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on May 21, 2004
Aliens land in Toronto, but instead of "take me to your leader" it's "take me to your paleontologist." This attention grabbing start leads to the alien scientist Hollus working with paleontologist Tom Jericho to research the various extinction events in Earth's past. Hollus explains that the planets of both the alien races that have come to visit Earth have had five of these catastrophic events at roughly the same time. The aliens believe that this is evidence of God's existence and are searching for further signs of God's intervention in the universe. Tom, dying of lung cancer, has a very hard time accepting any arguments for the existence of God and spends a good portion of the book debating scientific proofs with Hollus.
Calculating God has a fascinating, unusual and thought-provoking premise. Sawyer mixes both humorous and poignant moments in with the quite believable scientific discussions. Tom's internal turmoil as he deals with cancer is handled very well. However, the dramatic events that unfold in the last half of the book seem forced and over-blown. Sawyer is at his best when working with moral and philosophic quandaries and thoughtful scientific debates. I just couldn't get past the feeling that the ending didn't really mesh with the rest of the book.
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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.
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on March 31, 2001
Robert J. Sawyer is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors! He has a way of writing sci-fi that easy to comprehend and yet still enlightening. This is just an awesome book and is a great workout for your brain. I highly recommend it.
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on March 15, 2001
I have read all of Sawyer's books, with the exception of Golden Fleece, which I believe is out of print. I was excited by the beginning, as I love aliens. I also liked the aliens analysis of why God must exist. However, I was thrown for a loop by the main character's illness-necessary for his theme of 'Why doesn't God care about little me'- but I kind of felt like God must feel- you whiner, why should I care? Perhaps it was the stereotypical way the illness was portrayed- there is actually a scene where the son says, "Dad, don't die" and Dad says, "But I must die!" I started to lose faith in this author when he then threw in two bomb toting fundamentalists- everything is told in the first person, and then in the middle of book you have this third person account of the fundamentalists???? I can understand the intent to create a central question, "if god is good why doesn't he literally save me?" and to distance his own analysis from those he considers to be ignorant religious hicks (unlike his sophisticated and wise aliens) but it's crudely stitched together. Sawyer is just a better writer than this. Sawyer has never disappointed me with his endings, and this was no exception- it pulled themes together nicely. However, if you're interested in Sawyer, try The Terminal Experiment- a much better book about the nature of the soul- or really, any other Sawyer- I have nothing but praise for his other books.
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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!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon February 23, 2013
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.
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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.
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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.
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on March 19, 2001
I just finished reading Calculating God and I suggest that you throw this book in your shopping cart as fast as you can. Calculating God is going on my list of all time favorite sci-fi books, it's simply that good. And to think I wasn't shopping for this novel in particular. I came across it while looking for another book. The title caught my attention - anytime sci-fi authors attempt to tackle issues of God and religion I'm always fascinated - so I decided to give it a try. I guess sometimes it pays to be impulsive.
Let me preface the rest of this review by saying that the book is not for everyone. Try to explain this book to someone who asks you, "So, have you read any good books lately?" and you might get some odd looks. If you're looking for a high-octane intergalactic adventure then this book is not for you (not that I don't enjoy such sci-fi romps either). Calculating God is a philosophical journey into the evolution of life, religion, the human condition, and of course God. If you've ever sat around with friends discussing such topics (okay, maybe it's not your typical Saturday night but it does lead to some charged debates!) then this book takes it to the next level, capturing in words many ideas and notions that you will probably wish you could have expressed during those conversations. The author uses the aliens as his devil's advocate(s) to bounce philosophical and religious ideas off of.
But the book is so much more than just a debate. It is a good novel with very human characters (even the aliens) and is often funny, as well as very moving. We feel what Tom Jericho is going through, not just the pain of his illness, but the affect he knows it is having on his family and the incredibly difficult decision he must ultimately make. We also feel the genuine friendship he develops with Hollus (the main alien). Tom Jericho's cancer, unlike the comment of another reviewer, is critical to the story in the way it brings you insight into his character and helps the reader feel empathy for his situation. This is particularly the case at the end of the book. The decision I mentioned that Tom wrestles with could have become just another cliché sci-fi ending, but his cancer makes the situation unique and Sawyer brilliantly weaves it all together.
The book is not entirely without fault. I do agree with the other reviewers that the Creationists sub-plot did seem to be just thrown in to add action to a story that did not have (and did not need) any. Tom Jericho had already commented on the incredulity of Creationist beliefs in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. So, the subplot was not needed to emphasize that point. However, it did not do any serious harm to the novel, and did give the reader a break in the philosophical debate. It also pointed out how far mankind still has to go to reach the level of society that is depicted in the alien worlds. Such terrorism is all too real of a possibility.
The bottom line is that it's not often that an author can take such high brow topics that are covered in this novel and successfully integrate them with a very humanistic story. I'll be thinking about this one for a long time and will be recommending it to friends (maybe I can stir up some of those old debates!). Finally, I hope the Nebula Awards recognize it. Enjoy!
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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.
'Nathan
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