Props to Carl Sagan

My copy doesnt have this cover, but instead has the worst kind, the Now a Major Motion Picture cover. Though I actually liked the movie.
My copy doesn't have this cover, but instead has the worst kind, the "Now a Major Motion Picture" cover. Though I actually liked the movie.

(I mean, for something more than being the guy who made my high school physics class interesting. We watched some video and I was like, “Hey, this is that The Dragons of Eden guy!” Or for being a great science-popularizer.)

I’m reading the novel he wrote, Contact, right now, and despite the obvious criticisms many have made — such as that the novel is the postmodern response to the Femi Paradox: if there are no aliens, mankind shall have to invent them — there are a few things that are pretty striking about the first third (or so) of the book.

One of them is on the first couple of pages of Chapter 8, where he discusses the future of TV. Reality TV (which he dubbed, eerily, “REALI-TV”) was something he seemed to think would be good for people’s minds, involving analysis of old news programs for their propagandistic or falsehood-laden content, exposing broken campaign promises.

He also was suitably cynical about the role that religion would take on in the American Republic or, at least, this seems the case as of a chapter or two later, though also right there at the start of Chapter 8, where we see the cluster of religious TV channels also chattering about The [SETI-intercepted] Message. But he’s also fairminded enough to set up a religious antagonist who, while he is a fundamentalist, also hates a lot of the same things in fundamentalist Christianity that most non-religious or even mainstream religious people hate about fundamentalism. (Again, as of somewhere in Chapter 9, which is where I am now..)

What did he miss? The same thing most people missed, though as far back as John Brunner, it had been imagined: the impact of the Internet. There’s some sort of videogame being advertised on TV, in a context of would-be users ordering away for floppy discs to use and play at home. MSOffRPG (Massively Single Offline Role Playing Game were are far as Sagan imagined, by Chapter 8.) And yeah, the Soviet Union still exists, but in 1985, it wasn’t apparent to so many that it wouldn’t. Hell, we may yet again see a Russian Empire of some sort in our lifetimes, the way things are going.

Still, I’m enjoying the book well enough, and I have a vague sense that Ellie is a creditable (and respectfully drawn) female character, though I’m curious what female readers thought of her.

UPDATE: There’s an interesting review of the book and movie here.

9 thoughts on “Props to Carl Sagan

  1. I’ve always loved how “God” (for the lack of a better word) signed his creation in that book. (Keep reading). :)

  2. Unfortunately, I ran across a spoiler.

    It’s actually a plotline I was thinking about exploring at some point in a more direct fashion: such a “signature” gets found, and then comes the debate between religionists and the (even more than now) atheistic science establishment as to whether the “Intelligent Designer” would be a deity, or something else.

    The “something else,” of course, being much more interesting to me.

    Have you read Frank J. Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality? It’s a terrible science book, but if you read it as a piece of fiction written by a crazed narrator trying to reconcile millenarian thought, Western religion, and physics, it’s entertaining. Especially the “Appendix for Scientists” at which most scientists I knew online at the time howled with laughter or acrimony.

    Which is probably why Tipler got so popular among SF writers. :)

  3. I have the book (in my office somewhere, actually), but I’ve never gotten around to reading it (and I probably never will at this stage).
    Based on summary of a summary of a summary of that book, I can certainly accept the idea that the universe will end, but the idea that everyone who ever lived will be reborn seems more wishful thinking than a scientific hypothesis.
    On the other hand, it did serve as springboard for some good books by Fredrik Pohl and Peter Hamilton

  4. I won’t go too much into it right now, but I think your idea is still pretty workable. I don’t want to talk about Sagan’s ending yet, but I certainly do not think he exhausted the topic.

  5. Junsok,

    Yeah, by “wanted to explore” I meant more I’d lost interest or focus or something. I wouldn’t say I considered the topic mined out, just I am not feeling like going there. And I seem to be almost unable to give religion a fair shake in my writing, for some reason. What I think of as even-handed comes off to my crit-friends as strawman-bashing. :)

    The Tipler — oh yes, very much wishful thinking. I rather suspect Tipler went bonkers sometime back, if he cannot tell the difference between prophecies and scientific evidence. I remember laughing hard at all the logical fallacies I encountered in that text, and wondering how it ever got published.

    I only read the first of those Pohl books, the second turned out to be very hard to get, though I may someday. (I also heard the third was bad, so I never bothered too hard.) Haven’t ever done Hamilton, though I have one of his gigantic tomes in my pile(s).

  6. “The Eschaton Sequence,” which Pohl discusses here. And how’s this for a blast from the past, it was Evan Vetere who brought it up back when I was on That Mailing List and slammed it. Others soon followed.

    I have to admit, the first book didn’t do that much for me, but I was a different reader at the time and I might get more of a kick out of it now.

  7. Erk, I don’t have time to read that review unfortunately, so forgive me if this is included and discussed there. Also, I write this presuming that you’ve seen the movie and finished the book, otherwise…I don’t know. Delete this comment without scrolling below? :)


    Basically, I’d be very interested in your take on the end of movie which has bothered me for years but which I’ve never really had a chance to discuss. Put very basically, the movie completely misses out the discovery of the final message hidden in Pi, instead leaving the viewer with the notion that, lacking EVIDENCE, the people fo the world in the movie must instead have FAITH that there was a purpose behind the whole project and that Jodie Foster did indeed complete a journey through wormholes and so on.

    Surely that, well, completely subverts the messages about the roles of science and religion in society that Carl Sagan spent decades trying to get across to the American public?

  8. Right, I’ve finished the book, and I’ll post my final comments here, so as to, you know, say what I think of the ending.

    James, I actually preferred the ending of the film to the ending of the book. The reason is that I’m profoundly uncomfortable with what feels to me like lip service in Sagan’s novel.

    Then again, maybe I, like Dawkins, simply disagree with how much airtime a non-religious person should give religion. A lot of people have claimed Sagan was an atheist, and even his widow said that she and he didn’t believe in a traditional god of any kind, but Dawkins and others have noted he preferred the word “agnostic” and voiced an opinion that uncertainty was a necessity for any question lacking evidence suggesting a solution.

    (I’d agree with Dawkins that this is a case of skipping the step where someone asks, “But is this question plausible enough for me to give it serious consideration?”–the same stage that results in questions about the existence of penis-stealing witches in Nigeria or other religious ideas to be, er, not entertained. That the Christian notion of a deity gets special consideration is undoubtedly an effect of social context…)

    Of course, there are other possible explanations for the encrypted “message” in pi: maybe it really is just there by chance — it is an infinite series of digits — or maybe the “creators” are non-supernatural: a species in a mother universe who were experimenting with specially-tuned black holes and baby universes, or the predecessor species mentioned (the folks who constructed the galactic subway system) and who, say, did some kind of cosmic engineering? (If the universe was at once stage manipulated into a Big Crunch followed by a (ie. our) Big Bang, it could be possible to re-tune the fundamental properties of matter minutely to embed a message in pi.

    But I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea that an alien species would be scanning the digits of pi to find a message from God. It felt very… Ptolemaic, really. In the sense of mapping human psychology onto alien meta-civilizations.

    Which is one reason I now think of Greg Egan’s Diaspora as a kind of atheistic rewriting of Contact, but where characters make their own way, build their own subway, discover a huge pattern, and realize it was made by creatures like them, who nonetheless have “gone off somewhere.” (And meanwhile gives a wonderful feel for the scale of the universe and our significance within it.)

    I think you are onto something about the film subverting the message Sagan was pushing, but I’m not a fan of Sagan’s approach, since I think there’s a tad too much lip service to religion in general. Maybe I just haven’t met a creditable fundamentalist, though.

    On the other hand, I thought the ending of the film avoided any definite “creator” thing, which is good since, after all, proofs of god are always manufactured by observers. (That’s why it is “faith” and not “fact”.)

    And the public aren’t really left to rely on faith to believe Ellie’s story, since they never hear it — or that’s what I remember. It’s covered up, just as in the book, isn’t it? So the message is more from the aliens to Ellie (and, in the book, the other scientists) that humanity needs to get its act together for any further meeting to occur.

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