Sunday, May 26, 2013

Reading Carl Sagan's _Contact_

This was one of those books that had always been highly recommended to me by everyone in my reading community, but that I just didn't get around to. I'm not totally sure why. I was in the generation who saw the movie as teenagers, and I was both a science fiction fan and actually really impressed by the movie (regardless of what anyone says). For some reason, though, I never actually sat down with it during the heyday of my teenage science fiction fandom.

I didn't even really plan to review this book here on the blog. I happened across it at my mother's house and, since I don't have much of a book budget this summer, I asked her husband if I could borrow it so that I could read something fresh in between re-readings of some of my other favorite books.

Looking at this book now, after years of coming to terms with my own beliefs, and after achieving a fairly high level of education, I can see that it would have absolutely floored me as a teenager. Had I read it during my freshman year of college instead of reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, there's a very good chance that I would have gone directly into the sciences instead of going into the humanities after I realized that engineering held no appeal for me. As it was, even without its influence, I wound up with an undergraduate degree in philosophy that was heavily loaded with philosophy of science classes.

The book is exciting and optimistic, two things that I do always look for. Sagan's hopeful skepticism permeates every scene. It's also "hard" science fiction, in that Sagan works to include the scientific concepts underpinning his work and limits himself to extrapolating from what was known to be possible at the time he wrote the novel. He also works very hard to make this a contemporary novel, and not just a far-fetched and fantastic voyage. This is important, because while I do like the hyper-imaginative and fantastic science fiction that's out there, much of what makes Contact recommended reading comes from its realistic nature and not its science fiction elements.

Adult fans of science fiction who revisit this novel, or who read it for the first time, will no doubt notice that there are a good many "instructional" passages where the scene is basically a vehicle for discussing skeptical thought, the basic philosophical underpinnings of the scientific method, and/or criticism of mysticism and certain kinds of religious thinking. For those of us that are already quite familiar with these arguments, the scenes can read as flat at times (though not always), because there isn't always a compelling dramatic reason to be dealing with that argument at that point in time.

Similarly, there are some very pedantic and unnecessary jabs at side-topics such as the date of the millennium that, while accurate, can pose a tone problem for readers young and old.

The more experienced skeptical/scientific reader will find zir patience rewarded, however, by the brilliantly inventive world that is unlocked once the dodecahedron vanishes into the naked singularity. Sagan's description of the awe and wonder that the main character experiences when she wanders out onto the alien world for the first time, and his descriptions of the astronomical events she witnesses on the way, provide transcendental moments that are all the more powerful for being grounded in the main character's understanding of the scope and scale of the events she is witnessing.

One surprising aspect of the book, at least to me, was the depth of its exploration of feminism (at least, of second-wave feminism) through the main character. While I was aware of Sagan's choice of a female protagonist through my familiarity with the movie, I was not prepared for the depth of his exploration of the resistance she would face in the earlier stages of her career, including the direct opposition of her stepfather to her attempts to enter the scientific professions. The content of the dramatization and the narrative argument around it is pretty 101-level, but that's not a bad thing.

All told, I recommend Contact to anyone who hasn't read it before. I also recommend that adults who are in a position to influence the reading habits of teens short-list this one when they are giving out recommendations. The target audience is not necessarily teens, but the basic arguments about scientific skepticism and feminism would be enriching for younger readers. My own reaction after a read-through is that if I had read this as a kid, I would have re-read it now to see how my perspective has changed. Having read it as an adult for the first time, though, I probably would not choose to re-read this one. It's strong enough to make me want to read more of Sagan's work that I have not read yet, just not strong enough to make me feel like taking a second trip through this particular book.