Carl Sagan Book Reviews
by Mac Tonnies
Carl Sagan ranks among the most important thinkers of the 20th century. His work is an invigorating window into our universe: a singular, profound, and remarkably readable introduction to the science issues that define our civilization.
"Contact," Carl Sagan's only fiction effort, is a remarkably intelligent work that suffers from some of the typical problems encountered by first-time novelists. While Sagan's panoramic storyline is fascinating, "Contact's" characterization is dry and unconvincing; looking into a character's mind is often like reading an entry in "Who's Who." It's the premise, not the people, that make "Contact" an enjoyable reading experience. Sagan knows the territory of international science politics and functions as a capable guide, showing us the powershifts likely to occur in the event of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. The narrative falters in places (most notably the sections devoted to the heroine's love-life and the ever-present conflict between science and religion), but Sagan's millennial adventure has plenty of exuberance and a practiced eye for detail. Epic in scale, "Contact" is an overburdened but worthy novel that taps humanity's sense of wonder.
BILLIONS AND BILLIONS
"Billions and Billions," Sagan's last book, is vivid and accessible, focusing on the perils of technology, especially ozone depletion and the threat of nuclear war. The author's scope and candor are testaments to the human spirit. I'm stunned by Sagan's optimism.
THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD
"The Demon-Haunted World" is an excellent examination of the politics of human misunderstanding. Sagan encourages the growth of rational thought instead of blind acceptance, encourages efforts to make science and critical thinking widely accessible and describes the intellectual factors that determine the nature of a true democracy. Sagan also attacks the latest "pseudoscientific" fads: alien abduction, crop circles, the face on Mars, etc.
It is his zeal in debunking certain of these phemomena that makes "The Demon-Haunted World" a less-than-perfect work; his chapters "explaining away" UFOs and other esoteric subjects contain many flaws, and it's difficult to believe that someone as obviously brilliant as Sagan would fail to be aware of his own ommission of data. Although his critiques of popular myths and delusions are well-grounded, his dismissal of serious scientific evidence in favor of extraterrestrial intelligence on Mars is suspect. I cannot help but feel that his opinions about the "Face" and associated landforms have more to do with space-science infighting than any desire to put the issue to rest with real evidence. (Instead of referring the reader to the excellent photo-enhancement work by Dr. Mark Carlotto, Sagan cites, at times extensively, the supermarket tabloid "Weekly World News." Using such a publication as a "straw man," it is easy enough for him to make the whole subject sound infinitely spurious.)
I suggest reading "The Demon-Haunted World" along with the following so that the reader can get a solid understanding of the "other side of the argument":
"Dimensions" by Jacques Vallee. (Sagan essentially explains "alien abduction" as a symptom of modern folklore. Vallee's treatment of this same idea is much more well-reasoned.)
"TOP SECRET/MAJIC" by Stanton Friedman. (Sagan dismisses the MJ-12 documents based on the "expert" opinion of Philip Klass, a fellow member of CSICOP, a prominent skeptics society. Friedman addresses Sagan's book directly and is able to overshadow Sagan's argument with verifiable scholarship. The MJ-12 papers may not be indisputably real, but the verdict certainly isn't in.)
"Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind" by C.D.B. Bryan. (Bryan's book is an objective overview of the UFO phenomenon, with particular emphasis on abductions. The reader owes it to himself to examine all of the evidence, and Bryan's book is a good place to start.)
"The Martian Enigmas" by Mark Carlotto. (This is a well-researched volume on the possibility that the Mars face was constructed by intelligent beings. Sagan's apparent ignorance of this text, and others like it, is flatly inexcusable.)
PALE BLUE DOT
"Pale Blue Dot" is a knockout book that explores humanity's lust for cosmic adventure. Sagan tells our species' story in lusciously written with chapters that grow bolder and more provocative, climaxing in a wonderful vision of a terraformed Solar System, intergalactic travel and transhuman evolution. Sagan presents a reasoned perspective on the technological issues confronting us in the near future. Is SETI worth the cost? What payback does exploration of Mars offer the people of Earth? The author neither bores nor patronizes the reader, weaving an intellectual adventure of marvelous scope and compassion. Easily the most stimulating book on space exploration I know of, Sagan's remarkable effort deserves a prodigous readership. Why can't high school science texts be this good?
SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS with Ann Druyan
Co-written with Anne Druyan, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is an excellent book about human evolution and the plight of organisms adapting to conditions on our planet. Well-informed chapters outline Darwinian natural selection, genetic science, and the history of anthropological inquiry. Sagan has once again crafted one of the most enjoyable and profound popular science books ever written.
"Broca's Brain" is a fascinating collection of science essays and editorials. Sagan's intelligence shines through in this book, affirming his status as America's best science teacher.
THE DRAGONS OF EDEN
Along with "Pale Blue Dot," "The Dragons of Eden" is one of Sagan's very best works. Sagan's curiosity and intelligence prove intoxicating. This is one of the definitive popular studies of human origins.
THE COSMIC CONNECTION
Newly reissued, "The Cosmic Connection" is a liberating exploration of extraterrestrial intelligence. "The Cosmic Connection" addresses interstellar radio communication and travel throughout the galactic neighborhood. Sagan seems remarkably comfortable with the notion of alien civilizations in Earth's proximity--an attitude that, via the machinations of science politics, he did his best to shroud in academia before his untimely death.