Completed 11/8/2015, Reviewed 11/10/2015
Carl Sagan is one of my childhood heroes. My dad used to wake me up at 1 o’clock in the morning to watch him when he was the last guest on an episode of the Johnny Carson show. I read “The Dragons of Eden” in high school and thought Sagan was genius in making hard science very understandable. I loved the movie version of “Contact” but never read it, until now that it’s the December selection for my book club. And I loved it.
Ellie is a brilliant radio astronomer obsessed with search for extraterrestrial life. When a signal finally turns up, there is a mad dash to make sense of it. It’s eventually discovered that signal contains the blue prints for some kind of machine. It appears to be some kind of spaceship, but no one knows for certain. If they spend the trillions of dollars to build it, what will they find? Will we finally have contact with aliens?
The best thing about this book is that it is very hard science fiction, but written so it’s quite understandable. I should have expected this from my experience with “Dragons of Eden”, but it caught me off guard. The explanation of things like prime numbers and layers of signal read very easily and clearly. I actually had more trouble remembering who characters were than understanding the science.
There are a lot of featured characters. Sagan does a great job of delving into the lives of most of them. It adds a great depth to the characters, fleshing out the different kinds of people that become scientists. Eventually, I started to get their histories a bit confused. But I think the book is really well written. It’s just a matter of how much different data you can remember.
Another great aspect of the book is that Sagan has a lot of discussions about religion as well as women in science that are very provocative. They didn’t surprise me, as I’ve read his “The Demon-Haunted World” non-fiction work where he discussed science and religion. I was impressed with how here he was able to create really good arguments and actually left it to the reader to draw conclusions on the issues in the context of fiction.
My only complaint with the book was that it lacked a sense of warmth. The characters, including Ellie, despite having thorough histories, did not seem to have much emotional breadth until the end. Granted, we’re talking about scientists who stereotypically are driven by logic rather than emotions. I think perhaps I was picturing the actors from the movie speaking the dialogue, but just wasn’t getting the humanness that the actors created. Despite this, I’m still going to give it five stars out of five. I loved reading it, I thought it was well written. It’s a terrific hard science novel that conquers important philosophical questions as well, which I think is very much reminiscent of what Arthur C. Clarke was often able to accomplish in his novels.