In December, 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.
Contact is not only one of the most religious science fiction books I’ve ever read but also one of the most religious books I’ve ever read, period. In Carl Sagan’s only work of fiction, the story is a mere backbone, a structure upon which Sagan can explore what he truly wants to explore, that is, the deepest questions of our existence.
What is our purpose here?
Can humans live without institutionalized religion?
What are the dangers of extraterrestrial contact?
How did we come to exist?
Can science and religion be reconciled?
Some questions remain unanswered, but Sagan provides fascinating solutions to some. He suggests that the Universe should be our religion. And even though I disagree with some of his conclusions, I appreciate such a philosophical investigation into these questions.
Even better, the story and the characters behind these questions are fantastic. Sagan includes actual scientific explanations for the events, meaning you actually learn a bit about astronomy and physics while reading. His characters are among the most realistic I’ve ever seen. I have no doubt many of them were based on his own colleagues because only true people could inspire such realism. The protagonist, Ellie Arroway, is so impressive. She’s a wonderfully feminist character written by a man in 1985. As she struggles in the aftermath of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence, my love for her grew denser than a black hole and more infinite than a transcendental number. The plot itself is captivating, because it’s easily one of the best novel premises ever: what happens when humans realize they’re not alone?
We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.
Reading Contact I mostly felt joyous. Because I’m sitting here, right now. The most miraculous of miracles. I hear birds, I see the sun. Tonight I will see Venus, the Moon, and the stars. I don’t know why I’m here. When we marvel at these things, when nature evokes the numinous, let’s not fight about why or how or who. Because who cares? We exist.