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Sagan, Carl

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1934-1996) US astronomer, planetary scientist and author, professor of astronomy and space sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Sagan played an active role in the Mars experiments carried out by Mariner 9 in 1971, worked also on the Viking and Voyager projects, and was responsible for placing a message to alien life aboard the interstellar spaceship Pioneer 10 (Jupiter flyby 1973). He was co-founder and president of the Planetary Society, a very large space-interest group. For twelve years he was editor-in-chief of Icarus, a journal devoted to planetary research. From the mid-1970s, through books and pre-eminently through his 13-part PBS television documentary series Cosmos (1980), which he wrote (together with screenwriters who included Gentry Lee) and presented, Sagan became perhaps the best known of all US scientific popularizers.

His relevance to sf had been evident much earlier than that, however, through his speculations about Life on Other Worlds; he was one of the comparatively few scientists to have given serious thought to this question. His first book was an updating of a translated 1963 book by the Russian astronomer I S Shklovskii; the collaboration, published under both their names, was Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966). Sagan's next books in this area were The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (1973), "produced" by Jerome Agel – winner of a special John W Campbell Memorial Award, the only one ever presented for nonfiction – and Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI) (anth 1973), which he edited. He wrote on Evolution (see also Origin of Man) in The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1977) – this won a Pulitzer Prize – and published a collection of speculative essays (some dealing with Pseudoscience, such as a vigorous assault on the planetary theories of Immanuel Velikovsky) in Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (coll 1979), including "Science Fiction: A Personal View" (in Teaching Science Fiction: Education for Tomorrow, anth 1980, ed Jack Williamson). There followed the Hugo-winning book of the television series, Cosmos (1980) – it was on the best-seller lists for over a year – and a book about Comets, particularly Halley's comet, Comet (1985) with Ann Druyan, his wife from 1981 until his death.

Collaboration with Druyan became the subject of much speculation in the case of Sagan's sf novel, Contact (1985), for which he had received a $2 million advance in 1981 when it was still unwritten. It was alleged that this novel was a collaboration with Druyan, rather than by Sagan alone; they countered that only the (unproduced) screenplay based on the book had been collaborative. The book itself is unexceptionable and unsensational. It invests science with high glamour in its Near-Future story of a successful SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project; a rather good Black-Hole mechanism for interstellar travel is part of the flatly characterized story, which grips in other respects, especially in its portrayal of the way Scientists think. The plot elements about a Communication from space giving instructions for building a machine are reminiscent of the UK television serial A for Andromeda (1961). The book has a strong religious focus. It won a Locus Award for best first novel and was filmed as Contact (1997), directed by Robert Zemeckis; the film won the 1998 Hugo for best dramatic presentation.

Sagan's final nonfiction works of note are Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), emphasizing the smallness and arguable non-uniqueness of humanity's place in the universe at large; and The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996), which expounds scientific method and renews the author's previous assaults on Pseudoscience and allied forms of irrational thinking. [DRL/PN]

see also: Aliens; Astronomy; Mathematics; Nuclear Winter; Omni; Poetry; Rick Sternbach; Terraforming; Vangelis; Xenobiology.

Carl Edward Sagan

born New York: 9 November 1934

died Seattle, Washington: 20 December 1996


nonfiction (selected)

works as editor


previous versions of this entry

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