Revisiting Contact

When I visited the VLA a little over a week ago with my wife and daughter, I couldn’t help but note they had copies of both the novel Contact by Carl Sagan and the Robert Zemeckis film based on the novel on prominent display in the gift shop. This is perhaps not surprising given that a large portion of the novel is set at the VLA and a large portion of the movie was filmed there as well. My wife and I decided to pick up a copy of the movie on DVD to replace our aging VHS copy.

It’s been years since I watched the film, even longer since I read the novel, but it was fun to go back and see it again. One element that was fun was the behind-the-scenes look at both Arecebo Radio Observatory and the Very Large Array. This is the kind of behind-the-scenes look I wanted to give people with The Astronomer’s Crypt and also, to some degree, with The Solar Sea. While I’ve never visited Arecebo, I have worked at the VLA and recognized the control room and other places in the control building. It was great to see those places again. One thing I noticed, though, was that in the movie, the astronomers themselves operated the telescopes. In real life, specialists who know the instrumentation actually operate the telescope. Scientists might be in the room analyzing data as it comes in, but even that is somewhat rare. For the most part, I chalk this up to streamlining the storytelling and keeping the number of on-screen characters to a manageable number.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie more on this viewing than I remembered. I like how the movie focuses on the human reaction to alien contact more than the science fictional elements of the actual alien encounter. We see a wide variety of reactions from the general public, to religious figures, to politicians. While we see some paranoia, most of the extreme reactions come from … well, extremists. The acting is fine with Jodie Foster turning in a believable performance as astronomer Eleanor Arroway. I also especially enjoyed seeing Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, head of the National Science Foundation, one of Ellie’s chief critics and ultimately her rival to meet the aliens. Another fun appearance was John Hurt from Alien and Doctor Who as the eccentric billionaire S.R. Hadden who funds Ellie’s experiments.

As I recall, the movie is a generally faithful adaptation of the novel. I was pleased to see that the movie didn’t include one element of the novel I really disliked. I’m not certain how necessary it is to give a spoiler warning for a novel that’s over thirty years old, but just in case, I’ll cover this element in the next paragraph. Skip over it if you haven’t read the book and don’t want the spoiler!

In the novel, Ellie has a stepfather named John Staughton. He’s a university professor who raises her after Ted Arroway dies. It’s ultimately revealed that Arroway is not really Ellie’s father, but that Staughton was her biological father all along. To me, this felt like academic elitism of the worst order. When I read it, it seemed as though Carl Sagan was saying that brilliant Dr. Eleanor Arroway couldn’t really be the daughter of an ordinary working man, but required the genetics of an actual PhD scientist in order to be as smart as she was. Of course, this impression could be unintentional, and it could have resulted from an editor’s suggestion at some point in the revision process to add more drama to the story. That said, it was bad enough, it almost proved a showstopper for me when I read the novel.

One element of the movie that was both fun, yet dates the film was the addition of scenes with President Bill Clinton. On one hand, it adds a certain credibility to the film, but it also sets it indelibly in the past. Of course, that will happen with almost any near-future science fiction and it’s perhaps better to fix it in time than let the older tech in the control rooms and older cars on the streets be the main “tells.”

Ultimately, I think both the novel and film are great in that they provide a look into the mind of Carl Sagan, who long served as an important spokesman for science and astronomy. Like Urania by Camille Flammarion, Contact provides insights into Carl Sagan that his non-fiction alone couldn’t provide. We get to see more of his hopes and fears and even though many of us never got to meet him, we still have the opportunity to know him better.

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In the Word Kitchen

I’ll be at LepreCon in Phoenix, Arizona from July 23 through 26. To learn more about this fun science fiction convention, visit the LepreCon website.

This week, several writing and editing projects I’ve been working on have taken major steps forward. I feel like a chef in a kitchen working on several dishes at once, doing my best to make sure they all get the proper amount of attention and go out to my guests in the right order. cook The photo is an old one of me in my chef’s coat. I don’t have pretensions of being a great chef—or at least many pretensions—though I am a pretty darn cook if I do say so myself. My wife was inspired to buy me the coat after watching cooking shows and realizing there must be a practical reason for the coats. Mine has saved my arms from grease splatters and saved a few shirts. It was well worth the investment.

Moving from slinging hash to slinging words, I’m currently working through the final copy edit of The Astronomer’s Crypt. This is my novel about creatures from the beginning of time, drug dealers, ghosts, and astronomers colliding during a cloudy night at an observatory. For those who want to follow the adventures of this novel, be sure to follow my horror fiction blog at http://dlsummers.wordpress.com. In addition to catching last minute grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, my copy editor has done a lot to flag places where the action can be tightened and my use of language can be more effective. It’s been a good experience.

While working through edits of my novel, I’m editing an exciting post-apocalyptic novel called Sector 12 by L.J. Bonham. I’ll be sure to share more information about the novel when it comes out. I think being edited helps me be a better editor. What’s more, editing another author’s work helps me be more receptive to the comments of my editors.

I’ve also started reading stories for the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys which collects stories about those people who will blaze trails to planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler Probe. I’m editing the anthology with Kepler’s Project Scientist, Dr. Steve Howell. So far, I’ve received some great stories, but there’s plenty of room for more submissions. If you’re interested in trying your hand at a submission, be sure to read the guidelines at http://www.hadrosaur.com/antho-gl.html.

As with any good chef, I have a secret recipe and even something a little extra—what a Cajun might call a lagniappe. I actually have two more projects in process. I’m just waiting to formalize a few more things, then I’ll be ready to unveil them as well. Stay tuned. Or, to use a variation of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s catchphrase: Good eating, good reading, good loving!

Dangerous Aliens

This past week, I’ve been at Kitt Peak National Observatory, helping to obtain spectra of distant galaxies, while at the same time, waiting for my beta readers to get back to me with their comments about my novel, The Brazen Shark. Obtaining these spectra is a process that involves precisely positioning the telescope on a faint galaxy so light goes down a fiber optic bundle to a spectrograph two floors below. Once the light arrives, it’s separated by a grating and recorded on a camera. It’s a process that involves a lot of care and patience. What’s more, it can be especially tricky, when the wind is gusting around 45 miles per hour!

Children of the Old Stars

These kinds of long nights are good ones for contemplating what life might be out there looking back at us. Back in 2010, Stephen Hawking famously said in a series for the Discover Channel, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” It’s a pretty pessimistic view.

Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer for the SETI Institute rebutted that statement, saying, “This is an unwarranted fear. If their interest in our planet is for something valuable that our planet has to offer, there’s no particular reason to worry about them now. If they’re interested in resources, they have ways of finding rocky planets that don’t depend on whether we broadcast or not. They could have found us a billion years ago.” Shostak makes a good point, but well meaning people have caused disasters without trying.

The universe is so vast and there are so many stars out there, as I’m reminded during each of my working nights, that it’s almost inconceivable to think we’re the only intelligent life. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to find intelligent life taking many different forms ranging from frightening to benevolent and a whole range in between. In that sense, I suspect that both Hawking and Shostak are right. We’ll find life we’ll enjoy meeting and life we’ll regret meeting.

Also, there’s been a lot of talk in the news that life may be closer to us than we’ve thought. NASA scientists are talking about sending a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa where they believe conditions are right for simple life to exist. One thing I’ve long suspected is that if an alien race is advanced enough for long-distance space exploration, they can probably hide themselves from us rather easily, much as a hunter can hide behind a duck blind.

Heirs of the New Earth

I experiment with all of these ideas in my Old Star/New Earth science fiction novels. It’s perhaps not surprising the ideas for many of these came while working at Kitt Peak looking at the many wonders of the universe and discussing them with visiting astronomers.

In the novels, the Titans are benevolent aliens who live much closer than we might imagine. They hid for much of human history to avoid harming us. The Cluster is an ancient life form born of the oldest stars in our cosmic neighborhood. Saying much more will provide spoilers, but I will say contact with them doesn’t go so well. Other creatures such as the Rd’dyggians have their own agendas and just tend to ignore humans, unless they feel they need something.

Here’s hoping any encounters you have with aliens turn out to be pleasant ones!