In December of 1999, a multinational team journeys out to the stars, to the most awesome encounter in human history. Who—or what—is out there? In Cosmos, Carl Sagan explained the universe. In Contact, he predicts its future—and our own.
“This planet is run by crazy people. Remember what they have to do to get where they are. Their perspective is so narrow, so… brief. A few years. In the best of them a few decades. They care only about the time they are in power.”
Contact was published 1985 and it is just as relevant today as it was then.
If you’ve never read the book or seen the movie before, you should. If you have seen the movie, then you know the general outline of the story. For those who haven’t: the book follows Ellie Arroway, through her childhood and then into her adult life. It starts with her being a smart little girl, very gifted in science and math. And all the adults around her do not like the interests she has, and have no idea how to support a girl who likes math and science. They tried to redirect her interests, and it frustrated Ellie. She is insatiably curious, and she doesn’t think highly of the adults in her life, because they weren’t curious and they disliked her incessant curiosity that was very likely disruptive. #relatable
Then Ellie gets to college, and she finds that she has to speak louder than her male classmates. She was very outnumbered in her classes, because she was taking astronomy and physics classes. She had to be more direct, more abrasive, and better than everyone else to get the same amount of credit and to be listened to the same as her male counterparts. This in turn makes Ellie very curt, direct, and abrasive to others, especially when she is fighting for what she believes in. It makes people not like her as much as others who can more easily play the likability game.
There is one particularly long quote I want to share regarding this gender problem:
She found it difficult to discuss physics, much less debate it, with her predominantly male classmates. At first they paid a kind of selective inattention to her remarks. There would be a slight pause, and then they would go on as if she had not spoken. Occasionally they would acknowledge her remark, even praise it, and then again continue undeflected. She was reasonably sure her remarks were not entirely foolish, and did not wish to be ignored, much less ignored and patronized alternately. Part of it—but only a part—she knew was due to the softness of her voice. So she developed a physics voice, a professional voice: clear, competent, and many decibels above conversational. With such a voice it was important to be right. She had to pick her moments. It was hard to continue long in such a voice, because she was sometimes in danger of bursting out laughing. So she found herself leaning towards quick, sometimes cutting, interventions, usually enough to capture their attention; then she could go on for a while in a more usual tone of voice. Every time she found herself in a new group she would have to fight her way through again, just to dip her oar into the discussion. The boys were uniformly unaware even that there was a problem.
Yet for the incredibly logical Ellie, she does something odd, to those who don’t know her well. She goes to get her PhD in Radio Telemetry, so she can join the search for extra terrestrial life (SETI). Something considered fringe, weird, and ultimately useless by her peers, taking up radio time and energy that could be used in better, more useful pursuits. However, Ellie is incredibly passionate about everything she does, and this is no different. She loves the search and it has become her passion.
And then something unexpected happens: a signal comes from outer space. And it is intelligent. There is no doubt about it. And everything changes. Suddenly scientists are scrambling across the globe to figure out if it is genuine, where it is coming from, and what the message means. And to not lose any data, since the Earth happens to spin on its axis, and the radio array isn’t always going to be pointing in the right direction. The scientists are largely working together, to figure out all the pieces. And there are a lot of pieces to put together.
But the government, specifically the American government, isn’t happy. The radiotelescope array is on US soil, funded by US taxpayers, and they got the message first. By pure luck, mostly. They think that they can hide this from other countries somehow. Because they don’t want to cause panic, they want all the secrets to themselves, etc. But, the US isn’t the only country with facilities to pick up the signal. Most notably, the Russian Government does as well. And the signal can’t be hidden, the news is already out there. And it HAS to be an international cooperative agreement, because they won’t get the entire message otherwise. And no one knows how long it will take to complete, nor if it will even repeat. Things only get more complicated when they find out that the signal is transmitting the blueprints to build a machine – and no one knows what it is supposed to be. But maybe it is a weapon? Orrr maybe not? Ever think about that, stupid government?
There is also the religious sector. Especially within the United States. Fear is the name of the game, and some sectors of the religious groups think that this signal is a sign of the devil, to tempt humanity from the way of the good and holy. And if it isn’t from the devil, then we can’t let the scientists interpret the message, because they are not agents of God, and they wouldn’t be able to decipher the message correctly anyway because obviously this is a message from the Holy. This becomes especially important when it becomes clear that The Machine is a transportation device. Everyone wants a spot, and there are only five seats.
I love this story. I loved it the first time i saw the movie when I was a little girl. I love it now as an adult. I really wish I would have read this as a young girl. It would have made a big impact on my life. Ellie’s fight to be seen in a world that would rather ignore her will speak to many women, today as the message did in 1985.
And it is definitely worth reading the book, even if you have seen the movie a hundred times like I have. The movie did an absolutely phenomenal job of capturing both the tone and story of the book, but there are still a lot of differences due to it being an adaptation and the need to conserve time. Most notably there are differences in the religious and familial aspects, but everything else is better fleshed out. The ending of the book is also almost completely different, and well, well worth the read. Especially since this is not a solo trip like it is in the movie.
I’m so glad I read this.
And also: this resulted in the strangest ship I’ve ever had. Lol.