On Wednesday, August 19th, the Classics of Science Fiction Book Club met and discussed Carl Sagan’s Contact. Of the wealth of work Dr. Carl Sagan did during his lifetime, Contact remains one of his most experienced and celebrated. Due at least in part to the 1997 movie starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, the popularity of the novel Contact maintains, and after reading and discussing, I think that makes sense. First and foremost, Contact is accessible. In the true spirit of Sagan’s legacy, he takes complicated, complex, and often painfully abstract concepts and delivers them in a palatable and accessible manner that is (generally) believable. While some attendees to our meeting argued that the movie was less tedious than the book, and others felt conflicted in response to Ellie’s demeanor, while others still were a bit skeptical of Sagan’s projected turn-of-the-century politics and scientific accomplishments, the discussion we had was rich and vibrant, which is arguably a tremendous success for any work of fiction.
Several aspects of Contact filled me with feelings of pride and excitement. First is the vision of a international, collaborative project. While far from perfect and wrought with frustration, the collective effort to build “the machine” speaks to a part of me that craves recognition for human endeavors. I appreciate that Sagan didn’t ignore inevitable conflicts, be they cultural, social, geographical, technical, or otherwise, but also revel in his proposal that humanity has within the capacity to transcend barriers and embrace similarities. Sagan’s vision hints at an idea that we all already cooperate in and contribute to a sort of transcendental, human endeavor. Taking that abstract (though elegantly simple) idea and playing it out through inspired space exploration had my heart singing.
Similar to recognizing our ability to embark on a collective project, Sagan does a great service to the conversation between spirituality and intellectual evaluation. Sagan elucidates how these two…actions? states of being? concepts?…are not so dissimilar and that they, in ways, necessarily depend upon one another. Supposed dichotomies and clear differences are usually very easy to identify and then easier to espouse. A willingness to explore and embrace the vast, complicated gray that inevitably exists as the spectrum of concepts speaks to the tremendous capacity humans exhibit for some serious, intellectual heavy lifting. That, I think, is pretty bad ass.
In the interest of preserving the whimsy of Contact’s conclusion, I’ll mostly reserve comment on the latter third of the book. Suffice it to say that, even for one who may find Sagan’s penchant for clear, thorough explanation of many things a bit tiring, the last third has the traditional pay off American audiences have come to appreciate and expect from 20th century fiction. It’s pretty crazy in a really great way. Also, our discussion of the last third was particularly exciting as we pulled apart the mechanics of how the events transpired and, as a group, were able to arrive at what I thought were some pretty solid conclusions.