Contact, by Carl Sagan

A SETI project picks up a signal which seems to have intelligent origin. Eventually they manage to decode it, and the message it contains appears to be a set of instructions on how to construct a machine.

This was a book that had some really thought-provoking ideas in it, but was a bit too long and could have done with some of the non-SF-ideas stuff being removed.

The descriptions of how they come across and decode the initial message were really good, although perhaps some of the ideas weren't lingered over enough - it was often a case that I was impressed enough by some explanation that I'd rewind to play it again, wishing that it would last longer.

Typically, the storyline had the scientists disappearing for some long period of time ("some months passed"), and then surfacing to explain what they'd found to some non-techie people. This was a reasonably effective way to do things because it provided an excuse for non-nerdy explanations, and skipped the boring stuff.

But because the non-nerdy explanations don't take that long, there was a lot of room for the implications of each new development to be gone into, and this is where I think the novel dragged a bit. It's obviously of interest that a message from space will have social, cultural and religious implications (in this, it reminded me of John Wyndham novels), but I just wasn't so interested in that as finding out what happens next. There was also some stuff about Ellie's (the main character) love-life, which was just boring.

One of the themes of the book which was very well done was that Ellie is either agnostic or atheist, and states, early on, that a reason she doesn't believe in God is that if He existed, then surely it would have been easy for Him to have left some incontrovertible evidence; for example,if he'd given Moses a diagram of an internal combustion engine rather than a set of ten commandments.

In a way, the message from the aliens seems to be the sort of thing that Ellie meant - instructions on how to build a machine which no human scientist can understand, and whose purpose no-one can guess. But obviously this doesn't prove God, it just proves some kind of higher intelligence.

But by the end of the book, Ellie has come across something (with the help of the aliens) which is much more impressive than any machine description, and which does seem to fit the requirements of her initial need for evidence of God.

Specifically (spoiler), it turns out that there is some kind of encoded message which you can find by looking at the expansion of pi. By (normal) definition, pi is an irrational number whose digits are non-repeating and random. But Ellie finds a pattern in there which is most definitely not random, and which she can (partially) decode. Such a pattern could only be there because whoever "designed" mathematics put it there. And who could that be, but God?

I don't know whether it's possible in real life to prove or disprove the "message in pi" idea, but it captured my imagination and for a few days I couldn't stop thinking about it. What a neat idea. The book was worth reading just for this. I read on Wikipedia that the film missed out this part of the story, which seems a real shame.

So, I'm glad I read it; would have been better if it had been a bit shorter though.

Completed : 16-Apr-2011 (audiobook)

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