Posted by: beansai | August 3, 2009

Contact by Carl Sagan

     When the movie Contact first came out I had no idea it was based off of the work of fiction with the same name by Carl Sagan. I didn’t have an idea until a couple of weeks ago. The movie happened to be on tv and I, one night, randomly decided to wiki random people. I knew Carl Sagan was an author that a friend of mine had mentioned a few times and I wanted to know more about him. So I wikied (you know, kinda like googled). Well, lo and behold, I learned that he was the author of the book Contact. Further reading naturally informed me that this same book was adapted into that film with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey (yup, I had to look up how to spell his name, lol!), the same one I had just been watching on tv the other day. I always liked that movie – not in a drooling fan kind of way, but enough to watch it when it was shown on tv and occasionally of my own volition. I remember wondering almost every time I’ve watched it through to the end, who Carl was of the “For Carl” dedication; I get it now.

     From past experiences I know that books are almost always better than their movie counterparts, so I just had to know. I got myself a copy and read it through. I took my time, not feeling inclined to rush nor being so intensely enthralled that I couldn’t put the book down. I still think the books win over their movies any day. I couldn’t help but constantly compare the movie with the book: waiting for Ellie’s dad to die – leaving her alone, waiting for that unlikely relationship between Ellie and Palmer to develop, waiting for the crazy religious dude that blows up the Machine, waiting for Ellie’s solo journey to the stars followed by her public interrogation. Well, none of that happened like I expected. All those things sort of happened, just very differently. They got the big events the same, but the details, the details were so different that it really was like reading it all for the first time. I think the biggest detail change was the fact that Ellie doesn’t make her trip to the stars alone. That’s huge. I like that she doesn’t make it by herself in the book.1c89828fd7a02c7e09481110.L

     Even though I wouldn’t personally consider this book a page-turner, I still really enjoyed it. It got into science, but usually not so deeply that I was utterly lost. Even with my laymen’s knowledge of science and astronomy and such, I could easily follow what was going on. I didn’t grasp all the concepts just by reading their names, but Sagan has a wonderfully casual way of getting the point across without being patronizing to the audience. I really appreciated that. Once I got to the point in the book where the characters were preparing to depart in the Machine, the book was a page-turner. I read straight on through to the end from there. Previously to that the reading bordered on tedious, though I don’t think that necessarily detracted from the plot. part of the whole point is that it takes them years to decode and decide and build the Message and the Machine, and I think the pace of the writing reflected that nicely.

     Sometimes the writing seemed to jump around, moving in a staccato fashion from one place in time of the plot to another. I felt as though at times I didn’t have an entirely sound grasp on the timeline of the plot or events. It evened out more in the second half, but especially early on, as Sagan takes us through Ellie’s childhood, the years and events just seemed to skip as though from a scratch on a cd. Maybe this was just a flaw in my copy, but I’m not sure. After awhile I got used to this slightly jarred style of writing and didn’t really pay much attention to it anymore.

     I was slightly bothered by Sagan’s handling of Ellie’s familial relationships. Not because they were dysfunctional, but rather because I felt like he betrayed the character in her turnaround at the end. She learns that her father (Ted Arroway) is not her biological father and that John Staughton, who married her mother after her dad died, was in fact her father. At one point Ellie is thinking to herself and she mentions her father (after she has learned of her biological beginnings) and then she self-corrects and refers to him as Theodore Arroway. Now this is the man she loved and admired so much that the alien takes on his form for her. And in a instant it felt like he was suddenly demoted, and I felt that this was untrue to the character. Just because someone isn’t your flesh and blood doesn’t mean you stop loving them as much when you learn of this fact. Especially when they meant so much to you previously. Ellie also claims that she is glad that her mother never bothered to tell her about Staughton (Ellie finds out in a letter that her mother left her after she died). This bothered me a lot. Being a kid that was adopted under unusual circumstances and having had that kept from me for the majority of my life (the circumstances, I’ve known about the adoption since I was 11), I felt that this was a bad example to set as a precedent. Even in the letter her mother muses that Ellie must have had some intuition regarding Staughton due to their strained relationship. And I think it’s true that people certainly have a better unconscious recognition of those kind of relationships and that it can effect them. I don’t mean to imply that I would know my biological mother if I passed her on the street, but that if half of the party knows that their relationship is something other than what the other half thinks, there are going to be tensions and such between them. While the unsuspecting party may not understand or know how to interpret these signals, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be aware of them. So, after that long-winded theoretical spiel, all I mean to say is that this end bothered me a lot and I don’t think it was very nice or realistic. Then again, maybe others would say that they’d rather not know. To each his own, I suppose.

     While I always find one thing or another to nit-pick about in a book, I really do enjoy reading them. And Contact wasn’t any different. I think it is a book that strives to encompass an extraordinary vision and for the most part succeeds. I think it is a fair reflection on the issues of politics, cultural differences, science, religion, and humanity in general. Sagan tackles a lot of huge topics and he handles himself well. While I wouldn’t necessarily agree with some of the ideas he conveys throughout the text, I truly enjoyed being taken on such an adventure to the ends of the galaxy.

Definitely worth reading, especially if you enjoyed the movie.


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