Saturday, August 4, 2012

Contact by Carl Sagan

By human stands it could not possibly have been artificial: It was the size of a world. But it was so oddly and intricately shaped, so clearly intended for some complex purpose that it could only have been the expression of an idea. Gliding in polar orbit about the great blue-white star, it resembled some immense, imperfect polyhedron, encrusted with millions of bowl-shaped barnacles. Every bowl was aimed at a particular part of the sky. Every constellation was being attended to. The polyhedral world had been performing its enigmatic function for eons. It was very patient. It could afford to wait forever.
—Excerpt from Contact, chapter 1


by Carl Sagan

Contact begins with the greatest idea of them all—that somehow, someway and somewhere, life exists beyond the small blue world called Earth. It is in these moments of the beginning of this novel that a grand adventure begins to be spelled out. In that adventure rests none other than Doctor Eleanor Arroway, a woman whose intelligence and drive magnifies her far beyond those of her peers.

It is one day, after an extremely-difficult line of work and a declaration that her SETI project will be shut down, that an unknown message begins to come from the Vega star in distant space—a message bearing, what appears to be, schematics for something far greater than anyone could ever possibly imagine.

As a reader of speculative fiction, and a fan of the science-fiction genre as a whole, I jumped into this book with excitement shortly after viewing the movie adaptation that features Jodi Foster and Matthew McConaughey for the second or third time. Thinking that it would be vastly different than the original movie, I ventured forward believing that the book would offer its unique, original interpretation--something that, regardless of its genre's tenants, would absolutely blow me away. To say that I was underwhelmed would be an understatement, and for that I sadly have to say that I did not enjoy this book as much as I could have.

With science-fiction, there is always a bridging line between the actual science and the fiction itself that can either make or break a book for a particular sub-sect of readers, mainly those who enjoy the idea of far-off worlds and alien civilizations but are not, in the least, intelligent enough to know specifics details about astronomy, radio waves and other technological jargon (this isn’t to say that readers are stupid; I merely mean that most ordinary people don’t have knowledge of such things.) Being a reader following into that sub-sect, I have to say that much of the time, I found the book doing just what it was I feel many science-fiction novels do in order to make up for the fact that there seems not to be enough `science' and too much `fiction'—mainly, of course, making the science much too heavy a role in the story. While I don't necessarily feel that this book lacked the essentials needed to make this a realistic story, I do feel as though the book (and its now deceased author) went to strong lengths in order to make this as set in stone as possible. For that alone I found myself cringing over three-page-long descriptions of certain scientific actions, theories and equations, and while that may have been beneficial to the story in a technical scientific standpoint, I feel as though Contact could have done without so much of the science and more of the fiction itself.

To say that the book is bad would be wrong. The writing is, at times, beautiful; eloquently strung together and written in a way that marks Sagan as someone who also, along with his astounding intelligence, had the ability to write. (Read the opening excerpt I provided and you’ll see what I mean.) While reading certain passages, I found myself blown away at how they were strung together, worded, and ultimately assembled to create the overall mood of the science in the story. To say this is a smart book would be like comparing an apple to a seed, and while the scientific endeavors that line this book is great, I have to say that I felt little emotion connection to the characters—particularly Arroway, who, as our main character, should have had a stronger focus within the overall story—which dealt a huge blow to the fictional connection between reader and main character. It’s dangerous for any writer in any genre to create a character that you can’t sympathize with, understand, or at least be fascinated by, and while Arroway was an intriguing character, that usually is not enough to make the reader like her. In this case, this is where a more emotional connection should have been used.

While I would not recommend the novelization of Contact to most everyone, given its scientific-slant, I can honestly say that the writing itself is beautiful and, if only for a few chapters alone, should be given a chance. While I may have felt a bit disappointed with the novel, that doesn't mean others will follow my path.

* * * *
3 Stars!

Get Contact in paperback below!

Reviewer’s Notation: I purchased Contact at a Half-Priced Books in Austin, TX.

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