A science fiction novel which opens in December 1999 as a multinational team set out on a journey to the stars.
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The famous astronomer and science explicator's novelistic debut: a distended, trudging, overdidactic, near-future affair about messages from space and contact with aliens. Talented radio astronomer Ellie Arroway is director of Project Argus, an astronomical survey hoping to detect communications from alien civlizations. Soon, a message comes in from Vega - which, when decoded, features Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games! (This was apparently the first Earth TV transmission picked up by the Vegans; they simply recorded and rebroadcast it.) However, hidden inside Herr Hitler is another, more significant Message: instructions, thousands of pages long, for building a mysterious machine! Yet another layer of the Message reveals a "primer" enabling the listeners to translate the main Message. After some international wrangling, three machines are constructed: in the US (sabotaged by religious fanatics); in Russia (technical problems); only the Japanese version is completed quickly - and it appears to be some sort of transporter. A team, including Ellie, is chosen to board the machine; it whisks them off via space "wormholes" to the galactic center, where representatives of an ancient, multigalactic civilization offer a few well-chosen words of encouragement before sending them back to Earth. And the remainder of this unthrilling, overlong tale wanders off into meditations on governmental paranoia, supercivilizations, transcendental numbers, and God. A lot of Sagan's personal hopes and ideas are here - improved international cooperation, an end to the arms race, the search for alien civilizations, the relationship between science and religion - but imaginative leaps are few; so all that patient explaining serves only to pad out a very thin and overworked idea. Still, fans of Sagan's non-fiction will probably be curious enough to browse. (Kirkus Reviews)