 5 "passengers" would all die. However, the book left room for an ordinary person to think about what may be possible in the universe and the extreme breadth of the universe. The "alien" beings were a more advanced "us"....they didn't have all the answers, they felt somewhat orphaned in the universe, they had some pride in their place in the universe as keepers of the stations but they were not such superior beings that they didn't notice us little ant like earthlings.

3. Sagan named the protagonist-Elle Arroway- after 2 historical figures: Eleanor Roosevelt and Voltaire (whose real last name was Arouet). Why do you think he chose these two figures to name her after, and what does it reflect about Elle?

Voltaire was a absolute master in a number of creative arenas, and yet he was largely just considered a radical during his own time. Eleanor, as the President's wife, was able to have a powerful influence on policies and her husband's activities by being someone who simply had a mind of her own and was not afraid to speak it.

4. One of the core themes of this book is about the value of the combined efforts of humanity, from people from different disciplines, countries, backgrounds, demographics etc. How is this demonstrated in the book? How does it reflect a political stance about the time it was written in? How important is this message now?

This was such a message of hope, particularly now, in this age of increasing nationalism and deep rooted fear of anyone who is "other". The fact that the world came together, even if much of the motivation was increased technology innovations for financial gain, and built the Machine showed that we humans could act in our larger world interest. We need this message right now in the face of global climate change.

5. How does the book explore the contrasts and intersections of science and faith? How do feel about scenes like the one with the Foucault pendulum that explore science as faith?

I like Amanda's answer. I could not express it as well and I did like this aspect of the book.

6. What is your impression of how the alien life is represented in this book? Did you like the entropy plotline/the hints of the precursors who built the wormhole system?

Yes, I thought that ending with only a few answers was the correct way to end this book that allowed it to continue to have a wide open scope. The aliens we encounter have enough empathy to share a focus of each passenger's true love. They could have picked the passenger's true fear. Plus the aliens clearly are very far beyond earthlings in many areas beyond technology and yet seemed to have policies in which it was clear that they would leave civilizations alone to fulfill their own destiny. They just wanted to collect some information and nudge earthlings into a collective action but otherwise were not out to rule or even just overwhelm with new data. And the wormhole builders that came before the aliens we meet, reminded me of the Anasazi, that great southwestern US culture that suddenly disappeared in 1275. Did they leave because of a disaster or to go to a better place? And if they went to a better place was it another universe altogether? And of course, were they gods?

7. Finally, how did you like the book? Do you feel like it deserves its place on the list?

I liked it very much. It was a nice "easy" read and I thought the female protagonist was well done. I also thought that the primary love affair coming down to loving yourself, your world, your family (as you define it) rather than a romantic love was well done also. I agree it should be on the list.


message 8: by Pip (last edited Sep 30, 2020 04:04PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Pip | 1419 comments Sorry I am late to this discussion, I have just found the questions.
1. I loved the scientific and mathematical explanations, although I have no clue about their veracity.
2. I have great trouble reading science fiction because only some things are altered and logic seems absent, but I really liked the realism of this book. I can't comment on why Sagan chose to make his book different because I have read few others.
3. I did not realise Sagan's sly references. They are wonderful!
4. This message is literally vital now, when the whole world is facing COVID-19, and the demonising of other cultures, particularly by Donald Trump in respect to China, is undermining cooperation. It is a time when we should all be supporting agencies of international cooperation such as WHO, not pulling out of them.
5. I really loved the discussions about faith versus science. The pendulum swing was a vivid explanation of reason versus faith. The idea tha numinosity is part of scientiic wonder and not exclusive to religion was important.
6. I loved that they were not little green men.
7. Yes, the book deserves to be on the list. It was almost a 5 star read for me.


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