Carl Sagan took the idea that you leave this world better than you found it to an extreme. Few people have left a legacy so important to our world, and part of that legacy is this brilliant piece of sci-fi fiction, Contact.
Contact follows a woman, Ellie, as she embarks on the education and career of a brilliant astronomer. The first portion of the book is eye opening, even for those who understand the history of women’s rights well, in how women were viewed in the academic arena in Carl’s time. Ellie is loosely based on astronomer Jill Tarter who, like Ellie, becomes the director of SETI or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI involved scanning the heavens for transmissions from life on other worlds.
The novel explores many different topics, from the aforementioned women’s rights to the potential dangers of making contact with other worlds, but one of the most prominent themes throughout the novel, is criticism of religion. Some of my favourite quotes from the novel:
“Your religion assumes that people are children and need a boogeyman so they’ll behave. You want people to believe in God so they’ll obey the law. That’s the only means that occurs to you: a strict secular police force, and the threat of punishment by an all-seeing God for whatever the police overlook. You sell human beings short.”
“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.”
“Any faith that admires truth, that strives to know God, must be brave enough to accommodate the universe.”
In the beginning, Contact almost tricks you into thinking it’s a non-fiction memoir. You get wrapped up in Ellie’s life and in her struggles with not fitting into the perfect, soft, risk-free mold that all the other girls seemed to fit into with ease. Eventually, the book becomes deeply entrenched in typical sci-fi themes that are written so well, it feels true as well. Added to that, the fact the book was written by the world’s most well-known astronomer, and you begin to wonder not if these things might happen one day, but rather when.
This book inspires a deep, emotional awe for our universe and contempt for organized religion. It made me proud to live in a time when women like Ellie can make it to the top of a scientific field with little gender-biased pushback or judgment. It made me acutely proud to be an atheist, and profoundly proud to be a fan of the wonderful, Mr. Carl Sagan.
If you are an atheist, I would say this book is somewhere in the top 5 fiction novels you absolutely must read. Sagan, our treasure, who taught us that we are star stuff and brought the Cosmos to us, left us this fable for freethinkers; this masterpiece for humanists; this beautifully written novel for those who seek the awe that nature never fails to provide. If you have not read it yet, you are missing part of the experience of being godless. So get on it, go read it, and tell me what you think in the comments.