on January 14, 2002
In my opinion, this is Robert J. Sawyer's masterpiece.
If you're looking for character-driven speculative fiction about God, aliens, mass extinctions and -- not least -- hope, then you've come to the right place.
The synopsis given above provides amble insight into the plot but I think that one thing should be made clear: Sawyer is NOT throwing a bone to the creationists.
What the author IS doing is expressing a sentiment that exists among many of us scientists today: the notion that God can be measured, studied and calculated by science. He weaves arguments about the potential for intelligent design of the universe into the narrative without bogging it down. The exchanges between the protagonist and the alien are funny and profound and touching.
Sawyer does something else very well. He depicts a scientist as a normal human being with normal human feelings and normal human flaws ... the kind of guy you'd like to sit down and drink a beer with ... this is a refreshing contrast to the myriad stereotype scientist characters that have been spoon-fed to us down through the years.
Please read CALCULATING GOD ... it will provoke thought and entertain.
An alien space shuttle lands in front of the Royal Ontario Museum and a large, spider-like alien climbs out. It negotiates the stairs and the front door and walks unhurriedly up to the information desk. In articulate, unaccented English, the alien asks to speak with a paleontologist. The security guard on duty directs the alien to the office of Tom Jericho, paleontologist. And so it begins...
The alien, Hollus, is from the crew of a spaceship traveling to several worlds in search of answers. Why are some habitable worlds empty, seemingly abandoned by races that once lived there? Why have massive "extinction events" occurred simultaneously in the histories of Earth and the home planet of the visiting aliens? Hollus looks for part of the answer in Earth's fossil record.
As they work together, Hollus and Tom learn about each other. To Tom's astonishment, Hollus believes firmly in God, persuaded by the "argument from design" accepted by many Earth theologians. There must be a creator because the universe seems so carefully designed. Tom and Hollus debate this issue while they work. This part of the book presents a balanced review of creationist versus evolutionist thought. Hollus's creationism is a scientific position, leaving the debate untainted by our society's social baggage. Tom's atheism is well-argued, and flavored with personal observations and admissions. The author plays fair by not giving the aliens any argument-trumping new knowledge supporting their views.
As the story nears its conclusion, the nature of God becomes a more immediate and personal issue. I won't spoil the plot by saying more.
I enjoyed the book immensely, and recommend it to fellow science fiction fans. It covers old ground in a new way, yielding feelings of familiarity blended with the joys of discovery. Do read it.
That said, I note two flaws. First, it seems that Tom and Hollus never address the basic question of what kind of God they are discussing. There is a difference between an abstract initial creator of the universe and a personal God who hears day-to-day prayers. This is touched upon by the book, but not in the initial discussions between Tom and Hollus. Clearly the author is aware of this distinction--why are his characters largely unaware of it?
Second, it seems that the careful standards of reasoning followed early in the book are loosened, if not abandoned later on. Tom and Hollus both make incredible leaps of deduction about unfolding events--and of course turn out to be largely correct. At each point there are alternative explanations which are not considered. This is not unheard-of in science fiction, but here is a striking contrast to the earlier tone of the book. There are no examples which are not spoilers, so readers will have to judge this observation after reading.
One final comment. I find some of Tom's decisions personally questionable. They suggest that one can use the excuse of "searching for God" to justify simply indulging one's curiosity to the point of irresponsibility. This is not a flaw in the story, but one way in which the author has--I believe intentionally--provoked reflection from a reader. Nicely done.
on October 26, 2000
About one or two years ago, I discovered the books by Robert Sawyer and by now I've concluded that all the platitudes about Sawyer are correct: he is the best SF writer alive, he wonderfully manages to combine hard science with believable characterization and he does get better with every book he writes.
In Calculating God, an alien arrives at a museum in Toronto and asks for a paleontologist. After an extremely funny start, the major part of the book consists of a lively discussion between the alien, who is gathering additional evidence to prove the existence of God, and Tom Jericho, a paleontologist who is diagnosed with cancer and starts to wonder about some very basic questions.
Sawyer manages to squeeze in fascinating discussions about cosmology, paleontology, biology and evolution (Sawyer seems to be equally at ease with all these subjects!), and at the same time uses the alien to present some interesting perspectives on such issues as morality and abortion. Calculating God is a truly intellectually satisfying and fascinating read. It kept me up for a couple of nights, I found myself laughing out loud and quoting funny dialogue to colleagues at work and recommended it to lots of people. On the last morning, with just a few pages to go, I quickly fed my daughter, left her to her mother, and proceeded to finish the book. I ended up still in my bathrobe when mother and daughter left home and needed to hurry to get to work at a reasonable time... So, it if safe to conclude that I enjoyed the book tremendously. While the story didn't convert me, it did really make me think (and still does...).
Having said all this, I'm a bit surprised at some of the criticism from previous readers on this site. For instance, I noticed the inconsistency about Jericho's thoughts about cilia, but I just interpreted them as different musings at different times and why should they be consistent? And what's wrong with the ending of the book? I absolutely loved it! It is admittedly on a very grand scale, but it fits the book and is definitely better than the mystic hoopla in 2001. And taking the trouble to write a review and say that it should be This Kiss instead of The Kiss... Naturally, I really couldn't understand the reader who couldn't get through the book. But, hey, different people, different tastes. I absolutely loved the dialogues, the jokes, the science, the various musings and the great eye for detail. Absolutely wonderful. The only thing that bugged me a (little) bit, was that at several places in the book Sawyer mentions that Hollywood has always had a very limited idea of what an alien should look like. That they are definitely more alien than the movies show. But at the same time, he made his alien into a very human character, making human jokes ("this side up", indeed!) and acting very much like a human. To me, that's a bit strange and contradictory and I feel that the alien should be more alien. Of course, I realize that that would complicate the conversations with Jericho considerably, but nevertheless....
Anyway, in my opinion Calculating God is an impressive achievement and from now on I'll buy every new book by Sawyer as soon as it appears!
on April 3, 2004
Sawyer's work is among the most intellectually challenging in modern SF. His plots are strong and his characters are interesting, but what makes Sawyer's novels so fascinating is the way in which he blends current scientific thinking with speculative themes. In "Calculating God," this mix includes the debate between evolutionary theory and intelligent design, first encounters with alien species, and a plot by human fanatics.
The story centers on attempts by several alien species to find (literally) God. They have come to Earth to research mass extinctions, which seem to have taken place at the same time on all planets with intelligent life. The major characters are a terminally ill human paleontologist and his alien counterpart. The human, an exponent of modern evolutionary theory, finds himself increasingly intrigued by the alien's vision of intelligent design. As they discuss their different points of view, a friendship develops, and the human becomes a participant in the search.
Although "Calculating God" is talky at times, the action is there. Some reviewers have felt that the ending was lame, but for me, it was the best part of the book. Conceptually daring and (for this reader at least) totally unexpected, it elevated the novel out of the realm of an ordinary story about the existence of God into something totally different. A reader who's looking for some light space opera probably wouldn't like this book. But for someone looking for a more philosophical novel, it would make a very good read.
on July 31, 2002
I have lived my entire life trapped between creation and evolution. My father is an excellent biology teacher (he, of course, is required to teach evolution and not creation). I have always been a scientific mind that still went to church every Sunday. Now, I study philosophy in graduate school. This book spoke to me in a way most books do not.
I will say that there are low points- quite a few typos in the copy I have. The ending was a little weird, but what sci-fi novels aren't, really? 2001??
I have always suspected that humans are becoming more ignorant because of all the dumbing down we do in N. America. I was so shocked to have found a kindred spirit in Sawyer. He is the only author I have ever read who head-on addresses the issue of proven science versus blind faith without pandering to his audience. I believe that, at least in America, the media teaches us that being smart is stupid (think Ross on Friends-they make fun of him for enjoying science).
I've never been so sad while reading a book as I was with this one. Tom's fight against cancer is very hard to read. You want there to be a magical cure, and it speaks volumes about Sawyer that he doesn't create one. There's no miraculous savior here.
I'm also sad because I totally see what Sawyer sees in the world: ignorance and violence and no way to pull out of it. But the world is also extremely beautiful. I might be a little holier-than-thou, but I don't know why others aren't believers in evolutionary creation. The world is too perfect to have been accidental, and studying science has taught me that.
It doesn't concern me that some others didn't like this book. It's so rare that an author seems to speak right to you specifically, and Calculating God did that for me. It might not for you, and that's the point. Read somebody else who speaks to you.
on June 17, 2002
Calculating God is one of those books that you'll probably enjoy, even though it's probably not what you thought it was going into it. Judging by the title, I deemed the book to be a sort of theological/philosophical satire in a science fiction guise. And it is this, in part, but not really. The premise is this: aliens come to earth with "proof" of the existence of God - this proof being the fact that they have discovered three worlds teeming with intelligent life, and that the periods of life arising and extinction were identical on each of the planets. It also gets into fairly typical cosmological arguments, and "there-are-so-many-things-in-the-universe-that-are-exactly-as-they-have-to-be-so-therefore-it-was obviously-created." Ignoring, for the moment, the fundamental objections to this position, let us take it as the aliens in the book take it: as proof of God's existence. The book succeeds in raising questions: the main character, whom the chief theistic alien relates with, is a staunch atheist and neo-Darwinist. For the first time in his life he has, through the alien, reasons for believing in God. He starts trying to think of reasons NOT to believe in God - struggling with his faith. Later on, he develops lung cancer, and his faith warbles yet again. The main point of this book seems to be this inherent interaction. However, there are other elements. Unlike most science fiction authors, Sawyer seems to be very good at characterization. His human characters - subjective aliens to the side - are realistic and very believable. You'll likely find yourself sympathasizing with the protagonist. Quite a good book, all around. It starts out in a seemingly very corny way; you'll probably find yourself laughing and/or shaking your head, and it may turn you off initially. Let me be the first to say - stick with it. It's worth it. The book does start out somewhat slow, but it quickly gets much, much better, as Sawyer dives into deeper and deeper issues. The plot is very realistic and believable: in a complete contrast to almost every science fiction novel ever written, the novel has a very domesticated setting. The vast majority of the book takes place at the main character's place of employment, and there are also many scenes with his family - the inner-office politics at his job, his interaction with his family, and his struggle with cancer are all a major subplot of the novel. The ending is completely unexpected, and bound to be a shocker - perhaps even a disappointment - to some. Sawyer gives an obvious tip of the hat to 2001 - also quoting Arthur C. Clarke elsewhere in the book. Although certainly not on as grand a scale as the indefinable classic, Calculating God is, in many ways, a modern 2001. I'm not comparing it to that novel at all, or saying that it's anywhere near on the same scale, but there is a definite thematic parallel. Personally, I don't find modern science fiction to be all that ripe of a vine, but I do believe this is one of the very best novels to come out of the field in quite a few years. It interested me enough to make me want to read some of Sawyer's other books. Comes reccommended by a fan of classic science fiction.
on May 14, 2002
I saw many of the other reviews for this book and was surprised by the varied reactions from great to bad. As with any book, or perhaps author, you either like their style or you don't. For Robert Sawyer, I like his style. Thus far, all of his books that I have read, have been some of the best Sci Fi books I have enjoyed in years. Perhaps not since the likes of Assimov and Clarke. Well, he may not be in that category yet, but he is sure moving there. One of the classic ways I know I truly enjoyed a book or not, is if I can't get the story out of my head for days, weeks, or even months. Taking the story and playing it out in my head with different plot twists, and different dialogue and characters. This book did that too me for some time. Even a year after having read the book, I finally succumed to writing this review.
This book, about a group of aliens who land on earth to discuss the existense of God is a great premise or story line. Why the aliens go to Canada, as opposed to the great US of A, mystifies me. But oh hey, other countries can figure prominently in the grand scheme of things I suppose. The primary alien (some form of spider-like intelligencia) goes to Canada to talk with a scientist there about fossils to examine a mysterious galaxy-wide calamity that occurred at the same time on many planets. This galaxy-wide wipe-out of most living things, strongly suggests the existence of God, since no other explanation can account for it.
During the discourse between alien and scientist, we learn the scientist comes down with cancer. Ok, so most writers have to follow some prescribed format. I guess only in Hollywood does it all end well. I won't say more about the story - but I think you'll enjoy it immensely. And of course, check out Sawyer's other books.
on November 9, 2001
Let me start this out by saying that I am an atheist. This book did not change that fact. I am also a molecular biologist. Sawyer manages to explain very complex molecular processes as "regular" people can understand them, and yet he gets it right. There is not the dumbing down that often happens. That I enjoyed quite a lot.
I was intruiged by the title of the book, and decided to try it out. This is any extremely funny, thought-provoking, sad, and uplifting book. Yes, those may seem like contradictions, but I believe that they are all accurate descriptions.
Doubtless you have read the synopsis, so you know about the general premise. And as to the person who thought that Tom's illness was "distracting".... I think that it adds a great dimension to the book.
The characterizations were vivid, and I could actually picture Hollus, and the other aliens, to a certain extent. That is really cool to me, considering how different they are from our normal "Spock" representations of "alien" life.
I read this book in a day. Great read, makes you think, highly recommended. Try it if you want to think about the possibilities.
on November 5, 2001
When i first started this book i didn't know what to expect and to tell the truth the aliens saying "take me to your paleontalogist" was a little cheesy, but from there it all went above and beyond what my imagination was expecting.
First off this book is very well written, there is alot of technical stuff about dna, mass extinction, etc. but none of it's gets too bogged down for a comman person like myself to understand. secondly the aliens are very imaginative in their looks, nothing like humans, and sawyer explains why. the interaction between the main characters and the aliens are great. Two more memorable parts are when the main character is showing star trek episodes to the alien, and when the alien comes down for dinner with the main characters family.
The only bad part about this book in my opinion is the ending. Although it satisfied me somewhat, i wanted to know the truth about the aliens and their messages, and it was never completly answered.
But overall this book is not only worthwhile reading, every human being who wonders if god exsists, and definatly EVERY religous human should read this book. This book had such a good descriptioin of this scenario of god that i came away actually thinking that this could be true to a point. This book will change the way you see or think of god.
on July 11, 2001
The start of this book made me smile. An alien arrives in Earth's not-too-distant future, and says, "Take me to your paleontologist." It's as if the alien doesn't know its line...
But it does. This alien has arrived to tell humanity that on similar timeframes all of the major civilizations it has encountered so far have had the major evolutionary disasters (ie: when the Dinosaurs were wiped out, similar evolutionary extinctions happened on other planets in parallel). Therefore, the alien points out, a higher intelligence - God - must exist.
The main character of this book, a paleontologist, begs to differ.
This book is science fiction at its best. There is a scientific tone to the tale itself, but the story is more an extrapolation of philosophies and diverse viewpoints. As the plot with the paleontologist becomes more heart-wrenching (and let me tell you, folks, when Robert Sawyer decides to jerk your heart-strings, he does it with great aplomb), and as the alien characters become just that: incredible characters, you'll find yourself slipping, as I did, into the book.
I didn't put it down. I picked it up, began to read, and didn't stop until I was finished, losing an entire evening to this fabulous blend of science fiction and philosophy. This is a style Sawyer does well: in "Flashforward," we debated free will, and in "Calculating God," we debate a higher order of intelligence.
Get this, read it, and you too will fall into fandom of Canada's best SF Author.