Contact (novel)

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Contact Sagan.jpg
The first edition
Author Carl Sagan
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher Simon & Schuster
Publication date
September 1985
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages 432
ISBN 0-671-43400-4
OCLC 12344811
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3569.A287 C6 1985

Contact is a 1985 science fiction novel by Carl Sagan. 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. 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.

Plot summary[edit]

The Message[edit]

As a child, Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway displays a strong aptitude for science. Dissatisfied with a seventh grade lesson, she goes to the library to convince herself that π is irrational. Later that year, her father Theodore dies. A man named John Staughton becomes her stepfather and does not show as much support for her interests. Ellie refuses to accept him as a family member and concludes that her mother only remarried out of weakness.

After graduating from Harvard, Ellie receives a doctorate from Caltech supervised by David Drumlin, a well known radio astronomer. She eventually becomes the director of "Project Argus", a telescope array in New Mexico dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). This puts her at odds with most of the scientific community, including Drumlin who tries to have the funding to SETI reduced. To his surprise, the project discovers a repeating series of 26 prime numbers coming from the Vega system 25 light years away.[1] Further analysis reveals information in the polarization modulation of the signal. This message is a retransmission of Adolf Hitler's opening speech at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin; the first television signal powerful enough to escape Earth's ionosphere.[2]

The President of the United States meets with Ellie to discuss the implications of the first confirmed communication from extraterrestrial beings. Ellie begins a relationship with her science advisor Ken der Heer. With the help of her Russian colleague Vaygay Lunacharsky, Ellie is able to set up redundant monitoring of the signal so that a telescope remains pointed at Vega at all times. A third message is discovered describing plans for an advanced machine. With no way of decoding the 30,000 pages, SETI scientists surmise that there must be a primer that they have missed.

The Machine[edit]

At the President's insistence, Ellie agrees to meet with two religious leaders, Billy Jo Rankin and Palmer Joss. A lifelong religious skeptic, Ellie tries to convince them that her faith in science is stronger than their faith in God by standing near a heavy Foucault pendulum and trusting that its amplitude will not increase. Although dismissing Rankin's outbursts, Ellie is intrigued by Joss' worldview. Shortly after, Ellie travels to Paris to discuss the machine with a newly formed consortium. The participants reach a consensus that the machine is a dodecahedron shaped vehicle with five seats. At the conference, Ellie meets Devi Sukhavati, a doctor who left India to marry the man she loved, only to lose him to infection a year later. The final piece of the message is discovered when S. R. Hadden, a billionaire in the cybernetics industry, asks Ellie to check for phase modulation. This reveals the primer allowing construction of the machine to begin.

The American and Soviet governments enter a race to construct identical copies of the machine. As errors in the Russian project are discovered, the American machine becomes the only option. Ellie applies to be one of the five passengers but her spot is given to David Drumlin instead. Despite heavy security, a group of extremists is able to get a bomb into one of the fabrication plants in Wyoming. During a visit by three astronomers, the bomb explodes, killing Drumlin and postponing completion of the machine indefinitely. Ellie's family also suffers when her mother has a stroke which causes paralysis. John Staughton accuses Ellie of ignoring her own mother for years.

Ellie learns that S. R. Hadden has taken up residence aboard a space station to prolong his life. While on board, he reveals that his company has been covertly building a third copy of the machine in Hokkaido, Japan. The activation date is set for December 31, 1999 and Ellie, Vaygay and Devi are given three of the spots. The other two are given to Abonneba Eda, a physicist credited with discovering the theory of everything and Xi Qiaomu, an archaeologist and expert on the Qin dynasty. The five board the machine thinking that the extraterrestrials will either give them an additional task or cancel the transmission from Vega so that the signal only lasts for another 25 years.

The Galaxy[edit]

Once activated, the dodecahedron transports the group through a series of wormholes to a place near the center of the Milky Way. The station contains an Earth-like beach where the five of them are split up. Ellie meets an extraterrestrial who has taken a form indistinguishable from her father. He tells her that he is part of a project to alter the properties of the universe by accumulating enough mass in Cygnus A. He also tells her that the wormholes were built by still more advanced beings who have left messages in transcendental numbers like π. Ellie is reunited with the other four travellers who have also met simulations of their loved ones. She captures video evidence of the encounter before the dodecahedron takes them back to Earth.

Upon returning, the passengers discover that what seemed like many hours took no time at all from Earth's perspective. They also find that all of their video footage has been erased, presumably by magnetic fields in the wormholes. After seeing that Hadden is apparently dead and that the transmission has somehow been stopped without a 25 year delay, government officials accuse the travellers of an international conspiracy. Ellie finds herself asking the world to take a leap of faith and believe what she and the others say happened to them. Palmer Joss becomes one of the few people willing to take this leap.

Ellie works on a program to compute the digits of π to record lengths in different bases. Ellie's mother dies before this project delivers its first result. A final letter from her informs Ellie that John Staughton, not Ted Arroway, is Ellie's biological father. When Ellie looks at what the computer has found, she sees a circle rasterized from 0s and 1s that appear after 1020 places in the base 11 representation of π. This gives her a way to convince the world of something greater – that intelligence is built into the universe itself.

Publication history[edit]

In 1981, Simon & Schuster gave Sagan a $2 million advance on the novel. At the time, "the advance was the largest ever made for a book that had not yet been written."[3] 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.[4]

Sagan's friend, the physicist Kip Thorne, gave Sagan ideas on the nature of wormholes when Sagan was developing the outline of the novel.[5]

Sagan named the novel's protagonist, Eleanor Arroway, after two people: Eleanor Roosevelt, a "personal hero" of Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan, and Voltaire, whose last name was Arouet.[3]

The novel won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 1986.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Sagan 1985. p. 94.
  3. ^ a b Davidson 1999.
  4. ^ Spence
  5. ^ "Contact – High Technology Lends a Hand/Science of the Soundstage". Warner Bros. Archived from the original on 2001-03-04. Retrieved 2014-09-01. 
  • 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. 

External links[edit]