Sunday, February 24, 2008

Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition, 2000
Price: $23.95
ISBN-10: 0312867131
ISBN-13: 978-0312867133

Usually, if I sense an alien coming, I run. In movies or books, anyway. Beasties with six legs and eyes on wands, flying saucers and such... not my thing. But good writing, in any genre, is always my thing. There is so much to learn and understand in solid reality that I wish no escapism, the latter wasting precious real time for matters of value and substance ... but when science fiction keeps enough of its six legs firmly planted in issues we face in substantiated reality, even as it waves its eye wands into the unknown ... then my interest is won.

Robert J. Sawyer is a familiar name to me, even without being a sci fi fan. The title, Calculating God, locked into my lifelong fascination with the spiritual realm. I was intrigued to know how a sci fi writer of acclaim would approach the concept of God, that is, faith, grounded in a world of science, however speculative: he does it well and convincingly.

Hollus, aforementioned six-legged alien with waving eye wands, comes to Earth to research, well, life itself. And all that the concept of life and living encompasses. She enters a museum to find a paleontologist, thus meeting Tom Jericho, scientist who is facing the afterlife, like it or not, as a newly diagnosed cancer patient. The two have an ongoing dialogue about God and faith, which pretty much sums up the entire premise of this story, with few sidelines. Surprise! For it is the alien who believes in God, the human being who so mightily resists, even as he contemplates his fast approaching mortality.

I could complain that various scenes and plot twists in this book leave me unconvinced. I have a hard time buying the idea that people would accept so quickly and easily, almost to the point of being oblivious, an alien moving so casually among them, even if mostly in hologram form. The vandalism in the museum by religious fundamentalists is on shaky ground, potentially unnecessary, but with more solid plotting, might have been developed into a fascinating tangent of exploring religious fervor when it goes too far. Sawyer missed his mark here for what might have added a fine nuance to the story.

Yet, regardless, I found myself recommending this book to others even before I had finished it. Several times, the author brings out points in this dialogue on faith that made me "a-ha!" aloud in my reading, wondering, why had I never thought of that? He makes arguments, via Hollus, favoring the idea of intelligent design, that for all the proven evolution of one species over time in a myriad of ways and forms, never has science shown one species evolving into another species. A dog can, over time, become a great many other breeds of dog, but he will never become a bird. And this, after all, is the premise on which the idea of evolution is, must be, built. Cell becomes fish becomes reptile becomes primate becomes man ... you know the lineage. Science has gaps in this area, requiring faith.

What Sawyer so masterfully brings to light in this story is that it is science that requires many leaps of faith ... not believing in God. Perhaps, in fact, much more so. With his alien voice, in various examinations of one scientific premise after another, he argues that God is rooted in science, that is, well substantiated in many forms of solid evidence, while the [godless] science we accept in the contemporary world is actually standing on the clay feet of irrational faith.


The literary value of this book, in terms of style and form, for me, is on the weak side. Its value as invitation for lively discussion, its courageous groundbreaking of the usual storylines of more typical sci fi fare, deserves high praise. Science fiction fan or not -- recommended reading.

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