||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)|
The first edition
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Publisher||Simon & Schuster|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover, Paperback)|
|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.
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 ("Ted"), with whom Ellie had a very close relationship, 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, rejects him for not being her 'real father,' and concludes that her mother only remarried out of weakness.
After graduating from Harvard University, Ellie receives a doctorate from California Institute of Technology supervised by David Drumlin, a well known radio astronomer. She eventually becomes the director of "Project Argus", a radiotelescope 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 or eliminated. To his surprise, the project discovers a repeating series of 26 prime numbers coming from the Vega system 25 light years away. 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.
The President of the United States, an assertive woman, 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.
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 multiple high-tech industries with an obsessive personal interest in the concept of immortality, suggests that Ellie 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 Soviet space station. 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 Abonnema Eda, a Nigerian physicist credited with discovering the theory of everything and Xi Qiaomu, a Chinese 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.
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 a surrealistic Earth-like beach where the five are split up. Ellie meets an extraterrestrial who has taken a form indistinguishable from Ted Arroway. He tells her that he is part of a project to alter the properties of the galaxy by accumulating enough mass in Cygnus A to counter the effects of entropy.
He also tells her that the wormhole system was built by still more advanced beings who have disappeared. Ellie counters by asking "Ted" if his race has discovered anything that truly awes them: she asks to understand their "sense of the numinous." "Ted" replies his race has discovered messages embedded inside transcendental numbers such as π. Ellie responds incredulously that the value of transcendental numbers cannot be arbitrary; they are determined by the nature of the universe itself. "Ted" cryptically agrees, and suggests Ellie look for herself.
Returning to Earth, 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. They learn that Hadden has apparently died from anaphlyactic shock from a bee sting while in orbit.
However, the readers learn that Hadden is not dead at all, but quite healthy, and simply a passenger on a one-man, one-way trip to interstellar space on a craft he designed himself. The same moment of the Machine activation, Hadden separated from the Soviet space station and entered an escape trajectory aimed to swing him past Jupiter and out of the solar system.
Hadden's craft is equipped with cryogenic preservation devices designed to freeze his body in his sleep at some point, allowing the ship to cruise on through interstellar space for thousands or even millions of years, with his body still perfectly frozen at temperatures near absolute zero.
Hadden's plan is that his craft at some unknown future time will be found and intercepted by advanced beings, who will have the technological ability to resuscitate his frozen body, and thus he will achieve immortality beyond any previous member of the human race.
Since by the time this happens, if it does, civilization on Earth will probably be long departed or extinct, Hadden has little interest in whether the Machine has succeeded or failed. Since his ship is on a one-way trip with no possibility of return, Hadden sees no purpose in continued communication with Earth, and the craft is not equipped with a radio.
Back on earth, in addition to the lack of physical evidence of the journey, the Vega transmission ceased instantly upon the activation of the Machine. Government officials accuse the travellers of an international conspiracy and conduct an inquiry. 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.
Each of the Machine passengers is told privately by government officials that if they go public with their stories of the voyage, concocted information will be released to the media portraying them as insane or irrational. However, the officials do admit, somewhat indirectly, that some physical evidence does exist supporting their account, and they might be allowed to go public if clearly indisputable evidence could be found.
Acting on the suggestion of "Ted," Ellie works on a program to compute the digits of π to heretofore-unprecedented lengths. 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 indicates proof that intelligence is built into the universe itself.
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." 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.
- 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.
- Sagan 1985. p. 94.
- Davidson 1999.
- "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.
- Larry Klaes' in-depth analysis of the film and novel
- Audio Review at The Science Fiction Book Review Podcast