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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 radio astronomer 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. They do take on the form of humans and speak in Earth languages when they meet the Five, but this is after scanning their minds.
  • 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 or responsible for setting the values of mathematical constants likes base 11.
  • Always Someone Better: The last chapter touches upon this.
  • Ambiguously Evil: S.R. Hadden bluntly says that he didn't earn his vast wealth, he took it. While being facetious, he clearly was implying that he engaged in corrupt or at least ruthless business practices to become one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful men. There's also the possibility that the alien communications, and all of the financial and human costs in response to it, were all an elaborate hoax orchestrated by Hadden for little more than his own personal amusement (depending on whether one thinks that the hours of static on Ellie's recording device are definitive proof of her account or not).
  • 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).
  • Author Appeal: SETI, US and USSR scientists who are friendly with each other, religious figures who greet science happily as a sign that God is so much larger than they once thought, the idea that in orbit nationalism vanishes, a general wonder at the universe, tangents about features of history or etymology.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: To call S.R. Hadden eccentric is an understatement. He's also one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, and an engineering genius.
  • 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; Sagan tries to shoehorn in a "treasure your family, warts and all" message into the last few dozen pages, but many would say the examples he chose were not good ones.
    • Front-and-center is Ellie's rocky relationship with her mother and stepfather, John Staughton - especially as her mother remarried just two years after her doting father, Ted Arroway, died. Please note the following;
      • Ted doted on Elle and did all he could to help her develop her interests as a scientist despite being a shopkeeper with no real scientific training; he become scientifically literate through self-study just so he could teach Ellie.
      • John subjected Ellie to harrowing emotional abuse. He condemned Ellie's interest in science and technology as "unseemly for a girl" and would reduce her chances of marrying. He stated to her face that "she just didn't have the ability" and did nothing to aid in her education despite being an associate professor of physics. Finally, he refused to pay for her higher education.
      • Turns out that her mother cheated on him with said future stepfather, resulting in Ellie's conception. Sagan depicts this as a massive shock to Ellie's worldview; that she had spurned her "real" father in favor of a "fake". Considering that both of Ellie's father figures were fully aware that she was John's biological daughter, 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 her and John appear even more despicable.
    • Similarly, another of the people chosen to go into the Machine was disowned by her fundamentalist Hindu family; she was born a Brahmin, but chose to marry a Dalit. He died soon after they married, but Maligned Mixed Marriage remains her Berserk Button to the present day. On the other world, she meets an alien who's taken on the form and voice of her deceased husband, and comes to believe that their personalities were incompatible; that if he hadn't died they would have ended up divorcing. Consequently she declares that she no longer feels grief over his death, only keen regret for "giving up" her family for him, purposefully forgetting that they disowned her.
  • 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.
  • Failed Future Forecast: The USSR is still around in the book's version of 1999, although a more united humanity has put the Cold War on hold.
  • 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 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, a mathematical constant but not something found in natural events. 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, Devi Sukhavati her late husband, Vaygay Lunacharsky his niece, Abonnema Eda his wife, and Xi Qiaomu his favorite historical figure, the first emperor of a unified China. Ellie wonders about this last and asks Xi, and finds that his family was all killed horribly and their lives covered up; one reason he loves Emperor Chin is that it's just not possible for his place in history to be removed.
  • 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.
  • 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. However, they did not create the wormholes or the stations attached to the wormholes and don't have that ability - Ellie speculates that there are tiers of civilizations above them, on up to Sufficiently Advanced Aliens who built messages into the structure of the universe.
  • 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.
  • If Jesus, Then Aliens: Inverted. The alien in the guise of Ellie's father tells her that his people have found messages from God hidden in the digits of the universe's fundamental constants, such as pi. After Ellie goes back home, she uses a supercomputer to find the first such message in pi relatively easily (that is, it didn't take her the entire age of the universe to find an ordered sequence that arose purely coincidentally out of randomness.) It's a sequence of 1s and 0s which, when arranged in a square matrix, forms a drawing of a circle. This gives her the evidence to prove the existence of both aliens and God on the very last page of the book.
  • Immortality Seeker: Hadden. He repeatedly links himself to Gilgamesh but seems unaware that Gilgamesh eventually came to the conclusion that immortality wasn't possible and became a better leader.
  • Irrational Hatred: Ellie, for all her interest in alien contact, is pretty xenophobic. She's highly repulsed by insects and snakes, and is uncomfortable around humans who don't look 'right' - who have marked injuries or disabilities. She does not actually consider this or that it could be a problem when talking to aliens until actually on the station. Good thing one decides to take A Form You Are Comfortable With!
  • It Only Works Once: The Machine, as best the characters can understand it, pokes a hole into a tunnel network that allows intergalactic travel. They theorize that the only reason it works at their technological level is because the "Vegans" were assisting their travel, basically helping them across the threshold. The policy is after the first encounter they leave the civilization alone until they progress enough to interface with the system themselves.
  • 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.
  • Named After Someone Famous: Carl Sagan named the central character Ellie Arroway, for his wife's personal hero Eleanor Roosevelt and for Voltaire's real last name, Arouet.
  • 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. She's clever and sarcastic but has a sentimental side.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Ellie feels revulsion when talking to people who don't look 'right', specifically mentioning people with Down's Syndrome, and knows this is terrible of her but goes out of her way not to think about or overcome it. While the President's portrayal is more or less on the favorable side overall she also, when venting angrily about Hitler being on the broadcast, randomly calls him "fruity".
  • 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. Discussing the possibility with Joss he certainly takes it as this, even though she cautions him that this creator doesn't much resemble his Earth-centric Biblical God. At the same time she discovers the other thing mentioned above.
  • Science Marches On: In this setting it's believed that living in zero gravity with limited oxygen extends the lives of mammals and makes cancers less likely to form, so it's become common for wealthy elderly people to go up into orbit and comfortably live out their lives in specially-built stations. The only downsides are the expense and that a loss in bone mass means that reentry into Earth's gravity would be fatal for a long-term spacer. Since the book was written it's been proven that prolonged weightlessness has massively deleterious effects on the human body - radiation poisoningnote , accelerated Alzheimer's, cataracts, redistribution of bodily fluids, blurred vision, and much much more. Plus everything stinks and food doesn't taste as good.
  • 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.
  • Shown Their Work: Being written by one of the most famous astrophysicists known for his promotion of science to the general people, the book is meticulous in the depiction of radio telescopes, SETI and the engineering involved to build the Machine. Entire chapters are centered around the scientific methodology and philosophy being applied, such as how to determine the speed, strength, bandwidth of an alien signal (assuming they are using anything remotely close to the same technology they have to listen). In the author note Sagan mention a half dozen colleagues he gave the book to in order to provide additional notes.
  • 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 religionnote .
  • 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: Two pieces of technology that played a major role in the backstory of the setting are "Adnix", a program that automatically mutes commercials, and "Preachnix", one which determines if someone on TV has begun evangelizing and changes the channel. Apparently the remote control had not been invented when this book was written.
  • 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".
  • 20 Minutes in the Future: The book starts with Ellie's childhood and education, but the main story starts about the same time as the book was released. Between receiving the message and building the machine was said to take place about 12 years, and explicitly occurs on December 31st, 1999. Speculation of technological advancements talk of low orbit "retirement penthouses" for the super wealthy, and generally more casual space travel than what really happens.
  • 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 disdained her father for being a mere shopkeeper. He also 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 of this, but chose not to reveal this at the request of Ellie's mother, as both of them knew 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 ranges between being apologetic and guilt-tripping her 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.