By Chet Yarbrough
By: Carl Sagan
Narrated by: Laurel Lefkow
No one popularized astronomy more than Carl Sagan in the 20th century. Sagan communicated the wonder of science and the universe in his television series, Cosmos. However, Sagan’s book, Contact, fails most tests of good fiction. First, it is more about a scientist’s view of extraterrestrial contact than storytelling for a broad audience. Second, one cares little about its main character, Ellie Arroway. And most importantly, it does not suspend disbelief or adequately use the best conventions of good writing (suspense, foreshadowing, drama, etc.).
On the other hand, Contact fleshes out the conflict between science and religion, and science and politics by showing how a message from another planet roils and amplifies differences of opinion. Religions’ conflicts with science are evident at the beginnings of science. Stories of the conflicts are legion, beginning with Galileo and Copernicus and continuing through Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and today’s scientists that regularly conflict with religious belief.
Politics interferes with science because pragmatic cost/benefit calculations conflict with scientific curiosity and the human’ desire to explore the unknown. On another level politics is parochial while science is international. Sagan’s story reflects on political reluctance to share information with other countries while many scientists insist on broad collaboration. In the case of the Contact story, a long message from another planet cannot be received in one transmission because of the rotation of earth. Collaboration, at least for receipt of the complete message, becomes a necessity. However, Sagan’s more fundamental point is that most scientists believe collaboration is essential to progress in science, regardless of nationality. Pure science has no national boundaries. The third level of political conflict is examined through the eyes of religious fundamentalists and a public that fears the unknown.
Sagan, with his wife Ann Druyan, wrote the story line for the 1997 film. Contact, the book, explains the origin, operations, and challenges of a real life organization called SETI, “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”. The movie shows film is a better communication medium for Sagan.
SETI is a controversial program.
Part of the science community believes the probability of hearing a message from another world is too remote to warrant science funds and resources for the project. The political community feels there is too little return on investment to warrant continuation, let alone expansion, of SETI. The book explains the tremendous potential of contact, but the story fails to create much excitement to change one’s mind about SETI’s value. The story builds to a climax that is interesting but a reader/listener’s ascent to the summit is barely worth the climb. In contrast, the film offers a more immediate emotional punch.