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Contact Carl Sagan (Orbit, 5.99, 432 pages, paperback. First published 1985; film tie-in re-issued October 1997.)

The late Carl Sagan was one of the great science popularisers of the twentieth century. His works were always fascinating, always invigorating, making you feel he had a hand firmly on the pulse of modern science, particularly in his own field of astronomy. His Cosmos TV series was a landmark in the presentation of science for the public. So what can a Sagan fan make of Contact, his only novel, now reissued to coincide with the Robert Zemeckis film of the same name?

Contact tells the story of Ellie Arroway, an astronomer engaged in SETI research, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the form of decipherable radio waves. As director of the largest SETI radio telescope array, she is centrally involved when the first such message arrives, and stays involved through its decoding into readable files, which give the details of a machine and how to build it. She also joins the crew of the machine in the end, too, when it turns out to be a transportation system using wormholes to travel rapidly around the galaxy. Along the way she has to face many problems, fight many political battles, and argue her case with everyone from presidents to religious leaders, before standing face to face with an alien intelligence.

The best one can say about Contact is that there is considerable interesting material in its four hundred odd pages. Reading it is much like reading any of Sagan's works. He had a sense of wonder that was infectious, giving this reader, at least, much insight into the world of the astronomer and his ideas on life in the universe. Sagan always managed to tell a fascinating story in his pop science books. He parcelled out his pocketful of delights in a way that kept you reading and speculating what wonder would come out of his head on the next page, in the next chapter.

This terrific storytelling ability is only partly apparent in Contact, which is a fascinating book, but a problematic story. In a way, it ultimately frustrates as a fiction because Sagan is too obsessed with his subject matter. He seems unable to trim it down to the bare bones, to supply just enough information to carry the storyline and no more. Instead he ladles on the interesting facts, investigates every nuance of argument along the way, most of it interesting but somehow overburdening the reader.

Many of the story ideas in Contact have been done before -- there is much here that is familiar territory to a well-read SF fan. And in a way, Sagan doesn't bring enough new material to the feast to really satisfy. He does come up with an interesting and original ending, one pregnant with possibilities. But the lengthy and devious trip towards that ending left this reader exhausted and more than a little disconsolate that the great science communicator had not really lived up to expectations. Maybe it was better that he left fiction alone for the last decade of his life -- his forte was plainly explaining science, not writing science fiction. A worthy failure, but failure just the same.

Review by John D Owen.


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© John D Owen 17 January 1998