A Different Sort of Thanksgiving Eve
Book Review: The Furies by Katie Lowe

Book Review: Contact by Carl Sagan

Any faith that admires truth, that strives to know God, must be brave enough to accommodate the universe. I mean the real universe. All those light years. All those worlds. I think of the scope of your universe, the opportunities it affords the Creator, and it takes my breath away. It’s much better than bottling Him up in one small world. I never liked the idea of Earth as God’s green footstool. It was too reassuring, like a children’s story. . . like a tranquilizer. But your universe has room enough, and time enough, for the kind of God I believe in.

Sometime in, oh, January or February of this year, I read someone’s blog post somewhere about how there was a reissue of the novel Contact by Carl Sagan with a new cover coming out. “Hmmm, Contact,” I thought. “I haven’t thought about that book in years.”

Except, actually, I think about that book all the time, but subconsciously.

Contact carl saganContact (in case you haven’t read it or seen the movie) is the story of Ellie Arroway, an astrophysicist working on listening for patterns sent via radio waves across the universe. One day, she actually receives one, and a chain of events leads to the world banding together to create a machine. No one is sure what the machine does, except for clearly, somehow, space travel. You’ll have to read the book (or watch the movie, which is an OK adaptation) to discover what happens on the machine.  One of the major plot points is the religious right’s objection to the machine being built, and Ellie builds a sort of relationship with a famous preacher named Palmer Ross (not a romantic relationship) who gives the voice of religion in contrast to her scientific point of view. Their conversations, sometimes full of rancor and sometimes not, about the influence and structure of faith will eventually help Ellie understand what happens to her in the machine.

I read it five or six times as a teenager; it was released in 1985 so likely I read it once a year until I turned 18. The first time I read it, I was blown away by the ideas and so kept going back to it to figure out what they meant. It seemed true in a way that nothing else had: that science and religion are interrelated and feed each other in ways we don’t always realize. I don’t know that I made a conscious decision to keep it with me, or if it was that it just continued to seem true, but it never left. It still felt true.

The year that I was 18, though, I experienced some huge life events and I think—again, subconsciously—I felt I had to turn away from the things I had loved as a rebellious and angry teenager to prove that I was Grown Up (and Good, too, but that is a different story). I stopped reading Stephen King, for example. And I didn’t reread Contact again.

But perhaps out of any book I’ve ever read, Contact shaped my thoughts about religion. (Yes…maybe even more than the actual scriptures.) Probably “religion” isn’t the right word, but the concept of whatever exists outside of our earthly and human sphere. God? Heavenly eternities? Nothing because life on earth is just an accident? I kept an imprecise feeling that guided me: whatever religion or philosophy claims, with all the different ideas vying to be labeled The Truth, I think the truth is larger and more complex than we can ever imagine, and that religion is a face we put on what we cannot understand.

I do, in other words, believe that there is more than just our earthly existence, but I don’t know what it is and I don’t know that anyone else knows either. And yes: that is firmly rooted in my reading of Carl Sagan’s novel. So whenever I think about religion or spirituality, it’s there, in large or small ways, even thirty years later.

So I honestly was a little bit hesitant to reread it, because what if it was awful? What if it was racist or misogynistic or offensive in some other way? What if the writing was really, really bad and I just didn’t notice because I was a teenager reading it? What if what I thought was there was really time morphing my perception, and it was really just some random, meaningless fantastical ideas?

But it kept coming back to me: reread Contact. So, I did.

It was the last book in my string of women-in-science-fiction reading I did this spring and summer. I read it at the lake when I took Kaleb and his friends, put it away for awhile, and then took it with me to Florida, where I read and finished it on our flights.

Reading it as an adult who is both entirely different from but still influenced by that person I used to be was a layered experience. I found parts of my old self in this rereading, but I also found how I have changed. For example, there are parts of the book that are not well-written. There’s a lot of unnecessary exposition that weighs down the plot and there is a lot that isn’t told that should be. I was surprised to discover some awfully trump-voter-esque characters and politicians in the book, and I’d forgotten the way the narrator tells the story—omniscient in a very machine-like way.

But the ideas that changed (or formed?) my concepts of the universe are still there. But now I am old enough and have learned enough that I can at least explain what the ideas mean to me and how they have influenced me. Trying to explain these ideas would take two or three thousand more words, I think, or maybe a whole lifetime, so I’ll just sum it up like this: We don’t know everything. We know, in fact, far less than we think we know, but I do believe there is something beyond this world, some force or power that shapes or creates or influences. I don’t think we are alone. But I do think that whatever it is that exists, it is wound up with science.

I’m glad I took that blogger’s advice and reread Contact after all these years. It brought me a sort of peace as I have been navigating my relationship with religion this year. It reminded me that The Universe is larger than any one religion or way of thinking, and that some things—most things—will always have to be taken on faith while we continue searching for truth and knowledge.

 

Comments

Margot/NZ

I've never read this book - but I will now!

Steve Lawson-Blight

I can bear no negative criticism of this masterpiece. Every facet of the story is essential for the whole. One thing in particular that annoys me is the lack of critical reference to the interaction between the being and Ellie, the magnificence and eloquence of the microcosmic depiction of the constant rebirthing of the universe and the clue she is given which defines the final chapter, ‘The Artist’s Signature’. I actually whooped for joy at a train station upon reading it!

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