Before I actually start, I feel as if I should provide some kind of warning. This post is about 2,000 words long because I have no sense of self control. Despite editing, it's still almost as long (although not nearly in as formal of a register) as some of the papers I wrote this year. But if you're down for 2,000 words about gender, aliens, and Carl Sagan, then you're in the right place. The right space place. The right splace?
In one of my classes last semester, I had the immense pleasure to immerse myself in science fiction like the shameless nerd that I actually am. The class, aptly titled The Future, was centered around the simple question, “What will the future bring?” We explored different variations of human predictions (i.e. literature and film) of what is to come with the goal of gaining a better understanding of “the past, especially the cultures, concerns, and preoccupations of the places and times where these futures were imagined.” In short, coming to a better understanding of the past by looking at the future, which seems kind of backwards but actually works really well.
It was easily the coolest class that I had the opportunity to take my freshmen year, and actually played a huge part in my decision making process for changing my major. On the last day of class, I told my professor that the class had helped me to realize that I was in the wrong academic track. He replied, “Oh no, what damage did I do?” to which I admitted, “Well, I was in biology and now I’m in English and either History or Political Science.” He nodded and said, “Ah, so I’ve ruined your financial future.” Okay, fair.
In any case, over the course of the semester we read a variety of science fiction texts including Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the book by Philip K. Dick that was the inspiration for Blade Runner), watched movies like Gattaca and Her, and got to dig into some of the University’s archives. It was the best, and much like early 2000’s music, I’ll probably never be over it.
The text that definitely stuck with me the most however was Carl Sagan’s Contact. If you’re not familiar with Sagan himself, Wikipedia lists him as an “astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator”. In other, simpler terms, a giant space nerd. He was also a leader within the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, and contributed a great deal to the field of radio astronomy. In fact, he was central to discovering the high surface temperatures of Venus, a fact that he slyly underlines within Contact itself, writing, “The astronomers had sat home, pointed their radio telescopes at Venus, and measured the surface temperature just about as accurately as the Venera probes did thirteen years later.” Astronomers, i.e. Sagan and company.
In any case, what he’s arguably most famous for is his television program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Within the first five minutes of the first episode, Sagan drops a veritable existential bomb, saying, “Some part of our being knows [the Cosmos] is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us; we’re made of starstuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”
Friends, take note. Telling someone that they’re made of starstuff is both a scientific truth and a really good pickup line.
Sagan continues these beautiful themes of exploration, humanity & the universe, and the search for intelligent life within Contact. Ellie Arroway, the main character of the novel, is a radio astronomer who rises through her studies and eventually becomes one of the world’s foremost experts on a message of extraterrestrial origin and one of the Earth’s representatives on a celestial journey. She’s a woman, she does science, and she’s pretty damn good at both.
Within the novel, Sagan addresses the gender bias that's become basically inherent in STEM fields (and like, everywhere else), the intersection of scientific and religious faith, humanity’s place within the Universe, and the origin of the universe itself. Oh, and also aliens. Kind of. It’s a book so complex and rich that I feel as if I need to read it probably ten more times in order to even get close to fully comprehending it.
From the get go, Sagan makes no move to shy away from the fact that as a female in a scientific field, Ellie faces certain challenges that her male counterparts don’t. She has to fight to be paid attention to, and when she succeeds it is in spite of her gender. This goes to the point where her professors start failing to acknowledge the fact that she's a female once she starts succeeding, and they lump her in as "one of the boys". At one point she describes her “physics voice” – aka the tone and volume that she has to use in order to even garner attention in group discussions. Basically, in order to get paid attention to like the men, she has to emulate masculinity in her conduct. This is crazy! Young women being ignored or even reprimanded for the way that they speak never happ - oh, wait. Today, young women are criticized for vocal trends such as upspeak and vocal fry and the apparent "degradation" of the language that they cause.
I'd argue that languages don't degrade but rather evolve and adapt, but in any case that's an issue for another post. Back to science and space!
Now, this novel was published in 1985, a time where the number of women in technical fields (especially computer programming) was pretty crazily low. One would hope that this wasn’t still a trend today, but – surprise – gender bias isn’t gone! If only. The Minnesota Daily in 2014 heralds progress with the headline “Gender imbalance in CSE shrinks in 2014”, CSE referring to the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota. Awesome! However, the slightly smaller subheading is “Women are expected to make up 25 percent of the class”.
This kind of situation is pretty evenly mirrored across the nation and around the world. It’s not necessarily an issue of programs – CSE in this case – intentionally admitting fewer women than men. It’s rather the institutionalized belief that women are not as suited for STEM careers as guys are. Which, to be honest, is total BS. But as a woman who is no longer pursuing a career in a science field, who am I to really talk? I guess what I’m trying to get at is that we want to help the girls and women who have a proclivity to a scientific discipline maintain that natural interest, and overall stop discouraging women from pursuing careers in science. And on top of that, we should also do our best to combat the sexism that women currently engaging in scientific pursuits face. There is no doubt that they are on an equal playing field with men in their field in terms of intellect, ingenuity, and determination. So to my ladies in science, keep killing it.
But enough about gender bias (said no woman ever – hopefully). Contact, while being a novel that I find to be wonderfully feminist, also tackles the intersection – not always the conflict – of science and religion. Ellie wonders throughout the novel how religious individuals can maintain their faith without the skepticism that is required in a scientific discipline. However, when she is faced with defending what she believes to be unquestionable scientific truth with only her word and her faith in it, the playing field shifts and Ellie is lost on how to convince people of her truth. Essentially, Sagan thoughtfully poses the question, “What is the difference, if any exists, in faith in science and faith in religion?”
And hell if I know, but it’s certainly something that is interesting to reflect on, especially given the fact that scientific truth and religious truth are often seen as mutually exclusive. Within the novel, Ellie butts heads and eventually reconciles with the character Palmer Joss, a religious leader. They both endeavor to prove their faith to each other, and each indubitably influences the other party’s ideas regarding faith, both scientific and religious. I can say that as a reader, Contact influenced my ideas regarding the notion of faith in both respects. I don’t really want to spoil the end of the novel or too much of the plot because I already feel as if I’ve said too much, but in any case the way that Sagan treats this intersection is both tasteful and thought provoking.
Fun side note since that felt a little serious – one day after my class I texted my dad “Am I named after Palmer Joss? Honest question.” to which he oh so reassuringly replied, “Call me.” Turns out I’m not actually named after Palmer Joss, but the movie adaption did come out in 1997 before I was born and my dad was a bit worried that people were going to think that my parents had named me after a Matthew McConaughey character.
Finally (and this is the exciting space part), Sagan tackles questions regarding humanity’s place within the universe itself. So if you’re over the existential hit over the head that we’re made of literally the same stuff as stars (that makes one of us), consider the following: What are the implications of intelligent life in the universe that isn’t human? What if that life is more developed than we are? What if they have the capacity to destroy us? And another that human hubris often prevents us from considering: Are we even worth their time?
Although Contact is at a surface level basically about aliens, one of my classmates pointed out that there’s a pretty disappointing lack of aliens within most of the novel. However, infinitely more interesting than the aliens themselves (and aliens are pretty damn interesting!) are the reactions on the Earth to the possibility of alien life after the Message originating from Vega is received. It’s important to remember that Contact was published in 1985, a time when Cold War tensions were still fresh in everyone’s minds. In the novel, the American government is worried about having to possibly cooperate with the Soviets, other people are worried that the Message – and the instructions to build what later becomes the Machine contained within it– are nothing more than a Trojan Horse, and governments (yeah, I do mean the Americans) are worried about whether they have to maintain secrecy regarding the message despite the fact that the entire global scientific community is working together to receive and decode it.
Aside from government, there’s also the fact that the Message and the powerful beings that would have to exist to even send it imply the existence of a society that is more developed than our own. Understandably, most of the global community reacts to with a universal (or really, Terran) yikes. While the existence of this possible higher society certainly brings about fear, it also evokes a certain sense of wonder and speculation. How much life is there in the universe that we aren’t aware of? If we can barely comprehend the size of the universe itself, how can we even hope to comprehend that which exists within it that isn’t us?
On a more personal level, I find it ridiculous to think that we as humans are the only intelligent life that’s out there. Even if the universe is finite, it is so incomprehensibly vast and incredible that there has to be something or someone else there. Sure, that’s kind of terrifying. Independence Day and War of the Worlds immediately come to mind. But it’s also incredible, and fantastic, and enthralling. It makes me want to try to be an astronaut myself if only for the chance to explore the cosmos.
So anyway, Contact was a great book. In my opinion, it should be required reading for like every human ever, but more realistically I think it’s a great read for those pursuing science (especially women), those interested in the cosmos (space nerds), or honestly just women in general. At the end of the summer, ask me how many times I've reread it and in turn learn just how pathetically weak I am at resisting the pull of rereading my favorite books.
TL;DR because this is over 2,000 words: Contact is great and you should read it because it talks about gender, space, the universe, and eventually, aliens.