A romance written by Carl Sagan
, it tells the story of our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence... but in a manner much more realistic than the usual portrayal with UFOs and impossibly quick interstellar travel.
Ellie Arroway, a radioastronomer working in Socorro, New Mexico, discovers a steady and clear signal coming from a point in space that corresponds to the distant star Vega. The signal is confirmed to be legitimate, and soon a worldwide effort is made to receive the message whole (due to the impossibility of monitoring the same spot in the sky as the Earth revolves) and then to decipher it, while religious and political uproar rises all around.
The novel, which is over 400 pages, features very little of the actual aliens; in fact the moment of First Contact
is covered in only one chapter. Instead the plot revolves around human reaction to the idea that we are not alone in the universe, from religious viewpoints to national policy to the fact that they apparently learned about humanity through its TV, most of which is garbage. It's also about Ellie coming to grips with her inner and interpersonal troubles at the same time as she copes with the awesome prospect of life on other worlds.
Was adapted into a film
in 1997. Not to be confused with the unrelated game Contact
or the trope First Contact
, although the plot centers around the latter.
This novel provides examples of:
- Alien Non-Interference Clause: The "Vegans" and, it seems, the galactic civilization are subject to this—they keep an eye on developing situations and life-bearing planets but leave them alone, even if they end up self-destructing.
- Aliens Speaking English: Averted, at least in the most common sense. The idea that a different civilization, with different history and technological level, would be transmitting in binary in the same fashion as we do, though, is a very close call.
- Aliens Steal Cable: The first signal sent to us is a repetition of the first of Earth's radio transmissions to reach space (which was what alerted them of our presence): Adolf Hitler at the overture of the Berlin Olympics. Fortunately, it's only used as a vessel for a coded message.
- Alternative Number System: Apparently someone capable of messing with the values of mathematical constants likes base 11.
- Arc Words: Each chapter is named after a concept that's important to the events described in the chapter. Maybe the most important: "palimpsest" (a message written under another message in a roll of parchment).
- Cultural Posturing: Since the Cold War is still active, there's a lot of it between America and Russia. Ellie and Vaygay invert it by complaining about their own country's foibles to each other.
- Disappeared Dad: Ellie's father, who encouraged her curiosity and interest in science, dies of an unspecified accident when she's in sixth grade. Her stepfather is much less sympathetic.
- Double Standard: As a woman in science, Ellie develops a specific tone of voice and a habit of being very precise to get through when her male colleagues talk over or ignore her. Her stepfather is also dismissive of her interest in science.
- Epigraph: Every chapter.
- Falling in Love Montage: The chapter "Numinous" is various scenes that show Ellie and Ken der Heer's developing relationship.
- Faster-Than-Light Travel: An actually plausible version of this, at that. Since it's not actual FTL, but wormholes.
- First Contact: Aborted realistically. There are no little green men coming in impossibly quick metallic ships, but a radio signal just like the ones we do send into space as well.
- First Contact Math: The reason the signal is considered a signal of intelligence is because it transmits a long series of prime numbers. As it turns out, it was only a way to attract our attention, as the message is hidden underneath it (and the really important message is hidden underneath the original message). They also use prime numbers to codify images and video (each number codifies the coordinates of a black point as a product of primes).
- A Form You Are Comfortable With: Near the end of the novel, the humans are greeted by aliens who look like familiar humans in order to make the experience less frightening. Ellie sees her late father.
- The Fundamentalist:
- Billy Jo Rankin, a Bible-thumping Creationist who is vehemently opposed to the Message/Machine and says that it's the Devil.
- Palmer Joss is a subversion; while he doubts the accepted age of the universe, he actually knows a lot about science and is willing to debate about it.
- The Great Politics Mess-Up: The USSR is still around in the book's version of 1999, although a more united humanity has put the Cold War on hold.
- Heroic Bastard: Ellie, the protagonist, finds out in the very last chapter that her deceased father, whom she idolized, is not her father. Her (not actually "step-") stepfather, who she despises, is. This shocks her more than the message from God (?) inside Pi. This subplot is completely absent from The Movie.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Drumlin does a Diving Save for Ellie when terrorists blow up the American construction site. This fills her with guilt because her first thoughts are that she would take his place, and she had a lot of antipathy towards him in general.
- Higher-Tech Species: The First Contact aliens.
- Humans Are Flawed: Most of the novel, really. There are huge strides towards unity and international cooperation, but there's still lots of prejudice and people who are threatened at the notion of it going away. The aliens say that they were pretty worried when the first thing they got from Earth was Hitler, but subsequent years' broadcasts made them cautiously hopeful. By the end, the overall thrust is towards the global population having a better perspective.
- Meaningful Name: In-universe, Hadden names his orbital home Methuselah. When he cryofreezes himself and launches into deep space, he names the vessel Gilgamesh.
- Oh, Crap: The President is not happy when she learns that the first broadcast the Vegans got was Hitler and is mortified to realize that they've been transmitting absolute crap out into space for sixty years.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: Kitz, the Department of Defense guy, dislikes the whole project, thinks that the Vegans are more likely to be hostile than not, and orchestrates a coverup of the mission's results, exiling Ellie to Argus.
- Our Presidents Are Different: President Minority as she's a woman, but otherwise she's a fairly ordinary presidential figure. Her party affiliation is never mentioned and she's not President Evil or President Personable; she makes decisions that are to the project's benefit and against it.
- Portal Network: The means for getting around the universe without the need for FTL. It's compared to a subway system with many stops and junctions.
- Precision F-Strike: Ellie tends to say "Holy Toledo!" when other people are around. After receiving the signal, she retreats briefly to her office, closes the door, and whispers "Holy shit!"
- Precursors: The unknown aliens (or god(s)) who built the wormhole network.
- Red Pill, Blue Pill: The door on the beach. Everyone else goes through right away, but Ellie mulls it over for several hours and finds that the "other side" is gone when she finally does decide to go through. So the alien imitating her father comes to her instead.
- Religion Is Right: A subtle variation of this trope occurs at the end of the novel. Ellie discovers a "signature" of sorts of the creator of the Universe hidden inside Pi. At the same time she discovers the other thing mentioned above.
- Sufficiently Advanced Alien: The First Contact aliens, the Precursors, and maybe the creator of the Universe. The journey is to an artificial world where the aliens are researching physical constants looking for messages written into reality itself — a church the size of a planet. And once they return, the main character is able to find one of these messages herself. Thus, Sufficiently Advanced Science is indistinguishable from religion.
- Starfish Aliens: Possibly. Also, one of the vessels they see going into a docking station is shaped like a starfish, but that's not any indication of how the passengers look.
- Technology Marches On:
- At one point Ellie channel-surfs and finds a station offering onetime access to a downloadable fantasy RPG game; if you liked it, you could order the full game on a floppy disk.
- While leaving a museum with Palmer Joss, Ellie receives a message on her beeper. She has to get back to her office because she can't find a pay phone.
- The way space tech and travel is depicted didn't exactly play out in the real 1999.
- Telepathic Spacemen: The Vegans use images and memories gleaned from the dreams of the Five to facilitate communications with them. Ellie can actually feel them "rifling through her neurons".
- Twenty Minutes into the Future: The novel takes place during The Nineties...as seen from The Eighties.
- Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Naturally averted. (He's a scientist, after all.) The vast cosmic distances are a continual plot point and one major puzzle for the characters is how life could be on Vega, as the system has a lifespan of millions rather than billionsnote of years. The question of how they would get anywhere with the limitation of lightspeed is another.
- The World Is Not Ready: A frequent sentiment on Earth is that they're not ready to cope with being one inhabited planet among many since it will destroy the last vestiges of geocentrism and (some argue) faith in gods. Kitz uses it as an excuse to cover up the Five's story about what happened.
- You Are Not Ready: The alien Theo Arroway makes it clear that the subway ticket is one-time-only and they're not going to repeat the invitation. It's up to humanity to survive and cooperate long enough so that they develop the capability themselves.