Review by John for Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer.
John’s quick take: Sawyer can always be relied upon to write imaginative and thoughtful SF, and this is another winner. A creative take on the “evolutionist versus creationist” debate.
John’s description: In Sawyer’s book, man’s first meeting with intelligent extra-terrestrials aliens is not quite the way most people have envisioned it. An alien spacecraft sets down outside the Royal Ontario Museum and the spider-like alien asks to be introduced to a senior paleontologist. The alien, named Hollus, has absolutely no interest in meeting world leaders or politicians; instead Hollus wants to find out about Earth’s ancient history and fossil records.
Tom Jericho is the main paleontologist at the museum, and he and Hollus swap stories about how life developed and evolved on their planets. While it is no surprise to Hollus, Jericho is totally stunned to learn that their planets suffered cataclysmic events and mass extinctions at precisely the same times in their ancient histories. Hollus has already visited other planets and found the same pattern. Clearly this cannot be coincidental, and the alien goes on to say that is just one of many scientific facts which together prove the existence of God.
Jericho has spent much of his professional life fighting against creationist nonsense and is a hard-core believer in evolution theory. He is also irreligious and a total non-believer in God and consequently refuses to accept the conclusions that Hollus and other alien races have come to. Much of the book is taken up with discussions on scientific data, the science of evolution, exobiology and philosophy, but this is also a very human story (pun intended) as Jericho has one particularly powerful personal reason to refute God’s existence.
John’s thoughts: This is an exceptionally clever story and tremendously thought-provoking. While a work of fiction it is also full of interesting facts and discussions about how life might have evolved - and it lays bare some real weaknesses and “leaps of faith” in current scientific thinking and evolution theory. It’s not that Sawyer is debunking evolution, but in this book he is effectively saying that evolution might have needed quite a bit of help along the way for life to have developed the way that it has.
And so we have discussions about the possible existence of God – not necessarily in a religious sense but in the sense of there being an all-powerful creator who had a hand in creating an environment and circumstances in which life could develop and evolve. Fascinating.
What is also great about the book is that Sawyer develops some complex and believable characters, including the alien Hollus. You do actually care about them and what happens to them. The story does also have more than its fair share of humor.
I’d thoroughly recommend this book to any science fiction fans or to anyone who is interested in exploring some of the scientific debates surrounding the evolution of life - this might be a novel, but it is a darned good read on the subject. Overall I’d rate it 4 stars. Why not even more? I really like Sawyer’s books but I do find that he has a tendency to over-reach in the conclusions to his stories – he makes the endings so immense that they don’t quite feel right; and he’s done it again here. Also, the two creationist/fundamentalist thugs are a bit weak and I don’t mean regarding their beliefs (which are obviously nuts), but rather they’re just rather thin characters and not very believable. I’m being picky though; great book.
Calculating God is a 2001 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel.
Tor Books | March 2009 | Trade Paperback | 336 pages (originally published in 2000)