Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Contact by Carl Sagan

Nice well-rounded science fiction after a long time!

Written in 1985, the book is a long time behind the current world. But that does not hinder the development of the key plot in the book. The story pursues a scenario of contact by other intelligent beings in the universe.

Things that I love about the book -


  • Its premise - it is not outlandish or fantastic as some of the other sci-fi books tend to be, but a hypothetical probability explored; one element of contact from extra terrestrial intelligence explored while being fully grounded on Earth and recognizing human capabilities and constraints.
  • The lead - There is a strong protagonist, Ellie, sort of a rebel, searching for intelligence and decoding the message when one is encountered. One of the few books which have a strong female lead in non-conventional roles. There are many beautiful books with female leads but very few who have strong, rebellious female leads. My other recent read, Mill on the Floss had one, but her rebelliousness was constrained by the times she lived in. 
  • Balance - Despite it being science/ imaginative fiction, there are enough snippets of history/ culture, stories and information on the key scientific principles, which leave you with a lot of things to think about. It was a well balanced read - giving the pleasure of fiction showing the interplay of characters set in the context of science and all the other extra-terrestrial elements. And most of all, it had a positive, hopeful tone. (Which I felt so lacking in Rama II).

However, as all such future focused/ speculative books and movies end up doing, you expect to be marveled, but they end up falling short (the end). Like Interstellar, the movie. Or Rama II. Even though the journey, the reading through, the watching is fun, the end somehow does not live up to the build-up. It falls short, feels silly. But then, isn't it bound to happen? It's not the author's fault. We are talking about the most existential questions we face as humans and hoping to find answers in scenarios. If somebody could or would have shown the answers, explained the universe, this life, then they need not be bound to earth. And in such cases, 42 (Hitchhiker) is as good an answer as somebody falling in black holes and sending messages to their family (Interstellar) or finding a circle in value of pi (Contact).

I haven't read Cosmos or Broca's Brain or haven't yet seen Contact, the movie. Will look them up. I like reading such works, for the feelings they leave me with. The questions and the sense of wonder which can never  be satiated in this lifetime.

What thoughts do I end up with? That we are so, so insignificant, and the time we have this consciousness is so little, the magnitude we live at is so tiny, compared to the vastness and the hugeness of this space-time. How would we ever decipher any part of this, or ever find out any answers? I just wonder while looking out at the dark blue evening sky full of early stars, and sometimes amuse myself with a hypothesis, that perhaps all the old stories we remember and retain in various cultures, at least a few of them happened because there was some contact from somewhere else (some other intelligence) ....and the collective memory retains some of those episodes, worshiping and mythologizing what could not be explained, ascribing powers to them which were perhaps not their's. May be, it was so. And may be, not so. Who is to tell?

Along these lines, one of the stories told in Hindu mythology/ Gita is about Brahma's age (a google search will present a lot of similar sources). Ignoring the part about what needs to be done to escape the cycle of creation-annihilation, it is quite fascinating to fantasize about the quantum of time represented in each day and night of Brahma (the creator) or his lifetime. At least, something I read on this planet which talks of scales comparable to this universe.







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