Having become “the face of space science” in 1980 through his 13-week PBS series Cosmos, Carl Sagan exploited his fame with a novel about the first contact between extraterrestrial beings and humans.
Contact‘s main character is scientist Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, who runs a network of radio telescopes listening for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
One night her team discovers what appears to be a numerical, coded message coming from the star Vega, 26 light-years away.
America’s scientists, politicians, and military scramble to respond.
They have to bring other nations in to help collect the message that’s being broadcast when America is turned away from Vega. They also need help to break the code.
Sagan uses the novel to talk about his hot-button issues: religious people who discount science, fellow scientists who grandstand, and politicians who don’t understand or adequately fund scientific research.
Sagan fails, as many science fiction writers do, to make his characters much more than personas invented by a marketing team intent on selling dish detergent.
As a result, his novel self-restricts to an audience of science fans, leaving novels fans wishing for some characters with human emotions.
Contact by Carl Sagan
Simon and Schuster. 1985. 432 p.
1985 bestseller #7 ; my grade: C
James A. Michener was never a man to shrink from big tasks. His 1982 bestselling novel tackled one of the biggest: An exposition of America’s space program.
The novel begins as World War II ends.
Michener applies his tried-and-true formula of showing events through the experiences of fictional characters living at pivotal times.
Michener first introduces four fictional men whose lives will be intertwined with the American space program. Later readers will meet their wives and children.
Through these fictional characters, Michener is able to trace not only the history of America’s space program, but of America’s changing profile.
Although Michener was a gung-ho supporter of the space program—he served for four years to the NASA Advisory Council and had extensive contacts with NASA scientists and engineers—he records with an historian’s eye how people outside the program reacted to it.
Particularly interesting for readers today to see how the space program led to an anti-science movement, the feminist movement, proliferation of fundamentalist religious groups, rise of right wing militants, and a distrust in government in general.
In 1982, Michener’s Space may well have been as prescient as Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here in 1935 or George Orwells’s novel 1984 in 1949.
Making a movie version of a great book rarely turns out well. If E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, is anything to go by, turning a great movie into a book is a disaster.
Even people who didn’t see the movie know the general outline of the story: A being from outer space who comes to earth to gather botanical samples, misses the space ship trip home, and is befriended by an American kid, 10-year-old Elliott Thomas.
E.T. gets Elliott and the other two Thomas children, Gertie and Michael, to get him the additional parts he needs to build a transmitter from the Speak and Spell so he can contact his space ship and arrange to go home.
The entry of an UFO into American airspace hasn’t gone unnoticed.
All the resources of America’s government are on the trail of the extra-terrestrial.
They’re no match for the juvenile Dungeons & Dragons fans on bicycles who rush E.T. to the landing site just in time to catch his return flight.
The movie’s special effects made the silly story an entertaining fantasy suitable for children of all ages.
The book renders the story too ridiculous for any reader.