Genre: Science Fiction
Narrative Structure: Third person, chronological
Synopsis: Ellie Arroway is a radio astronomer who has dedicated her life to the discovery of alien life. When radio-telescopes at the Project Argus pick up an unusual signal, she realises that this may be the message everyone has been waiting for.
Well, this was certainly an interesting read. Being written by an actual scientist made it quite different from any other science fiction I’ve read. (I’ve never been so glad to be reading something on my kindle. I had to keep looking up scientific terms.) It was also much less figurative than most novels. It was very focused and very unemotional. I don’t mean this in a bad way. It was very enjoyable but although there was some love interest for Ellie and somethings outside of the science were mentioned but they were not focused on and sometimes it felt like Sagan had forgotten about these elements. It was a little like reading a documentary about something that hadn’t happened yet. It was probably the most level headed novel I’ve ever read.
The story starts in Ellie’s childhood. She is an exceptionally gifted child, already curious about all things science. Sagan takes us through her school and university career as she becomes more and more interested in the possibility of a message from outer space. This leads her to the Argus Project and the unusual signal.
It becomes clear that the signal is the instructions for the building of a machine. Sagan takes the reader through the various arguments against building it – it could be a Trojan horse or it could be a doomsday machine. We get various religious arguments which are all given a respect I would have found it hard to give.
Indeed, this is not a novel about the divide between science and religion but is one in which the two are brought closely together. When the machine is built, the five top scientists from around the world are sent away in it and they are presented with a vision of the person they loved most in the world who explain to them about a universal message that is written in the physics of the universe. Ellie is told to look in pi but other scientists receive slightly different information. This final message brings together science and religion rather than driving them apart. God is given a scientific explanation.
I really enjoyed this novel. It was exciting. It showed what might happen if we received a message from intelligent aliens. (Although given the current governments in charge, I very much doubt such a calm response might occur these days.) Ellie was an engaging main character who neglected her family and lover due to her dedication to science. Sometimes it felt that Sagan neglected elements of the narrative for the same reasons but overall I would definitely recommend.