Close encounter of a very different kind. Carl Sagan turns from science fact to science fiction
Contact, by Carl Sagan. New York: Simon & Schuster. 432 pp. $18.95 The first novel by Carl Sagan, author of ``Cosmos,'' and professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell University, is an intelligent page turner.
Without borrowing from H. G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, or other writers who have been both scientists and entertainers, ``Contact'' is a serious blend of science fact and speculation with a fast-paced and well-crafted story.
Mr. Sagan's account of the first contact between extraterrestrials and humans reads like a fascinating documentary. One afternoon, someone or something sends a message or signal from a place near the star Vega, 26 light-years away. From across space comes a picture of Adolf Hitler, from the first Earth television program broadcast from the 1936 Olympics. Concealed within that image are the instructions for building a machine and a means of translating the accompanying message. The machines are eventuall y built, and contact is made.
The novel's deciding character is Ellie Arroway, an appropriately named astronomer and the director of Project Argus, an organization that listens for signals indicating the existence of extraterrestrials. She is the first to become aware of the message and its impact on human history.
If the novel's summary sounds un-exciting, Sagan's treatment of his material is anything but. He emerges as a master storyteller, using various techniques of fiction writing -- including skillfully chosen quotations from Emily Dickinson, Van Gogh, William Blake, and the Dead Sea Scrolls to provide a history of human thought on the heavens.
The character of Ellie is developed through short, well-crafted paragraphs suggesting that Sagan is more interested in illustrating human relations and human response than depicting alien creatures. Other themes of the novel include the waste of human and natural resources, the arms race, the economy, and the response of governments and individuals to the alien contact.
Where other writers might have found an adventure story of ``Star Wars'' dimensions or written a variation of ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind,'' Sagan has provided a novel of ideas, and finds drama in how people interact with them, in a situation of challenge and discovery.