A Surprising Side of Carl Sagan

Hollywood has been enamored with aliens for as long as movies have been a thing, but perhaps no alien-themed movie has had quite the impact of Contact, released 25 years ago this month.

But the movie version of Contact wasn’t simply a celluloid rendering of the novel. The ending, in particular, was utterly different. In both the novel and the film, we see Arroway devoting her career to SETI, yearning to know if we’re alone, or if there is something, somewhere, in the vastness of the cosmos that we might converse with. But in the novel, Arroway finds something more: Hidden within the digits of pi is a kind of code which, when appropriately deciphered, reveals a picture of a circle, implying that someone—God? Aliens of unimaginable power?—designed the very fabric of the universe according to some grand blueprint. This might seem strange coming from an author known for his ardent agnosticism (the word atheism, though accurate, somehow feels too harsh for the affable Sagan). The twist beguiled another of Sagan’s biographers, Keay Davidson; in Carl Sagan: A Life, he writes that “with Contact, the ever-contradictory Carl Sagan—avowed nonbeliever—offered one of the most religious science-fiction tales ever written.”

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