Contact (1985)

Creators

Carl Sagan (writer).

Extent

Read in 2018.

Categorization

Near-hard SF.

Subject

The success of SETI.

Commentary

The best thing about the novel is the credibility of its first half. The elegantly linear narrative from Arroway’s childhood to the discovery of the Message and its societal impact are impressive. Sagan’s depictions of science and feminism are nearly flawless. The last third is not so good.

History has been indifferent to Sagan’s extrapolation. In his late 1990s, the Soviet Union is still standing and neither personal computers nor the Internet have arrived. Few writers in 1985 did better, but instead of what happened, billionaires live in orbital chateaux to extend their lives—which would not work—and there’s a theory of everything in physics.

One of the billionaires, S. R. Hadden, somehow made something like a trillion dollars selling “Adnix”, an increasingly sophisticated device that mutes TV ads. There’s a plugin to Adnix called “Preachnix”; its only function seems to be skipping past sermons while the user is channel-surfing. This illustrates the author’s finely tuned utopianism and understandable preoccupation with religion. Hadden emerges as a figure like Tyrell in Blade Runner (1982) and the resolution relies on a wormhole subway system that’s been stable since the universe was more-or-less created by a godlike earlier species. This part is not extrapolative, and as science fiction, it isn’t very good.

Other weaknesses are minor. A man dies by falling from a futon onto a tatami, normally a distance of 1 dm. A very minor Swedish character is named Vintergatan, the Swedish name of the Milky Way galaxy; it’s not a plausible surname.

The twist ending is impressive in a sense, but it’s far fetched as an interrogation of the scepticism that leads up to it. Sagan lampshades the weaknesses of his own writing: Why indeed would the journey take no time? Why would the “caretakers” destroy all incontrovertible evidence and magically cut the signal? Why do they animate the dead, as in Solaris (1961)? Why would their predecessors put messages far out in transcendental numbers, as if to tempt dismissal of decryption as apophenia and comparison with a posteriori Christian arguments for divine creation?

Fundamentally, the premise is patterned after the sense of wonder people get from religious mysteries. The author even comes within an inch of special pleading for the subjective experience of the protagonist, comforted by a priest. Surely this is an extremely improbable outcome of SETI. The main reason to read this book is because Sagan wrote it. He did a better job in other pursuits.

fiction text

Adaptation:

Contact (1997) IMDb