(originally posted on 6/9/12)
We all have them…
Those forgotten books that sit on your shelf. They collect dust, act as bookends for the novels you really like, and languish at the bottom of bookcases, tightly tucked between an old short story anthology and a travel guide from your last trip to Niagara Falls.
These books represent, at least for me, the last vestiges of past idealistic visions of myself and what I thought I would be reading at some point in the future. Countless, more traditional, classics have met their end this way, forgotten on a bottom shelf, left there because it made me feel smarter to have it in the collection. Instead they just collect inches of dust and my cat uses them as intellectual scratching-posts.
So I recently went through some of our “Island of Misfit Books” sitting at the bottom of the shelf, confident in the simple idea that, damn it, they had made it to the shelf at one point because I thought I would enjoy them, lets see if I couldn’t re-find that once distinct magic that led me to acquire it in the first place. I was very much rewarded.
Contact, by Carl Sagan, is one of those rare books that have a way to transcend time by evoking ideas, feelings and moral contemplations that continue to be relevant anytime you read it.
The general plot of the story is as follows – a strange and advanced message is received from space, spurring the world to unite (albeit with some trepidation and political bickering) in order to decipher the message. In the end a Machine is built, the purpose of which is generally unknown. There are some twists, some drama, and the perfunctory love interest, but what the book really accomplishes is that it taps into the very psyche of both the scientific mind and the layman mind thanks in large part to Sagan’s immense experience as an astrophysicist and cosmologist.
Like many science fiction books, the science parts seem immensely researched. More than that though, while reading Sagan’s words, his talent as a story teller and his brilliance as a scientist work hand in hand as evident by the following quote from the beginning of the novel –
“By human standards it could not possibly have been artificial: It was the size of a world. But it was so oddly and intricately shaped, so clearly intended for some complex purpose that it could only have been the expression of an idea.”
There are two other reasons, specifically, why I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
One – The way it broaches the idea and philosophy of human exploration. The novel is as much about our desire to both control everything we don’t understand or destroy it if we feel we can’t control it enough as it is about belief, faith and human relationships.
Two – How Sagan explores the concept of how extremely small we are, when placed against the larger scope of our universe. Hand in hand with that idea is our belief in a “me” centered Deity looking over us all. It’s quite the irony; being both so small and insignificant in one perspective, yet so important in another.
I think Sagan puts its best when he quotes Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”, from Leaves of Grass –
The earth, that is sufficient, I do not want the constellations any nearer, I know they are very well where they are, I know they suffice for those who belong to Them.
I would read Contact if you haven’t, because it has good science, fairly good pacing and interesting characters. Especially when you take the opportunity to consider the motivations behind those characters and of Sagan himself, as the narrator. At least it feels like it could be his voice, but it might be any other idealist star-gazer who wishes to know planets and stars further than just our own.