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Robert J. Sawyer (2000)

My introduction to Robert J. Sawyer came when WWW:Wake was serialized in Analog magazine back in 2008. I remember reading a couple pieces of the novel and thinking it was pretty interesting stuff, but I didn’t get around to rereading and finishing the novel back in 2011. It held up through my changing tastes, and I’m looking forward to digging into WWW:Watch soon.

A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of his 2000 novel, Calculating God. I’d never heard of it, but the concept was pretty interesting: aliens land on Earth, part of an investigation into the existence of a God. Their first stop is a Toronto museum, where a paleontologist named Tom Jericho works. Their theory: God has been steering the evolution of life through the history of the universe. Their proof: two other planets in the galaxy have suffered a series of mass extinctions at precisely the same times, among other things. Their intent: to see if Earth is part of the same grand plan.

The novel is told from Tom Jericho’s point of view. He is visited by Hollus, an alien paleontologist. Hollus is on Earth to examine the fossil record to learn about mass extinction events. Jericho is asked for his help in explaining Earth’s geological and fossil history. Although stunned, Jericho readily agrees to help. However, he is shocked upon hearing Hollus’s premise: a God exists, and has been influencing evolution for an unknown purpose.

Jericho, an atheist, is dumbfounded that a clearly more advanced race believes in a God. Hollus argues that God’s existence is indisputable. A number of physical and cosmological constants are such that life could not exist otherwise. Further, advanced cosmology has discovered that the number of universes to ever exist only numbers eight or nine, meaning that this can’t be one of an infinite number of universes with an infinite number of physical and cosmological configurations. Finally, there is the fact that three planets have suffered a number of mass exinctions independently of each other at the exact same times.

These ideas come at a critical time for Jericho – he has just learned that he is suffering from incurable lung cancer. Facing mortality, Jericho struggles to reconcile the idea that there is a God with his lifelong atheism. Much of the novel centers around Jericho slowly coming to accept the idea, shifting from rejecting Hollus’s idea out of hand to trying to understand God’s motives. I should say here, this isn’t the God of Judeo-Christian tradition, but something much more elusive. This difference does lead to an interesting ending sequence comparable to Childhood’s End.

Calculating God is an interesting character study on one hand – an atheist learning that he has been wrong about the existence of God, but not necessarily wrong in his ideas of faith. On the other hand, it’s kind of sloppily carried out. Sure, it may be easy to doubt the existence of God (as religion currently frames it) with existing scientific evidence, but Jericho refuses to accept the idea at first despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of a God (not exactly as religion frames it) within the novel. For the first half of the novel, I think this is excusable, as it serves as a set-up to discuss the foundations of modern atheism, and explaining why they aren’t true within the novel’s setting. Fair enough. After that set of discussions is done, there’s a good chunk of time spent further detailing Jericho’s doubt, but the payoff here is a couple of paragraphs about how other atheists handled a crisis of non-faith and a few pages about why modern scientists are hesitant to accept the existence of God.

As uneven and slightly ham-handed as that discussion is, it doesn’t even begin to compare to one of the subplots that seems like Sawyer wrote to make the book a broader statement on modern religious trends. On the very first page, the story’s made clear to be a memoir of sorts from Jericho. It remains being told from Jericho’s point of view right up until chapter 14, when suddenly, we’re in a hotel room with two guys that just bombed an abortion clinic. There’s a short conversation, then suddenly, we’re back to Jericho telling the story. As it turns out, it’s part of a setup to make a statement about fundamentalist Christians, which will eventually culminate with the two destroying of a number of priceless fossils at the museum where Jericho works. As jarring as this sudden swerve is, it serves no real purpose to progressing the story. Later on, the two destroy a number of priceless fossils as a group of people helplessly look on, but their actions don’t bring the characters any new insight.

At times, I wanted to just throw this book at the wall. Jericho’s stubbornness, along with the shoehorned statement on fundamentalist religion made me almost put the book down and never look back a couple of times. What drove me to finish the book, though, was that Sawyer has several flashes of interesting ideas. One example in particular that springs to mind are a few pages devoted to Hollus theorizing about how physiology plays a role in evolutionary psychological development, both as applied to humans and to the other alien species that make an appearance in the book.

That’s pretty much the story of the book: flashes of sci-fi brilliance not particularly well-balanced with a number of other plot threads. It’s quite uneven at times, and at its worst, there were a few 10 or 15 page stretches where I just wanted to put it down and be done with it. I can’t say that I hated the book, but I didn’t particularly like it, either. Had I not already read and liked another Sawyer novel, this probably would have turned me off of him completely, but fortunately I know that he’s capable of better than this. The things I like about Sawyer are there – he’s clearly done his research, but a lot of that ends up being stuck spinning its wheels. If you’re interested in getting a better look at Sawyer’s output, I’d direct you to something like the WWW series. Don’t start here.