Book and Movie Review: Contact

ContactThis is one of the very few books I’ve read, where I saw the movie first, and was moved to read the source material. In fact, it was the first Sagan book I had read–something about reading male scifi authors in High School had turned me off of them and their inclination to make paper cut-out or strangely unlikely female characters, and I hadn’t tested the waters again.

But… the movie Contact… Jodie Foster…Contact (Her Little Man Tate and Nell combine with Contact for a tryptich of my all-time favorites of any movies.) If anyone wanted a book trailer to intrigue a reader into buying the book: Here’s one case where I can tell you definitively that the movie convinced me the book must be brilliant. It’s a movie I will watch every time I catch it on a broadcast channel, and I have the DVD. Its portrayal of the evolution and character of Dr. Ellie Arroway were meaningful and moving to me. Her way of arriving at meaning and context in her life was powerful both on a personal level and a global level: An injunction not to forget the awe and curiosity that drives us forward as a species.

The first time I read the book, then, I had to put it down half a dozen times. The story was only vaguely similar to the movie. There were characters and relationships that weren’t in the movie, and the movie had that overtone of a romantic relationship with Matthew McConaughey’s character that added a different context to the visual story.

For some reason, recently, though, I was moved to pick up the book again. It had been a while since I’d seen the movie and I understood this was a different story anyway, so my old outrage at not being able to revisit favorite scenes from the movie had all drained away.

From that perspective, all of a sudden I was able to see the real parallels between the two versions of the story. I found this passage:

Because of the nature of her work and her comparative eminence, she was constantly thrown into situations where she was the only woman present, except for those serving coffee or making a stenotypic transcript. Despite what seemed like a lifetime of effort on her part, there was still a host of male scientists who only talked to each other, insisted on interrupting her, and ignored, when they could, what she had to say. Occasionally there were those like Drumlin who showed a positive antipathy. But at least he was treating her as he did many men. He was evenhanded in his outbursts, visiting them equally on scientists of both sexes. There were a rare few of her male colleagues who did not exhibit awkward personality changes in her presence. She ought to spend more time with them, she thought. People like Kenneth der Heer, the molecular biologist from the Salk Institute who had recently been appointed Presidential Science Adviser. And Peter Valerian, of course.

All of a sudden I rediscovered the Ellie that Jodie Foster portrayed, and the story grabbed me this time. It’s dense with science in parts–stuff that goes over my head about the specific wavelengths of particular elements, how you tune radio frequencies, and their relative strength. (Even after reading the Wikipedia article on Janskies, I’m still not entirely sure what it means to the story… and have no way of knowing whether the science in the fiction is real.) But it’s real enough that I’ve geeked out on it.

So I had to write a review about Contact, and pushing my understanding of a different area of physics and astronomy to a different place. Sagan’s story is complex, with layers of commentary sometimes obscured by the technical details he’s chosen to incorporate into the story. But for anyone who enjoys the social commentary possible through the lens of science fiction, he’s incorporated some doozies–that will also be familiar to those who’ve watched the movie. There are conversations and interactions in the movie that bear only passing resemblance to the source, but reveal different perspectives when read from a page. I’m glad to have started again from the beginning to have re-read one of scifi’s classics.

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