For this edition of “The League of Books” we are trying a different format. After finishing the novel, Mystie posed questions for Ben to answer and Ben posed questions for Mystie to answer.
The responses are below: WARNING: SPOILERS.
Did you have any trouble or difficulty in identifying with Ellie as a main character due to her being a female? Did you feel she was well-written and/or realistic?
“No I didn’t have any difficulty identifying with Ellie as a main character. It’s actually a very refreshing change, and I thought Sagan did very well at making her a realistic character. I think there is a very real aspect of the book that addresses the fact that scientific fields tend to be male-dominated, and while obviously the reasons behind this are not really addressed, I think Sagan does a good job of showing Ellie as a positive example of why that is a problem. If not for that, I would think it’s kind of a shame that someone would have issues identifying with Ellie because of her sex. There are many other things that I think I had more trouble identifying with, based on her profession or maybe her relationship with her parents, both things that are pretty far from my sphere of experience. But those differences are some of the things I love about books, or video games, any sort of heavy-narrative driven plot. So getting a female perspective is an important part of that, but the more you see well-written female characters in both books and movies, and go away from some of the pre-conceived notions of what is “male” and what is “female,” the more you tend to see how small that particular difference actually is.”
Contact is a very non-traditional science fiction book. What are some things you liked and disliked about this?
“For a good portion of the book, it read like a realistic fiction novel; there was a lot of political intrigue and social commentary. A lot of this I really enjoyed, it made the more fantastical premise seem all that more attainable and brought a new credibility to the science that Sagan wrote about. However, I got bogged down in the middle of the book and found it hard to keep going as I was a little burned out on the realism of it all. When I read science fiction or fantasy, a lot of the reason that I am reading it is to get away from the normal- to enter a world that is full of wonder and might be a little less than realistic. When I finally got the to the science fiction section, I ate it up. But then it was over too fast. =(“
When you got to the end of the novel, did you remember that Ellie had driven herself to science with her self-teaching about pi? Did you like that everything sort of came full circle at the end?
“I have mixed feelings on this one. I thought it was very cool when the aliens introduced it during their meeting, but after that in the last few chapters when she was searching for that pattern, I kinda thought it had become a bit much. I think it would have been a very cool thing to just leave it as something the aliens had found, and left it open-ended and mysterious, maybe still end with Ellie searching for it. I think this still would have brought things full closure, while being very intriguing as well. As it was, I thought it was still a cool plot-device, but it was then wrapped up in kinda an awkward and rushed way, and didn’t feel very satisfying to me.”
What was your favorite part/passage of the book? Why?
“I think that this will probably be the same passage for a lot of people, but the traveling that The Five did when they entered The Machine would be my favorite part. I think that the idea of this “Subway Station” in the sky gave the chance for Sagan to write these extremely skeptical scientists staring around wide-eyed, like children at their first amusement park. And the feeling that humans are “children” in a galactic sense as this “Subway Station” that is easy for these races to manipulate is so far out of our range that humans could not understand it while they were building it.”
Did you enjoy the ending of the book? Did you feel fulfilled in the conclusion of the story or were you wanting more?
“In the actual conclusion I will say I was not completely satisfied with where it went. I liked that the travelers were not really believed, and that there was still work to be done to get there, slowly (would have been too easy for everyone to believe and change right away). But it just wrapped up too easily, and I was a little disappointed in that. The revelation concerning Ellie’s father in particular just was poorly done in my opinion, as it really seemed to carry little weight. However, the parts leading up to the conclusion, basically their entire voyage, I thought was excellent, and probably my favorite part of the book (maaybe the introduction beats it out). “
What do you think Sagan had in mind by the “higher intelligence” implied at the ending of the book?
“To me, the message felt like “science and God are not all that different”. Which would fit with the rest of the theme of the book, which felt a lot like “we are all Earthlings”. We need to rid ourselves of bigotry and hate to rise above our differences and become the kind of human race we would be proud to show off to the rest of the Universe. The impression that I got from this book was that there was a moral message inside this incredibly interesting story: that humans are not that different from one another and we should be bound together by our belief in something larger than ourselves. And he does this in a realistic manner in the story; countries do not automatically drop arms and embrace one another but as they are bound together in their goal of building The Machine, the stockpiles of nuclear weapons diminishes and wars are not started as countries need each other to complete their goal.”
There aren’t too many relationships that Ellie has in the book. And the ones that she does have are fairly shallow. Did you believe her relationship with der Heer? Did you find it emotionally satisfying?
“I liked the idea of what (at least what I think) he was going for with this relationship. der Heer seems all politics, he is very concerned about his reputation and wants to basically become a successful politician. Ellie is all business, couldn’t care less about her reputation and is mostly trying to increase her and others understanding. For a brief time at the beginning of their relationship, these are aligned and they can get along and have a decent relationship, but it doesn’t last. I like that Sagan was not going for a “perfect romance,” and tried to show something that just wasn’t gonna work. But I don’t think he pulled that off very well, as there wasn’t really a clean break through the rest of the book. Ken just mostly ignores her, and even kinda looks the other way as others criticize her. There doesn’t seem to be much of a reaction from Ellie on a lot of this. I think some of that was Ellie was definitely emotionally distant from most of the characters, but I just think this was awkwardly done overall, he could have done a better job of showing it one way or another, instead of just coming across as indecisive.”
Why do you think Sagan had the travelers return without any proof?
“This would agree with my answer above. The idea that “faith: believing in something you can’t prove” is necessary in both religion and scientific discovery. I felt that Sagan had/has great respect for religions and that he is simply offering the idea that maybe science and religion can exist together. There is also the feeling of “not yet”. Humans are not quite ready to be part of something larger than themselves until they can unite and become HUMAN rather than Chinese or American or Brazilian. I did not get the impression that the “aliens” were trying to cause the damage that they did by allowing The Five to come back without proof; they just made the decision that humanity was not ready to be a hub on the “Subway Station”; either the damage that they would cause or the damage that an alien nation could cause to the Earth without the ability to fight back.”
OVERALL, HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO THE MOVIE?
“Ha, this is an interesting one, and I’ll try to avoid any spoilers of the movie since you haven’t seen it. Maybe part of this was seeing movie before reading the book, but it was incredibly noticeable what they changed and why they did it to fit a movie. I’m not sure if thats a good or bad thing, but for the most part I think the changes were very transparent, in terms of the reasoning behind them. I actually really like the movie as well, it helps that I can understand what all they did, but I think they did a good job at getting some of the major themes of the novel itself. And one of those themes that the movie holds, and perhaps even highlights, is one that can’t have been a very popular “hollywood” move, and so I applaud them for that.”