Review: Contact, by Carl Sagan

Russ Allbery eagle at
Tue Dec 13 20:25:09 PST 2022

by Carl Sagan

Publisher: Pocket Books
Copyright: 1985
Printing:  October 1986
ISBN:      0-671-43422-5
Format:    Mass market
Pages:     434

Contact is a standalone first-contact science fiction novel. Carl Sagan
(1934–1996) was best known as a non-fiction writer, astronomer, and
narrator of the PBS non-fiction program Cosmos. This is his first and
only novel.

Ellie Arroway is the director of Project Argus, a radio telescope array
in the New Mexico desert whose primary mission is SETI: the search for
extra-terrestrial intelligence by scanning the skies for unexpected
radio signals. Its assignment to SETI is controversial; there are radio
astronomy projects waiting, and although 25% of the telescope time is
assigned to non-SETI projects, some astronomers think the SETI mission
should be scrapped and Argus fully diverted to more useful research.
That changes overnight when Argus picks up a signal from Vega, binary
pulses representing the sequence of prime numbers.

The signal of course doesn't stop when the Earth rotates, so Ellie and
her team quickly notify every radio observatory they can get hold of to
follow the signal as it passes out of their line of sight. Before long,
nearly every country with a radio telescope is involved, and Russian
help is particularly vital since they have ship-mounted equipment. The
US military and intelligence establishment isn't happy about this and
make a few attempts to shove the genie back into the bottle and keep
any further discoveries secret, without a lot of success. (Sagan did
not anticipate the end of the Cold War, and yet ironically relations
with the Russians in his version of the 1990s are warmer by far than
they are today. Not that this makes the military types any happier.)
For better or worse, making sense of the alien signal becomes a global

You may be familiar with this book through its 1997 movie adaptation
starring Jodie Foster. What I didn't know before reading this book is
that it started life as a movie treatment, co-written with Ann Druyan,
in 1979. When the movie stalled, Sagan expanded it into a novel. (Given
the thanks to Druyan in the author's note, it may not be far wrong to
name her as a co-author.) If you've seen the movie, you will have a
good idea of what will happen, but the book gives the project a more
realistic international scope. Ellie has colleagues carefully selected
from all over the world, including for the climactic moment of the

The biggest problem with Contact as a novel is that Sagan is a
non-fiction writer who didn't really know how to write a novel. The
long, detailed descriptions of the science and the astronomical
equipment fit a certain type of SF story, but the descriptions of the
characters, even Ellie, are equally detailed and yet use the same
style. The book starts with an account of Ellie's childhood and path
into science written like a biography or a magazine profile, not like a
novel in which she's the protagonist. The same is true of the other
characters: we get characterization of a sort, but the tone ranges from
Wikipedia article to long-form essay and never quite feels like a

Ellie is the most interesting character in the book, partly because the
way Sagan writes her is both distant but oddly compelling. Sagan (or
perhaps Druyan?) tries hard to show what life is like for a woman born
in the middle of the 20th century who is interested in science and I
think mostly succeeds, although Ellie's reactions to sexism felt
weirdly emotionless. The descriptions of her relationships are even
odder and the parts where this book felt the least like a novel, but
Sagan does sell some of that tone as reflective of Ellie's personality.
She's a scientist, the work is the center of her life, and everything
else, even when important, is secondary. It doesn't entirely make the
writing style work, but it helps.

Sagan does attempt to give Ellie a personal development arc related to
her childhood and her relationships with her father and step-father. I
thought the conclusion to that was neither believable nor anywhere near
as important as Sagan thought it was, which was off-putting. Better
were her ongoing arguments with evangelical Christians, one of whom is
a close-minded ass and the other of which is a far more interesting
character. They felt wedged into this book, and I'm dubious a realistic
version of Ellie would have been the person to have those debates, but
it's a subject Sagan clearly has deep personal interest in and that
shows in how they're written.

The other problem with Contact as a novel is that Sagan does not take
science fiction seriously as a genre, instead treating it as a way to
explore a thought experiment. To a science fiction reader, or at least
to this science fiction reader, the interesting bits of this story
involve the aliens. Those are not the bits Sagan is interested in. His
attention is on how this sort of contact, and project, would affect
humanity and human politics. We do get some more traditional science
fiction near the end of the book, but Sagan then immediately backs away
from it, minimizes that part of the story, and focuses exclusively on
the emotional and philosophical implications for humans of his thought
experiment. Since I found his philosophical musings about agnosticism
and wonder and discovery less interesting than the actual science
fiction bits, I found this somewhat annoying. The ending felt a bit
more like a cheap trick than a satisfying conclusion.

Interestingly, this entire novel is set in an alternate universe, for
reasons entirely unexplained (at least that I noticed) in the book.
It's set in the late 1990s but was written in 1985, so of course this
is an alternate future, but the 1985 of this world still isn't ours.
Yuri Gagarin was the first man to set foot on the moon, and the space
program and the Cold War developed in subtly different ways. I'm not
sure why Sagan made that choice, but it felt to me like he was
separating his thought experiment farther from our world to give the
ending more plausible deniability.

There are, at the time of the novel, permanent orbital colonies for
(mostly) rich people, because living in space turns out to greatly
extend human lifespans. That gives Sagan an opportunity to wax poetic
about the life-altering effects of seeing Earth from space, which in
his alternate timeline rapidly sped up nuclear disarmament and made the
rich more protective of the planet. This is an old bit of space
boosterism that isn't as common these days, mostly because it's become
abundantly clear that human psychology doesn't work this way. Sadly,
rich sociopaths remain sociopaths even when you send them into space. I
was a bit torn between finding Sagan's predictions charmingly hopeful
and annoyingly daft.

I don't think this novel is very successful as a novel. It's much
longer than it needs to be and long parts of it drag. But it's still
oddly readable; even knowing the rough shape of the ending in advance,
I found it hard to put down once the plot properly kicks into gear
about two-thirds of the way through. There's a lot in here that I'd
argue with Sagan about, but he's thoughtful and makes a serious attempt
to work out the political and scientific ramifications of such a
discovery in detail. Despite the dry tone, he does a surprisingly good
job capturing the anticipation and excitement of a very expensive and
risky scientific experiment.

I'm not sure I would recommend this book to anyone, but I'm also the
person who found Gregory Benford's Timescape to be boring and tedious,
despite its rave reviews as a science fiction novel about the practice
of science. If that sort of book is more your jam, you may like Contact
better than I did.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-12-13


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

More information about the book-reviews mailing list