My only explanation why I read this classic of sci-fi only now is that I rarely dabbed in the sci-fi space. Recently this has started slowly changing and when someone recommends a book to me I tend to try it and usually with a good outcome. It was the same with this one. A book that is only one year younger than me, that is about science fiction, so at a huge risk of becoming irrelevant because f our technological progress. And yet it holds its own. If not in the hardcore technology space then certainly in the philosophical one.
I got an original 1985 paperback from a friend, as she was preparing to move houses and was keen to minimize the number of books she’ll have to carry. After 36 years the book is not in mint condition and it is pretty thick, and to add to it it is published in extremely tiny print, which recently bothers me. So it had to wait, but after a year its time has come.
All of you probably know what it is about, so I’ll give only the shortest summary of the plot. Ellie Arroway, despite many obstacles thrown in her way, becomes a radioastronomer. She climbs to the position of the head of Argus facility, focused solely on the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). There, with her team, she manages an array of radiotelescopes scouring through space in search of a meaningful signal that may indicate a message from an intelligent civilization. The task, for some, seems almost hopeless, and there are many who want to shut the project down. Until one day they receive a signal that transmits a series of prime numbers. The series goes on for too long to be accidental and once it repeats itself there can be no doubt.
And that really is the crux of the book, what would humanity do when faced with a message from another civilization. One thing that certainly feels a bit dated is the huge tension between the US and Russia, though who knows we may be in the exact same spot very shortly. The book looks at the issue from many angles: Ellie’s personal perspective, including the feminist angle, and how she had to fight tooth and nail for her position in a male world of astronomy; political angle and international cooperation that is constantly mired with lack of trust; economic aspect, and something that is very pertinent today: what is the role of super-powerful individual entrepreneurs; and top round it all of nicely, also from a philosophical angle.
As much as the process of decoding the message is fascinating what was the most interesting for me was how we as a human race react to something like this. Are we even ready to accept we are not the pinnacle of creation? We toy with the theoretical idea of it, but what if it is finally proven and shoved in our faces that we are mere ants. Would we be willing to listen?
The book does fall flat a bit on character development and describing people’s interactions, it all feels a bit sketchy and only a tool to push the plot forward. But then really this is not about the plot, this novel is a vehicle for Sagan’s bigger ideas, a way to communicate them to the masses that would never read his 600 scientific papers. And in that, it succeeds beautifully. And because the questions he is posing are about the nature of humanity the book does not really age. As humans, we evolve very slowly, so things written about humans in the ancient world still hold and resonate, even more so, a book written mere 36 years ago.
It is a book about the insatiable curiosity, the joy of the chase after knowledge, hopefulness of discovery, but also the limits of our comprehension and willingness to change and have our assumptions questioned. We do not like when someone changes the very foundations of how we perceive the world, just look at how well that ended for Galileo, and we are not that different from the people who persecuted him, no matter what we may want to believe.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska