I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Contact. The first contact with a non-human intelligence, beaming information at Earth from somewhere in the vicinity of the star Vega. I was reminded strongly of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, a Space Odyssey and also his Rendezvous with Rama. Sagan and Clarke were both very familiar with the political maneuvering that takes place in multi-institutional projects and could provide very believable back-room machinations.
At first, I thought that Sagan’s main character, Ellie, was rather like Clarke’s characters—clinically removed from emotions, observing them more than experiencing them. But I came to realize that the book was also about her contact with those around her, letting her tendency to observe and analyze stand in the way of truly making meaningful personal contact—with her lovers, with her colleagues, with her mother and stepfather. After a painful realization—that she has been taken advantage of by one of her lovers—she has no close woman friend to go have a drink with, no one to agree with her that the guy’s treatment of her was shitty, or to commiserate.
The book is also a thoughtful exploration of the complex relationship between science and religion—and the aspects of both where we can find “contact.” Because scientists do feel awe—who can stare up into the night sky, or think about the complexity of DNA, or hike in gorgeous surroundings without feeling it? But this book was written in the days before the militant atheists had claimed science as their territory and told religious believers that they couldn’t come in unless they recanted their beliefs.
Much more than just a “first contact” story, there are layers and depths here that frankly surprised me. Scientists are not necessarily good fiction writers—but I guess that Sagan was an effective story-teller, so I shouldn’t have been so startled.
Book number 196 of my science fiction & fantasy reading project.