Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Calculating God
Robert J. Sawyer
Tor Books, 335 pages

Calculating God
Robert J. Sawyer
The winner of the Nebula Award in 1995 for The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer has also won three Aurora Awards, Canada's award for excellence in science fiction. His novel Starplex was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula. In addition, he earned the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.

Robert J. Sawyer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Factoring Humanity
SF Site Review: Illegal Alien
SF Site Review: Frameshift
Steven H Silver's Review of Starplex
Steven H Silver's Review of The Terminal Experiment

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

The death of Carl Sagan, the celebrated science popularizer and debunker of the supernatural, at a relatively young age from a lingering bone marrow disease forms the genesis for Robert J. Sawyer's latest novel, Calculating God. How does an outspoken advocate of cold hard logic that leaves no wiggle room for concepts such as God and an afterlife deal with his own soon-to-be demise? Or, to put it another way, if there are indeed atheists in foxholes, what do they think about? In meditating on this subject, Sawyer has created a highly readable, entertaining and informative work, but whose execution is fundamentally flawed.

Thomas Jericho (the last name, of a Biblical city whose "walls came tumbling down," is apparently an allusion to how Tom's own intellectual assumptions are torn down by the end of the novel) is a department head at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. Only 54 years old, and the father of an adopted six-year-old son, Tom has just learned that years of inhaling the mineral dust from his fossil work has caused inoperable lung cancer that will kill him within a year. The prospect of personal obliteration takes on an added dimension when a six-legged being, who speaks in alternate syllables from the mouths at the end of two hands, lands at the museum and announces to the museum's security guard, "I would like to see a paleontologist."

Thus begins a relationship between the doomed Tom and the spider-like creature named Hollus from Beta Hydri, some 24 light years from Earth. Hollus has come -- in the true tradition of scientific collegiality -- to share cosmological information with a fellow sentient species to develop a more complete understanding of how the universe was created. Of course, the notion of a creation raises the question of whether there was a creator.

As a scientist, Hollus accepts as a primary principle that the universe was created by design. However, Hollus' firm belief in God is radically different from that of your run-of-the-mill fundamentalist or papist in which the concept of God is entwined with doctrines of personal salvation and a happy-ever-afterlife. Hollus believes it scientifically plausible to posit a "Supreme Designer" that established -- and perhaps continues to influence -- the natural forces that comprise the universe and the specific conditions required for life to arise. The debate between the alien believer and the skeptic Tom -- who all the while is struggling to reconcile his scientific preconceptions with the understandable yearning to transcend his own irrefutable decline -- form the crux of the novel.

Thus we are firmly planted in the realm of hard SF, typically characterized less by plot than ongoing dialogues among characters, the purpose of which is to expound upon scientific principles. Unlike some hard SF, which I find can get a bit tedious in constantly providing physics lessons, Sawyer writes well and with a sense of humour that, in the tradition of the old Mr. Wizard television show, proves just how much fun science can be. There's a host of scientific references (e.g., Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, Sagan himself) that anyone interested could consult for further edification, as well as constant mentions of popular culture and science fiction in particular. For example, at one point Tom and Hollus watch Star Trek movies. While Hollus finds fault with the idea of inter-species mating that could result in a Spock (which ironically foreshadows later events), there are some interesting points to be made in contrasting the second and third installments of the venerable series. In The Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise and its crew, complying with the Vulcan edict of the "good of the many outweighs the good of the one," which is also an underpinning principle of socio-biology. Yet that principle is contradicted by human behaviours such as those portrayed in The Search for Spock, in which the "good of the many" is jeopardized for "the good of the one."

Sawyer covers a lot of territory here in presenting the debate between those who believe science points to a Prime Mover and those who feel it demonstrates the lack of one. Up to a point, Sawyer is fair in balancing the debate, noting, for example, that the theory of evolution, and the fossil record that supports it, has yet to explain certain developments of our species, though that gap in understanding does not automatically lend credence to creationist claims that the Lord ever literally said, "Let there be light." It does, however, justify legitimate speculation that there may be a Grand Design for which we only have part of the blueprints.

But here Sawyer loads the deck, relying upon the existence of other life forms with similar patterns of evolution, coupled with events that form the novel's climax, to convince Tom of intelligent design behind the universe, his own long held beliefs notwithstanding. As the "god" of his novel, Sawyer can invent his literary universe anyway he wants to; however, it seems to me that he's not entirely playing fair here, at least from a scientific point of view, by introducing purely fanciful concepts.

But, of course, this is a work of fiction, and science fiction, at that, and writers are supposed to have poetic license, aren't they? But, even allowing for that, I find fault with Sawyer's narrative technique. To begin with, the novel is largely told in the first person by Tom, immediately raising the question of how a character we know early on is about to die can be telling this story. Is this a diary? Does Tom somehow or another pull through? I don't know that the conclusion's apparent offhand explanation of this is in keeping with the high intellectual and moral ground the novel is trying to cover.

Perhaps a more serious defect is a minor side plot told in the third person about a pair of really dumb abortion clinic terrorists. Besides providing the only real "action" in an otherwise didactic storyline, I don't quite understand the point of this diversion, other than to take easy shots at a fundamentalist viewpoint of creation that doesn't allow for the possibility of a difference in opinion. I have no more use for these sort of willfully ignorant folk who put "God said it. I believe it." bumper stickers on their cars (let's not even get into the countless wars and strife that have resulted in differences of opinion about what God really meant by what he allegedly said) than Sawyer does, but he's really not saying anything particularly insightful here. And while I'm on the pro-choice side of the abortion debate, I don't dismiss, as Sawyer seems to do, the legitimate moral argument against it that isn't necessarily rooted in the one-dimensionalism of religious yahooism.

Science fiction is perhaps the only genre that is simultaneously fascinated with both what God and Man have wrought. Calculating God extends this tradition built by Mary Shelly's Frankenstein through Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001. Sawyer, however, employs more developed characterization and is certainly funnier, though in the end doesn't strike me as profound or insightful as the work of, say, James Morrow or Sean Stewart in pondering the meaning of existence.

Still, Calculating God is a worthwhile read. Despite the fact that Sawyer's grasp is ultimately exceeded by his reach -- as is the case for all of us humans in pondering our immensely vast, wonderful and perhaps finally unknowable universe -- it's an admirable try.

Copyright © 2000 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide