Contact by Carl Sagan

Read: 22 November, 2012

Ellie Arroway is the director of the controversial Argus Project, which scans the skies for any evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial beings. After years of failure, finally, she receives a series of prime numbers that could not have been generated naturally.

The movie version with Jodie Foster was one of my favourite movies in my early teens, so Contact has been on my reading list for a while. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my hopes.

The writing style was very detached, telling the reader about the characters – sometimes even very private details – without ever allowing us to ever really get to know them. There were also fact-checking issues that I found rather jarring, such as when visiting France, Ellie sees a sign for the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) and she reads it “as the Russian word for beer, with the middle letter inverted left to right.” Thing is, that would be pronounced “Veer” in Russian, not “beer.” And, in any case, the Russian word for beer is “pivo.”

I also felt that Sagan’s agenda was too forward. I get that there are very few female scientists in literature, and those that do make it are generally socially awkward or “mannish.” So I really do appreciate that Sagan gives us a highly competent female scientist while still being very feminine. And, of course, Saga is very blunt about the extra hurdles in Ellie’s career path that her male colleagues don’t need to deal with. But the constant reminders of her gender, of her application of makeup, of her dress, of her choice in jewellery, of her lovers (and sexual rating of nearly every male she meets) served the opposite purpose, actually making me feel self-conscious about my gender.

The discussions of religion were interesting, but the “now we’re both searchers!” ending felt too contrived. The “moon landing denier” stand-in – Michael Kitz – was frustrating and, I felt, unnecessary. The difference between most moon landing deniers and Kitz is that Kitz actually has a lot of political power. For him to concoct such a crazy and baseless pseudo-explanation for “what really happened” simply does not make sense. After spending two trillion dollars, why would the governments of the world just suddenly change their minds and all work together to erase the experiment?

I’m glad that I’ve finally read Contact and can, at last, cross it off my list, but it was a struggle to keep going. After seeing the amazing movie that they made from it, it was a disappointing read.

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