Carl Sagan is perhaps the greatest science communicator of the twentieth century. Contact is a novel about our first contact with an extraterrestrial species. Solidly grounded in science with plausible explanations and explicatory digressions, it's hard to find fault with the realism of the work. The book starts strong building an iconoclastic protagonist, a female scientist in a world of men named Ellie Arroway. The general social commentary and the frank discussion of sexism in the scientific community is applause-worthy. Ellie is likable and realistic with a tendency to overcompensate when challenged as a natural outcome of the behavior that was required of her to succeed. That temperament leads to interesting philosophical debates over the relationship of science and religion and the repercussions of the discovery that we aren't alone in the universe.
About midway through, there's a chunk of the narrative that loses ground to explication. For the first half of the work, Sagan does a remarkable job edifying while not being overly pedantic. You can tell that one of the focal reasons for writing this book was as a vehicle to teach people real science by embedding it in a compelling and imaginative tale of scientific speculation - what would happen if we were contacted by an extraterrestrial species? What would the political, religious, economic and social ramifications be? Each is thoroughly looked at and realistically interpolated from existing conditions in the mid-1980s to a satisfactory degree. Anyway, such passages are thoughtfully and judiciously interspersed throughout the story of Arroway's life and the "discovery" until about midway through, where I felt like things just started to drag. Long political diatribes about the difference between Soviet and American scientific culture without any progression of character or plot made me start to put the book down and let my mind wander much more frequently than in the early narrative.
The good news is, once you get over this hump, Contact
rapidly picks up pace and takes you on an awe-inspiring journey through a speculative first contact. Buried riddles hidden in signals, cryptology, astronomy, high energy and relativistic physics become the play things of powerful beings trying to make contact with our budding species. The whole treatment is completely logical. You walk away thoroughly convinced that if (or when?) we finally get the interstellar phone call, it should pretty much take this basic form. Much better than the film version if you get the chance.