Author: Carl Sagan

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1985

I read it: September 2011


Carl Sagan writes non-fiction like no one else. This is not meant to be hyperbole: I mean that he really is probably the greatest conveyor of the wonder of real events that the modern English language has known. Of course, to do this he has to be a superb storyteller. Anyone who’s read even a couple pages of his work knows his warm, immediate, yet far-thinking style. It only makes sense that he’d want to try his hand at fiction.

With Contact, Sagan largely succeeds. He creates a formidable heroine, Ellie, whom we get to witness grow up, fall in love with knowledge, and become a central player in a civilization-shaking drama. At times she’s a bit too perfectly molded–surely Sagan wanted to use a strong female protagonist more than he actually wanted to use Ellie herself. But you get the sense that if he had been solely a novelist, each successive book would have brought more intriguing characters. For this purpose, Ellie is guide enough.

And Sagan mostly writes his stories like you’d expect a non-fiction author to do. He injects every page with big thoughts and intriguing scientific questions–which is the joy of reading Contact. The characters share ideas completely within the scope of their roles, because they are highly educated and involved in the most important scientific discovery ever. It’s a thrill to get inside Sagan’s head and imagine how the scene might play out in the US. Sure, in our world I see far more bombs and blood when the aliens come than the functional building of communication devices, but Sagan does go to lengths to show the absolute difficulty of humanity getting their shit together in time to grasp the knowledge hanging out in space.

I really have to recommend this book for thinkers of all types. There are multiple epigraphs preceding each chapter, offering insights by everyone from William Blake to Bertrand Russell to the authors of The Dead Sea Scrolls. There’s politics and poetry and math and love and time travel and, most importantly, the unending inquisitiveness of the mind of Carl Sagan. It’s a joy that our own civilization received such a story from such a mind.

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