Book Review: Contact

Palmer Joss asks Dr. Eleanor Arroway
What is there in the precepts of science that keeps the scientist from doing evil?
A very just and pertinent question, isnt it? This is just one line from many such brilliant conversations that the lead character Dr. Eleanor Arroway has in the book Contact.
The author of the book Carl Sagan touched upon a very sensitive topic in the book in a very very unique way – the unique way of an Astro Physicist. A scientist himself, Carl Sagan wrote the conversations and situations in the book with a scientific perspective but he doesnt let the narration slip away from the main track. As one might understand from the title of the book – Contact – the book is about one of the most interesting questions ever asked in

the istory of mankind

Are we alone in this universe?

What is striking about the book is the way it tries to discuss almost all aspects of being human with a strong undercurrent of the presence of extra terrestrial life. It doesnt leave out any topic known to mankind – Communism, Capitalism, Spirituality, Humanism, Religion, Physics from the point of view of an agnostic, Environmentalism, Universe, Particle physics in relation to Radio Astronomy, Gender based discrimination in modern society, Eastern philosophies on life and Universe and so on.

The Story
Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway is the director of the Argus facility. With Dr. David Drumlin pushing for cutting down telescopic time for SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) and increasing the same for other radio astronomic research, Ellie is finding it extremely difficult to get funding for the facility to work without government support. One day, her team receives an signal which would change her life.
Her team confirms that the signal’s source is not terrestrial but from a star 26 light years away called Vega. The signal encodes a series of prime numbers, but embedded within, it also carries a detailed description of procedure to construct a machine. The story is about how Ellie and her friends across the world convince the world governments that the machine has to be built and how they travel to the center of the galaxy.
Why this book is so different?
This book is not a regular thriller. Nor it is a romantic’s ramblings about how beautiful the world is. Carl Sagan takes a very very different route. He tries to narrate how the world would react to the first contact. Half way through the book, the reader with the least understanding of how our systems – economic, political, bureaucratic – work would realize that this is exactly how it would happen, that is if at all the first contact would happen.
Carl Sagan tries to explain how the signal might present itself in so much detail that he goes on to explain how the message would have simplest of the encryption but at the same time how it would be painstakingly detailed to avoid slightest of misinterpretation.
Through Ellie, Carl Sagan, in various side tracks talks to us about questions related to the extra terrestrial life. At one point in the narrative, Ellie engages in a fierce discussion with Christian leaders about Christian point of view of how world was created. Ellie also gets a Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist perspective through her friends Devi Sukhavati, Eda and Xi respectively. Carl Sagan doesnt miss out the communist perspective through Ellie’s another friend Vasily GregorovichLunacharsky. It must be stated here that though at times Carl Sagan leans toward communist notions in the book, he does agree in the course of the narrative that the communistic principles are inherently implosive (the USSR fail to build the machine in the book due to lack of money, bureaucratic competence etc). It would be fair to say that he tried to purport humanism as the principle for overall peace and prosperity.
Special place for India
What is quite a surprise is how Carl Sagan places India in a very important position in the narrative through the character Devi Sukhavati. The surprise is due to the fact that the book was published in 1985, when India was just another under-developed country to the world. It should be noted that Carl Sagan quietly lets off European countries from occupying any important place in the book. This might be pleasing to many people who were effected by colonial dealings of the European nations. Although Devi lives in London, she represents India, not England at the World Message Consortium.
Devi comes from a chaste Brahmin family in South India and is abandoned by her family when she marries Surindar Ghosh, who belongs to a different caste. Devi moved to London after Surindar’s death and is a doctor by profession with professional interest in Molecular Biology. She travels in the Machine with Ellie and others. The most pleasing aspect of Devi’s character (to yours sincerely at least) is the fact that at the end of journey, Devi confesses to Ellie that she doesnt mourn Surindar anymore and that she would return to her family in India. The very subtle relationship existing within a family in India is captured very pertinently by Carl Sagan.
Contact doesnt allow the reader to get bored with technical, political and bureaucratic stuff. Carl Sagan adds a very definitive human element through relationships like that between Ellie and Ken Der Heer, the security adviser to US President, a friendly relationship with Christial leader Palmer Joss, another friendly and professional relationship with Lunacharsky. Carl Sagan also lets the picture of the relationship Ellie has with her father, mother and her step father too to sink in deeply in to the reader’s mind.
At the end of the book, though Ellie remains religious agnostic, Carl Sagan, by establishing a very cordial and understanding relationship between Palmer Joss and Ellie, seems to be acknowledging the importance of faith and religion in human life. However, it must be emphasized that Carl Sagan makes it a point to rebuke religious dogma like that in the desert bloc. There could be loud disagreement with Carl Sagan’s idea of Ahmediya and jihad. However, it should be treated as the author’s point of view only.
The conversations on specific religions are down to the Earth and simple. At one point, Ellie asks Lunacharsky “do Buddhists believe in God?” to which Lunacharsky replies “their position seems to be that their God is so great that He doesnt need to exist”.
Toward the End
All in all, it must be said that Contact is a very intelligently written story of how the first contact may happen. It is a swift read. The pace almost never slackens and the discussions are lively though point of views of characters are poles apart.
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