Contact follows Eleanor Arroway on her quest to find evidence of extraterrestrial life in the galaxy. Arroway, the main protagonist, is a woman. I have probably read a little over 100 science fiction novels in my life - a number that makes me a fan, but not an expert - and I would guess that 10% of those novels were lead by a female protagonist. There are more that have developed female characters, but few see the story from a woman’s perspective. Not only is the story told from one woman’s perspective, it is told from a woman’s perspective in the general sense. Arroway excels in her field of astronomy but must fight to be heard and acknowledged in the male-dominated profession. Its focus on the female protagonist and the female perspective makes it, given the numbers of women in science, a very important novel.
Contact very much loves the “science” in “science fiction” - specifically astronomy. It dives deep into the known and theoretical phenomenon of the field. After Arroway’s radio observatory detects an extraterrestrial message the world works to decode it with mathematics. When the message is decoded it is revealed to contain schematics for building a machine of unknown function. A massive engineering project is undertaken by the nations of the world to build the alien machine with heretofore unknown technology.
What made Contact the most quintessential “science” science fiction book for me was the lack of a big payoff. Not only was there a lack any great action scene, there wasn’t even a satisfying revelation at the end. Sure, the scientists and select government officials know what was found when Ellie and the other four travelers went down that wormhole, but society only thinks of it as a failure. Science doesn’t have dramatic payoffs. It has years and years of incremental gains and disappointing results until slowly the solution coalesces.
In addition to a strong statement in favor of feminism, the story is built around Sagan’s political opposition to nuclear weapons. “The Message”, and “The Machine” that follows, are global phenomena. Many nations play a role in acquiring and decoding the message. The Americans need the Soviets and vice versa. Given the rotation of the Earth there is no way one nation can acquire the entire message without receivers all over the Earth. The multi-layered complexity of the message means there is no way one nation has the expertise to crack it alone. A nationless idealism pervades in the post-Message world. Cold War politics are a hindrance to achieving a grand goal. Transnationalism surpasses nationalism and xenophobia. Humans have been so selfish and nasty and warlike before, but this will bring in a new age of cooperation.
The aliens, the five interstellar travelers learn, won’t let us partake in interstellar travel or the great engineering projects of the galaxy if we don’t shape up. It’s a similar theme I saw in The Day the Earth Stood Still, where the warlike humans are put on notice that their violence will not be tolerated. We are children in a universe of accomplished adults. I admit to finding this theme somewhat distasteful. If Earth were ever contacted by extraterrestrial intelligence it would make sense that the aliens were much more advance than humans. It’s not that I dislike the fact that they are more advanced but rather what that is used for. The paternalistic aliens are a deus ex machina for whatever societal ill the author is criticizing.
Sagan sets up The Message as a battleground between science and religion. One side thinks it is a message from intelligent life, the other from God. Arroway spars with two religious leaders, Billy Jo Rankin and Palmer Joss, over the meaning of The Message. While she easily vanquishes the more fanatical Rankin, she befriends Joss. It is here that this battle between science and religion goes from confrontational to compromising. Joss is able to see past strict adherence of scripture while Arroway’s experience on The Machine opens to her the possibility of a creator, deep within the galaxy.
This is not Arroway becoming religious though. She most certainly rejects belief without evidence. But that does not mean she is devoid of spiritualism. She views the universe through a different lens than Joss, but they end up having the same feelings about it.
As logical as the novel was, it’s also a novel for dreamers. Ellie believes, to the detriment of her career, that intelligent life is out there. For all the hard science in her brain she still loves to gaze at the stars.