||This article consists almost entirely of a plot summary. It should be expanded to provide more balanced coverage that includes real-world context. (August 2010)|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Publisher||Simon & Schuster|
|Publication date||September 1985|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover, Paperback)|
|Dewey Decimal||813/.54 19|
|LC Classification||PS3569.A287 C6 1985|
Contact is a science fiction novel written by Carl Sagan and published in 1985. It deals with the theme of contact between humanity and a more technologically advanced, extraterrestrial life form. It ranked No. 7 on the 1985 U.S. bestseller list. It was based on a screenplay co-authored with Francis Ford Coppola, although he is uncredited.
The novel originated as a screenplay in 1979; when development of the film stalled, Sagan decided to convert the stalled film into a novel. The film concept was subsequently revived and eventually released in 1997 as the film Contact starring Jodie Foster.
Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway is the director of "Project Argus," in which scores of radio telescopes in New Mexico have been dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The project discovers the first confirmed communication from extraterrestrial beings. The communication is a repeating series of the first 261 prime numbers (a sequence of prime numbers is a commonly predicted first message from alien intelligence, since mathematics is considered a universal language, and it is conjectured that algorithms that produce successive prime numbers are sufficiently complicated so as to require intelligence to implement them). Further analysis reveals that a second message is contained in polarization modulation of the signal. The second message is a retransmission of Earth's first television signal broadcast powerful enough to escape the ionosphere and be received in interstellar space; in this case, Adolf Hitler's opening speech at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. A third message is discovered containing over 30,000 pages describing plans for a machine that appears to be a kind of highly advanced vehicle, with seats for five human beings. But they cannot understand the third message until they find the fourth message, a primer hidden in phase modulation. The primer allows them to translate the alien language to human language.
Ultimately, a machine is successfully built and activated, transporting five passengers – including Ellie – through a series of wormholes to a place near the center of the Milky Way galaxy, where they meet the senders in the guise of persons significant in the lives of the travelers, whether living or dead. Some of the travelers' questions are answered by the senders, with the senders suggesting a message is contained within one of the transcendental numbers. Upon returning to Earth, the passengers discover that what seemed like many hours to them passed by in no time at all (from Earth's perspective), and that all their video footage has been erased, presumably by the time changing magnetic fields they were exposed to inside of the wormholes. They are left with no proof of their stories and are accused of fabrication. Therefore, though Ellie has traveled across the galaxy and actually encountered extraterrestrial beings, she cannot prove it. The government officials deduce an international conspiracy, blaming the world's richest man in an attempt to perpetuate himself, embarrass the government, and get lucrative deals from the machine consortium's multi-trillion-dollar project.
The message is claimed to be a fabrication from a secret artificial man-made satellite(s) that cannot be traced, because the message stopped once the machine was activated, a feat that is impossible unless one considers time travel feasible, and Ellie and other scientists are implicated. Ellie, a lifelong religious skeptic, finds herself asking the world to take a leap of faith and believe what she and the others say happened to them. She finds only one person willing to take that leap: Palmer Joss, a minister introduced early in the book.
Ellie, acting upon a suggestion by the senders of the message, works on a program which computes the digits of pi to record lengths in different bases. Very far from the decimal point (1020) and in base 11, it finds that a special pattern does exist when the numbers stop varying randomly and start producing 1s and 0s in a very long string. The string's length is the product of 11 prime numbers. The 1s and 0s when organized as a square of specific dimensions form a rasterized circle. The extraterrestrials suggest that this is a signature incorporated into the Universe itself. Yet the extraterrestrials are just as ignorant to its meaning as Ellie, as it could be still some sort of a statistical anomaly. They also make reference to older artifacts built from space time itself (namely the wormhole transit system) abandoned by a prior civilization. A line in the book suggests that the image is a foretaste of deeper marvels hidden even further within pi. This new pursuit becomes analogous to SETI; it is another search for meaningful signals in apparent noise.
Differences with the film
Some plot points and characters were omitted from the film version, while others were added.
- In the novel, Ellie is well into her 40s, as is Palmer Joss.
- Attempts to cut funding for Ellie's project are not prominent in the novel.
- S.R. Hadden's retirement plan and his last journey are different.
- Ellie's romantic relationships are different.
- Ellie's mother is still alive, and re-married after the man she believed was her father died, as in the end, Ted Arroway is revealed to not be her father, but rather her stepfather. Her mom remarried to James Staughton, Ellie's real father.
- The President of the United States is a fictional woman, not Bill Clinton.
- The contents and the coding of The Message are different (polarity modulation vs between lines of video).
- The work on The Message causes a major thaw of international relations in the novel.
- There are three Machines built in the novel, but only 2 in the film.
- The transport capsule is enclosed within solid rotating spheres, with a vacuum between the spheres, instead of falling through spinning rings.
- The Machine transports only one inhabitant (Ellie, an American) in the film, making the selection process much more contentious.
- In the novel, the sabotage bombing caused a relatively minor setback in machine assembly, with much less loss of life.
- The apparent elapsed time of the journey, from earth's perspective, is considerably shorter in film.
- The alien "beach" in the novel is indistinguishable from a real beach, while in the film it is given an artificial, dream-like quality.
- The entire last chapter of the novel was not included in the film.
The first printing was 265,000 copies. In the first two years it sold 1,700,000 copies. It was a main selection of Book-of-the-Month-Club.
The novel won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 1986.
Mars Rover prediction
As the novel progresses into the future, relative to the time of writing, Sagan mentions various fictitious events. In particular, a Mars Rover mission was mentioned where one of two rovers "had become mired in a drifting dune". This unintended prediction became reality when NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit became stuck on May 1, 2009.
- Davidson, Keay. Carl Sagan: A Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.
- Sagan, Carl. Contact. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
- Spence, Jennifer. "Contact / 20th-Century American Bestseller". Retrieved 18 August 2010.
- Larry Klaes' in-depth analysis of the film and novel
- Audio Review at The Science Fiction Book Review Podcast