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Literature / Contact

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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 Geometries: On the world where the travelers land, there is a door on the beach that can only be interacted with from one side.
  • 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. However, they do take on the form of humans and speak in Earth languages when they meet the Five.
  • 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.
  • Always Someone Better: The last chapter touches upon this.
  • 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).
  • Burial in Space: Hadden's final fate is to have his preserved body launched into space where it will potentially last for millions of years, in a last desperate attempt at immortality.
  • Clueless Aesop: A subplot that didn't make it into the movie was Ellie's rocky relationship with her mother and chauvinist stepfather, John Staughton - especially as her mother remarried just two years after her doting father, Ted Arroway, died. Turns out that her mother cheated on him with said future stepfather, resulting in Ellie's conception. Sagan describes this as a massive shock to Ellie's worldview - that she had spurned her "real" father in favor of a "fake" - but when one considers how Ted did all he could to encourage Ellie to enrich herself and John refused to pay for Ellie's college because he thought women were too stupid to be scientists, many adoptees would think that Ellie was completely justified in adoring the man they betrayed and giving the Glorified Sperm Donor the cold shoulder. That her mother was too ashamed to admit it while she was alive just makes both of them even more despicable.
  • 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, Ted Arroway, who encouraged her curiosity and interest in science, dies of an unspecified accident when she's in sixth grade. Though he's not really her biological father - see Wicked Stepfather.
  • 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 biological father. Her (not actually "step-") stepfather, with whom she's had a vitriolic relationship with since she was a sixth grader, 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.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: Kind of. The aliens appear to each of the crew members as someone they are really fond of, although the travelers know that they aren't really that person.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: Ellie is "confined" inside her scientific compound at the end of the novel, under surveillance. This is a Shout-Out to the fate of Galileo Galilei, who was confined in a similar matter after his experience with the inquisition.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • Wicked Stepfather: Ellie's father died when she was in sixth grade, and her mother remarried two years later - a college professor named John Staughton who believed that women had no talent for science, if Ellie pursued a scientific career she would be unable to attract a husband, and refused to pay for Ellie's college. The only reason Ellie went to Harvard was because she made a large number of lucky guesses on a test. Once Ellie becomes a success, he ends up spending all of Ellie's adult life wracked with guilt at having dismissed her talents - especially as Ellie despises him for his dismissals, though not being Ted Arroway didn't help either. However, in a rare twist, he is Ellie's biological father and fully aware thus, but chooses not to reveal this at the request of Ellie's mother, as both of them know that Ellie wouldn't forgive her for cheating on Ted Arroway over a decade before, let alone seeking John out once the man Ellie adored was dead.
  • 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're Not My Parents: Never outright said, but Ellie is rather cold to her mother and stepfather; her mother because Ellie believes she remarried suspiciously quickly, her stepfather because he held her interest in science in disdain. Once she deciphers the Message, both attempt to re-connect with her, but she sees it as fair-weather parenting and steps up to ignoring them completely, even as her stepfather becomes increasingly apologetic and her mother begins deteriorating into senile dementia, insisting to everyone at the old folk's home that her "famous daughter" will come by soon. After Ellie returns from her interstellar voyage, she discovers that her mother died while she was away... and left her a message that shatters her world; the kind and doting Ted Arroway who died when she was a child and nurtured her love of science wasn't her biological father - her mother cheated on him with her cold, distant, demeaning eventual stepfather. Ted was aware of this, but never failed to cherish Ellie - and her mother was so ashamed she only could only admit all of this in her will.
  • 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.
  • Zeerust: The novel takes place during The ' seen from The '80s. No internet, space access is simple enough that Hadden owning his own space station isn't much different from billionaires owning islands, and all communications are 3D - not only television, but photographs have been replaced with holographic cards.