Sagan’s classic tale of first contact

It’s pretty common to hear the phrase “the book was better than the movie,” and usually it’s true; because no matter what the quality of a book is, Hollywood is usually all too willing to lower it by several notches in order to make a movie that appeals to the masses. In the case of Carl Sagan’s Contact, however, I have to say both the novel and the movie are of roughly equal quality, and high quality at that. Which is fitting, since Sagan wrote in the Author’s Note at the end that the initial version of the story was conceived for film, and the novel grew out of that.

I’m not going to delve much into the plot; I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie (if you haven’t, you should), and it doesn’t differ from the book in any extremely major ways. (As far as I can recall — it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the movie.) The biggest difference I can see is that the movie had one person using the Machine, while the book had five people who went on the journey. Also, there was of course a greater level of scientific detail in the book. But that’s to be expected; it is, after all, Carl Sagan we’re talking about. And I don’t recall the movie including the part about messages buried inside the transcendental numbers, although I could be wrong. But basically, this is one of those rare cases in which, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ve substantially gotten the essence of the book. Of course that’s not to say you shouldn’t also read the book. On the contrary, it would be well worth your time.

When I reviewed James Gunn’s The Listeners a while back, that other classic of first contact via radio astronomy, I said I had the feeling I’d like Sagan’s novel better. And in fact, that’s the way it turned out. Sagan’s book has many of the same strengths as Gunn’s, but without some of the weaknesses of that other novel. For one thing, Sagan’s Palmer Joss character was a far more interesting religious adversary than Gunn’s Jeremiah. For another, Sagan gave a much more convincing portrayal of the political situation surrounding the scientific ones. However, I have to wonder if Sagan was paying homage to Gunn with this passage, which strongly echoes the plot of The Listeners:

“Yes. Maybe something’s about to go wrong on Vega,” the Director of Central Intelligence interrupted. “Maybe their planet will be destroyed. Maybe they want someone else to know about their civilization before they’re wiped out.”

I will say, though, that on the level of pure writing style, Gunn outdoes Sagan. After all, Gunn is a professional fiction writer, while Sagan was of course a master of a different kind of literature — inspiring non-fiction books about science and reason. Actually, I couldn’t help but notice how his love for reason and rationality shines through even here, in his single foray into fiction. As part of the background world of Contact, he pokes fun at some of our species’ silly and illogical forms of news and entertainment, for example referencing the “now defunct National Inquirer,” and commenting thus on the world of television:

Lifestyles of the Mass Murderers and You Bet Your Ass were on adjacent channels. It was clear at a glance that the promise of the medium remained unfulfilled.

Coincidentally, that fits in perfectly with a recent discussion I started on the very same topic.

Sagan’s fictional world of television also has some glimmers of hope, though, including:

[…] Promises, Promises, devoted to follow-up analyses of unfulfilled campaign pledges at local, state, and national levels, and Bamboozles and Baloney, a weekly debunking of what were said to be widespread predudices, propoganda, and myths.

It was passages like these, just as much as the story of galactic travel and alien contact, that made me realize just how much I miss Sagan and wish he was still around.

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