Contact by Carl Sagan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Looking back, I realize that I first read Contact back around 1986. The fictional events described in the book were as far in the future for my first reading as they are now in the past upon my second. Some things Carl Sagan talked about, like a woman President of the United States, have not come to pass (and in fact the movie substituted the woman president for the more historically accurate Bill Clinton.) Other things Sagan talked about, like the Soviet Union, ceased to exist shortly after the book's publication. Ordinary and common things, like the Internet and cellphones, which were establishing a toehold in our world by 1999, are not even mentioned. But Sagan was no prognosticator, he was hunting bigger game.
Sagan was concerning himself with big question, science versus religion, and whether they are compatible, the possibilities of world peace, and the eventual triumph of humanism. Calling the book science fiction does not do it justice. Few novels deserve the sobriquet (coined, I believe by Harlan Ellison) "speculative fiction" more. Sagan speculates throughout the book about seemingly everything, from the morality of the commercialization of sex to the possibility of human immortality.
I had completely forgotten that the book sets its most dramatic event on the last day of 1999, and that the book is so rife with Millennialism and world end scenarios. That fervor, so in the air throughout the 90's, is all but forgotten in the post 9/11 age. Also, Sagan's respectful examination of the claims of religion feel almost too nice in a world threatened by Islamic extremism and the economic extortion of the religious right in today's House of Representatives. We face another kind of apocalypse today, not nuclear, per se, but intellectual and economic.
Sagan is the modern model of the scientist/humanist, a great thinker who actively worked for the betterment of the world. His book is a very real examination of the difficulties involved in altering the views of those in power. Political realities continually stymie the brightest ideas, and truth becomes a commodity. The world we live in is peppered by politics, business and religion, all of which conspire and fight one another for power and relevancy, steamrolling idealists like Ellie and stomping on the dreams of, well, everyone.
The world we live in now is a product of the Enlightenment, and of the rising cause of Humanist values. There are forces, even today, that are anti-Humanist and would see the Enlightenment fail, and the old religions triumphant. It is quite possible that the loud rhetoric and violent actions of the anti-Enlightenment forces is a kind of death cry of a passing way of life.
Contact stands as a significant contribution to the goals we are striving towards and a polemic against ignorance and superstition, even as it acknowledges the difficulty of telling the two apart. In the end, after Ellie and the others have traveled to a distant world, they are left with no evidence, only their unique revelation, seemingly putting their science on the same level as run-of-the-mill religious revelation.
But Ellie is a scientist, as are the others. They will not proclaim their story without proof, without hard evidence. So instead of asking the world to accept their views on faith, they ask the world to wait, until they have the proof.
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