I believe in extra-terrestrials and am absolutely enthralled by Contact, a book authored by one of the most celebrated science-fiction writers of our times, Carl Sagan. A book review of Contact, that has also been adapted as a movie, is expected to revolve around scientific enquiries of the plausibility of an event such as space travel, alien-contacts and extra-terrestrial life. I, however, take on a different perspective in examining the intent and content of the book.
While Sagan’s scientific knowledge and futuristic vision is definitely impressive, his exemplary command over a literary writing style is noteworthy. The vocabulary, imagery, in-depth characterization and sensitivity of the writing make the book a great literary piece in its own right. Also, significant is the weaving of complex issues of feminism, role and position of educated working women in the “man’s world”, and addressing of political and religious issues without many critical overtones. It is amazing how in a 400 page science-fiction novel, the author has been able to pack in emotions, concerns, dialogue and opinions on the current social fabric of our World. Contact was maybe not mean to be science-fiction but a social treatise.
Dr. Eleanor Ann Arroway the protagonist is intelligent, savvy, obsessed, focused and like any ambitious woman has her shortcomings along with feminine sensitivities and emotions. The influence of her practical, atheist father, who encouraged her spirit of scientific enquiry, is evident and long-lasting in Ellie’s life. She would have been a dreamer, not a scientist, had her father not been the “present”, then the “absent” (after his death); and subsequently the “imagined” inspiration to carry on scientific research and exploration.
Carl Sagan has intensely weaved a father and daughter relationship and carried the threads till the end of the book. In stark contrast to near hero-worship of her father, is Ellie’s guilty ignorance of her mother’s emotional needs, in old age and ill-health. Ellie’s mother waited for years for Ellie to visit her in the retirement home where she could proudly introduce her scientist daughter to other inmates. Her scientist daughter was too preoccupied with White Noise, to respond to her mother’s calls. It is an admonishing letter from her step-father that finally pushes her to initiate regular communication with her stroke-ridden mother. However, Ellie’s attachment towards her father, long dead, is striking and significant as the novel progresses. Sagan has successfully added a psychological outlook to the characterization.
As a strong-willed professional, Ellie has her own share of struggle with the male dominated scientific world. It is here that the feminist angle is evident. Ellie has ample personal and professional concerns but she keeps up a brave fight in the face of professional adversaries, particularly her research guide, Dr David Drumlin. And it’s just not the men who throw in the roadblocks. As a woman who can speak her mind, Ellie is also not the blue-eyed baby of other women in positions of power, for example, the female President of the United States favors Drumlin over Ellie’s candidature as a space-traveler.
The strength of her character as an individualistic female also makes Ellie unsuccessful in love and relationship. Be it during her college days or during the stressful professional days of investigating into messages from the aliens, her uniqueness overpowers her womanhood. Her vulnerability is evident – she needs to be loved, and appreciated, and even in the most crucial phases of her professional life, she falls in love with the President’s scientific advisor. But how many men can have the courage and patience to remain in love with a woman as free-willed, ruthlessly ambitious and outspoken as she. Her lover is shown drifting away from her, and she reconciles with her loveless existence. It is no coincidence that the other female scientist from India, Devi, is a young widow. References to the President’s husband read that he is content in playing second fiddle to his powerful wife.
Is this the ultimate paradox of successful women – to make a mark in the man’s world, you have to be single, or too thick-skinned to feel guilty about not having enough breakfasts with your husband? And yet, the female instinct is strong and evident. Not once but twice, on her space journey, Ellie is shown regretting not having had a child. The weakness is evident even in Devi’s character, when she is seen reminiscing oft about her long-dead husband and is even shown reconciling with him on an extraterrestrial plane. Child, lover, husband, father, step-father, mother – the complex web of relationships entwine the female characters even in a book that talks about space travel and message from the Gods. Men are shown to worry only about nuclear war, doomsday, religion, economics, and in most cases indulge in promiscuous escapades.
Talking about message from the Gods, it is also interesting how Sagan has created mouth-pieces to discuss the theories of agnostic vs atheist vs believers. The tryst between faith, belief, empirical research and scientific enquiry has remained encrusted in our psyche and our socio-political fabric since time immemorial. While the characters debate on the existence of God and scientific practicality, the author has summarized the entire human quest in one word – Immortality. Be it space colonies in zero G that prolong life by controlling disease, or extraterrestrial worlds where the dead come to life as guardians and caretakers, it is evident that the penultimate human desire is to be immortal or have an after-life in a problem-free, age-and-pain-resistant world. Whether our belief in the Gods help us to reach Nirvana or the extraterrestrials aid our resurrection, we are all seeking escape routes into a perfect world in both Body and Spirit.
A unified world from a political standpoint is another endearing concept that Sagan has elaborated in this novel. On the historical plane, Sagan has chosen the reign of Hitler as the starting point of the time and space odyssey in Contact. The selection is significant as Hitler was an embodiment of some of the greatest quests and disastrous results in modern human history. From the desire to establish genealogy supremacy, to facilitating technological and biological research and advancement, to finally bringing the worlds to war, Hitler was more of a “concept” and an “effort” gone wrong, than a misguided insane despot. And this is what the struggle of the modern world continues to be – to strike a balance between conflicting concepts and diversified efforts.
Sagan sees the unification of global political concepts and efforts in the face of a singular aim or even crisis. In the novel, the end is to put together pieces of a puzzle to construct a machine that can facilitate alien contact. But what is more significant is the means to the end; how the singular aim helps all the nations to share economic and technological progress and advancement. Sagan’s Utopia may be derived from “a common crisis” but the facilitator is sharing of knowledge and resources. Sagan has also clearly spoken about the threats that our planet today faces.
A technological civilization like ours can prove Darwin’s theory that self-destruction would be the paradoxical outcome of evolutionary success. Hence, Sagan lists all possible means of human self-annihilation – nuclear war, biological warfare, technological catastrophe, ill-advised physics experiments, or a deterioration of the planet’s ecosphere. Sagan’s exhortation is towards unified efforts to bury the hatchet of differences in political ideologies and dedicate global economies and technological advancements towards one common universal aim.
It is thus evident, that more than being a sci-fi work, Contact is a psychological, social, religious and political inquiry into our World. Sometimes it needs a sci-fi allegory to bring us face-to-face with real-time earthly issues. Carl Sagan succeeds in doing so. Incidentally, Contact is Sagan’s only novel and he manages to pack all the punch in one keystroke.
Trivia: Sagan named the novel’s protagonist, Eleanor Arroway, after two people: Eleanor Roosevelt, a “personal hero” of Sagan’s wife, and Voltaire, whose last name was Arouet.