Monday, February 3, 2014

GUEST POST: Contact - Carl Sagan

We're thrilled to have a guest post today from Joe Marshall.  Welcome!
Summary: Ellie Arroway, renown scientist and astrophysicist, has one dream: to find evidence of extra-terrestrial life. As fate (or perhaps science) would have it, while combing the sky via radio telescope, she stumbles upon more than she bargained for. After the discovery of a remarkable signal sent from the star Vega, containing a complex message resulting in an “invitation” for five humans to trek across space and rendezvous with the beings, not only is she confronted by the inescapable desire to be one of the lucky five, but also by the barrage of varying opinions, religious and scientific, on the ethics of responding to such an invitation.  (Image and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: Almost from day one, my life has been rooted and cultivated by two fundamentals which often appear to butt heads like water and oil -- the seeds of religion and science. I am deeply religious, chiefly Christian, but also tend to envelope myself in religious philosophies spanning the globe. I am likewise devotedly scientific, drawn towards any chance I get to step back and see a bigger picture which may expand my understanding of life, the universe, and everything. An unflinchingly stringent following of both these ideals has led me to more than a few elephants in the room. Friends both atheist or Christian have sometimes had quite a time wrapping their heads around it: yes, I accept macroevolution, based on evidence and fact; but, yes, I also accept Adam and Eve, based on intuition and faith. Therein lies the great crisis: fact vs. faith -- when thrown in the ring together -- appear to become an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

These are among the chief discussions interwoven in Contact, and they are not made lightly. Like the protagonist Ellie Arroway, Carl Sagan was not officially atheist, yet had no interest in his lifetime to make futile attempts to define who or what God may or may not be, as the evidence for him was always far too inconclusive. He was a bona fide scientist. He in turn proves all the more impressive in the narrative, making multiple metacognitive arguments validating religious faith and scientific data, constantly challenging each one’s claim on ultimate truth against the other, and slowly developing a certain romance between them.

This is majestic writing, unpretentious and complex, perceptive in its philosophy, sometimes even daunting in scientific theory and technicality. Its epicenter becomes the journey of a woman ranking in the 99% percentile of brain capacity, whose painful childhood and brilliance leave her doggedly determined to discover solid proof of alien intelligence. (The book also provides a great landscape for an adjacent dialogue on feminism vs. misogyny.) Ellie finds it, and the race begins -- the real space race, this time towards the star Vega. The end of this race must be read to be believed it is so well-thought and creative. (This novel is another example where words don’t quite translate to screen, which may be why Sagan and Zemeckis made no attempt, but rather redeveloped the story to fit its cinematic surroundings in 1997 and achieved near perfection in their adaptation.)

How on earth would this tired, technologically-adolescent, war-ravaged planet of humans react to the reception of a super-intelligent and benign alien message, one that challenges our sciences, our religions, perhaps our very natures? How might you react to such a revelation? Contact allows us to walk around in that world and freely examine just what we believe and why.

My rating: 5 Stars

Sum It Up: A must-read -- all the more so if you appreciated the film. If you’re human, you’ll get something out of it.

For the Sensitive Reader: This book contains occasional mild, indeliberate profanity, and a non-sexual conversation between two adults in bed.

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