I have two heresies to make with this review.
Though things were presented mildly and in a manner that could be considered cheerful in comparison, I found Sagan‘s cosmic existentialism similar to what I get to feel in Lovecraft‘s works. I admit it’s not Event Horizon, but Contact doesn’t reveal anything in specifics too. It builds up the unknown, suggests even a debatable unreliability in protagonist’s narrative and leaves the conclusion to readers. Sure, it suggests too much in the definitive line of science, but the Machine and the unexplainable experience of cosmonauts all had the same fear of unknown. To me, it translated well, and left this sense of being a nobody or nothing in the vast world we know very little about. To Lovecraft it was frightening, and to Sagan it was fascinating.
I noticed few more similarities of the sort in the book, regarding the societal response to someone who has embraced this vastness of universe. People were eager to brand her delusional for providing explanations for experiences they couldn’t fathom. The Machine and her first contact further felt like an optimistic take on some sorta portal to the other that exists with us. Book even ended with the suggestion of some intelligence that predates humanity, Elder ones style.
“Standing over humans, Gods and Demons, subsuming caretakers and tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe.”
The second heresy is movie being better than the book, or more like an enhancing experience against the usual corollary. I loved the span of dialogue the book entertained. And the kind of balance it maintained in its science vs religion debate by placing skepticism against latter’s received truth and former’s hypothesis against revelation. Book was also very honest and realistic in its depiction of scientific community and academia that’s stuck in the anxiety of publications. Translation of radio astronomy into geopolitics with the discovery, and variegated responses within and outside the system were also really interesting to read through. But, from a dramatic or entertainment point of view, movie had many embellishing aspects.
I loved how fleshed Palmer was in movie and how unfleshed Ellie was. Her emotional baggages, though highly complementary for book’s first contact, made me feel like tuning through static for some signal. Also I found movie’s selection of single occupant more narratively appropriate than book’s multipartite crew. It went well with the collinearity of novel’s point of view as opposed to the 11th hour gate-crashing by characters I wasn’t emotionally attached with. The sole source also enhanced drama in my opinion, by adding skepticism to the already suggested unreliability. Further, the limited time made the Voyage more believable and thrilling in its few seconds than the comparable generosity in book. I loved the novel, but it also made me love the movie more; and I don’t mean it as a negative here.
In my severe reduction, Contact can be considered as humanity’s delayed introduction to The Culture; it can also be viewed as the most expensive and elaborate psychedelic experience as well. The scientific slant towards latter is what makes the book different from my overkill of a comparison with cosmic horror. Nevertheless it was a very delightful experience even with spoilers from the movie.
If you are looking for a distilled run on the novel, there is an abridged audiobook read by Jodie Foster herself.