Carl Sagan, “Contact” (1985) – Carl Sagan seems like he was a good old guy. Everyone loves “Cosmos.” He was a humanist of the old, gentle school, like Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen Jay Gould, before things got as mean as they’d become around the beginning of the twenty-first century. One account I’ve heard says Sagan deliberately fudged the science to depict nuclear winter as more of a possibility than it really was. If that’s true, good for him- any nuclear war would be bad for people in general, but if the elites with their fingers on the buttons thought they could’ve gotten away with such a move with their power intact, they would have been more likely to try it.
So, he was a good guy. A novelist he really wasn’t. In theory, “Contact” is about, well, contact between Earth and aliens. But you get a lot less of that and a lot more of meetings. These are mostly meetings between assorted science bureaucrats and government bureaucrats, mostly. A lot of stories from the 1980s and 1990s dwelled lovingly on various large bureaucratic organizations — corporations, the Pentagon, the presidency, especially the FBI — that framed what were meant to be thrillers. This works less well in prose than on the screen. While it’s doubtless true that there would be a lot of international bureaucratic wrangling as assorted actors figure out how to deal with a message from Vega, it’s not even particularly conflictual in the book. He introduces characters with paragraphs-long infodumps about their institutional trajectories and hobbies. It’s something of a slog.
There’s a little more in the way of religion-science conflict once assorted preachers start exploiting contact-mania and interfering with efforts to respond to the message. But even then, the main religious guy is actually pretty sympathetic and mostly challenges the worldview of the scientist main character in a positive way- a notable difference from what you’d probably say if one of our current generation of public scientist figures gave that plotline a whirl. The other likely point of interest in such a story — the big reveal of the aliens — is reasonably interesting and meshes nicely with Sagan’s broader concerns- peace, progress, unity, etc. But little enough really comes of it. In all, an interesting concept by a good guy but it doesn’t really work as a novel. **