Tuesday, August 18, 2009

188. Contact – Carl Sagan

History: Published in 1985.
Plot: 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. The first two chapters recapitulate Ellie's life for us, as a precocious child and then fighting her way through male-dominated scientific fields. Once she is in charge of her own SETI project, she finds a signal coming from the star system Vega (in a scene that is fairly dull -- this is definitely one scene that the movie does better). She sends out the information to scientific installations around the world, which attracts the ire of the American government. And she has to struggle to maintain a position of control, as many other people are trying to muscle in on the glory. There's a lot of political maneuvering and a great deal of scientific infighting. David Drumlin is the scientist who is most obsessed with pushing Ellie out, in inverse proportion to how loudly he mocked SETI before Ellie's discovery.
Further analysis of the message reveals that two additional messages are contained in different forms of modulation of the signal. The second message is a primer, a kind of instruction manual that teaches how to read further communications. The third is the real message, the plans for a machine that appears to be a kind of highly advanced vehicle, with seats for five human beings. The publication of this discovery leads to worldwide concern and curiosity, among them are skeptics and religious fanatics. In one scene, Ellie is shown interacting with a pair of Christian preachers, informally debating God's existence. Placing the burden of proof on her opponents, she argues the agnostic viewpoint, saying "there isn't compelling evidence that God exists... and there isn't compelling evidence that he doesn't."
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 ultimately hinting at proof of a Universal Creator contained inside one of the transcendental numbers. Ellie’s sender is her dead father, and she communicates with him for what seems like days. Upon returning to Earth, the passengers discover that what seemed like many hours to them passed by in only twenty minutes on Earth, 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.
Thus, though she 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 manmade 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.
In a kind of postscript, Ellie, acting upon a suggestion by the senders of the Message, works on a program which computes the digits of π to record lengths and in different bases. The extraterrestrials suggest that this is an unmistakably intelligent artifact, an artist's signature, woven into the fabric of space. It is another Message, one from the universe's creator. 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 farther within Pi. This new pursuit becomes analogous to SETI; it is another search for meaningful signals in apparent noise.
Review: The basic plot is very simple, almost juvenile. Sagan's characters, mostly scientists, are credible without being memorable, and he supplies a love interest that is less than compelling. However, his informed and dramatically enacted speculations into the mysteries of the universe, taken to the point where science and religion touch, make his story an exciting intellectual adventure.
Opening Line: “When they pulled her out, she was not crying at all.”
Closing Line: “She found what she had been looking for.”
Quotes: “A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism.”
“Here were beings who live in the skiy, beings enormously knowledgegable and powerful, beings concerned for our survival, being s with a set of expectations about how we should behave. “
Rating: Good.

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