reviewed by Don Webb
Robert J. Sawyer, Calculating God
New York: Tor Books, 2000; 335+4 pp.
The writer’s scrapbook
Any science-fiction fans who were unaware that Robert J. Sawyer is one of the major authors in the genre today have to know it now that his novel Hominids has won the 2003 Hugo award. Let’s take a brief look at Hominids to start with; his somewhat earlier novel Calculating God is similar to it in some ways.
Hominids, like Montesquieu’s classic model The Persian Letters, is a “foreign visitor” story in which “aliens” provide a new perspective on current social norms. In this case, a Neanderthal society has evolved on a parallel Earth. A scientist is transported by accident to our timeline, where he and our contemporaries experience mutual culture shock. Back home, the scientist’s disappearance brings a friend of his under suspicion of murder. The complication: the Neanderthals’ legal system depends almost entirely on advanced computer science and a universal surveillance system. It can identify perpetrators and provide “alibis” to exonerate the innocent. Unfortunately, the scientist has inexplicably vanished without record.
Like Hominids, Calculating God uses alien contact to dramatize a conflict; only, this time it is less a social than a metaphysical one. Scientists from two space-alien races — the Forhilnor (the name looks like an anagram), from Beta Hydri 3, and the Wreeds (why the weird name and spelling?), from Delta Pavonis 2 — come to Earth on a joint mission of scientific research.
The aliens are not interested in politics, which seems odd, because the Forhilnors have dealt with problems similar to those current on Earth. In fact, the purpose of their research is mostly obscure. However, they make no secret of their opinion that Earth’s paleontology will confirm something they already consider obvious: the existence of God and the intelligent design of the universe.
The structure of Calculating God resembles a tent supported by two main poles: a major plot, in which the aliens interact with the main character, Thomas Jericho; and a minor plot, in which Jericho tries to come to terms with his own mortality. Finally, the “tent covering” is provided by what I call a “writer’s scrapbook.”
The aliens have interstellar travel with “frozen sleep,” holographic projection at a distance, and super-advanced computers. Their technological prowess is exceeded only by their modesty: they claim to be “not much more advanced” than humans.
The novel opens as a vaguely spider-like alien — a Forhilnor named Hollus — lands in the courtyard of the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto. Hollus promptly scuttles up to the information desk and asks to speak to a paleontologist. Fortunately, the Museum still has one on the staff — Thomas D. Jericho — as well a large share of the Burgess Shale fossil collection.
Hollus and Jericho are not only colleagues, they soon become friends. Hollus reveals that mass extinctions have occurred at the same times on Earth, on Hollus’s home planet, and on the homeworld of the Forhilnors’ companions, the Wreeds.
Reasoning like James Bond — once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and three times is enemy (?) action — Hollus insists that the simultaneous sets of mass extinctions prove at least two things: not only has a Creator consciously designed the universe, this supranatural being intervenes in it on a large scale, apparently to promote the evolution of sentient life. Hollus’s revelation shakes Jericho’s rationalist faith; Jericho has hitherto been a confirmed skeptic and, while he puts up only token resistance, his old habits die hard.
Hollus has some bad news: God appears to take no interest in small-scale interventions. That comes as a severe disappointment to Jericho, who needs some divine intercession: he is dying of lung cancer, which is an occupational hazard among paleontologists, somewhat like miners’ silicosis. He goes through a lengthy process of reconciling himself to his fate and of taking leave of his wife and their adopted son.
The major plot brings the story to a close: the Forhilnors and Wreeds suddenly discover that a discorporeal race at Groombridge 1618 has caused the star Betelgeuse to turn prematurely into a supernova. The plan is, Jericho surmises, to sterilize a large volume of the galaxy and prevent any upstart alien visitors from discovering and possibly destroying the underground computers that house the Groombridgers’ malevolent cybernetic souls.
Meanwhile, God appears to be intervening to foil the nefarious plan by blocking radiation from the supernova. Well, that sheds a whole new light on things. The Forhilnors and Wreeds prepare to hotfoot it out to Betelgeuse, where they expect to meet God in person. Of course, Jericho will be aboard as a passenger in frozen sleep; what does he have to lose?
Science-fiction fans are surely familiar with the authorial personality that infuses the works of such writers as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein; however, theirs is small potatoes compared to the ubiquitous personal presence of Robert J. Sawyer. In Calculating God he acts as a kind of tourist guide to Toronto, to the Royal Ontario Museum, to paleontology, and to his personal enthusiasms, habits and pet peeves. Well, when you’re an anonymous, Godlike character in your own novel, why not?
- The Museum is evidently a life-long love of Sawyer’s. One suspects that it is his motivation for writing the novel: he and his character Thomas Jericho pull no punches in criticizing severely and at length what they see as the Museum’s mismanagement and “dumbing down.” In a prefaced disclaimer, Sawyer says that it’s all imaginary. Perhaps he intended the criticism as a cautionary tale or was inspired by events elsewhere.
- Mr. Sawyer is also a Canadian patriot. He has — again, one suspects — another ulterior motive in writing the novel: planting the Maple Leaf flag defiantly alongside the Stars and Stripes in the genre of science fiction. Mr. Sawyer represents mainstream Canadian opinion, which looks with a kind of horrified fascination at American culture and politics.
That is no quirk of Mr. Sawyer’s: rather, he represents a “’tude” that has become quite widespread in public opinion. At best it’s patriotic and self-aware; at worst it’s smug and patronizing. It’s not due to U.S. politics, especially; Canada has its own share of mean-spirited people and governments. However, as the Toronto Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders points out, the U.S. has been talking about “the American dream” in recent years while Canada has been living it (“Why Canadians are the new Americans” Saturday 3 January 2004, p. F2. The link’s URL may change). Coincidentally, see also Samantha Bennett, “It’s not just the weather that’s cooler in Canada” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Wednesday 30 July 2003).
The few Americans in Calculating God are very sorry specimens. One group alienates a friendly Forhilnor, who goes elsewhere to do his research. Another set, a pair of Creationist thugs, unaware that the aliens are ideological semi-sympathizers, smuggle automatic weapons into Canada for the purpose of shooting up the Museum’s Burgess Shale collection. The terrorists bring the novel to an anticlimax with the kind of physical violence that is a standard feature in most of Mr. Sawyer’s novels. However, we are at least spared sexual violence, which recurs with disturbing regularity in his other writings.
- It’s certainly to be expected that Mr. Sawyer, as a reasonably well-informed Canadian, would not pass up the opportunity to heap scorn upon former Ontario Premier Mike Harris and his government’s U.S.-style neoconservatism. One might wish that Mr. Sawyer had not limited himself to superficial gibes; the public interest needs all the defending it can get. As political trends in North America and elsewhere in the world have shown in recent decades, one can take for granted less than ever that governments have the public interest at heart.
- It comes as something of a shock that Steven Jay Gould’s distinction between science and religion is dismissed as “bafflegab.” If Thomas Jericho is the one who is speaking, his reaction is unaccountable in a scientist: the eminent American paleontologist deserves a fair hearing and a reasoned response. And the rudeness is quite un-Canadian.
The title, Calculating God, is ambiguous. Is “calculating” a descriptive adjective as in “the calculating God” or is it a gerund that takes “God” as a direct object but leaves us to wonder who is doing the calculating? Or is it both at once?
Maybe the answer lies in the search for humor. Mr. Sawyer’s novels are typically either poker-faced (of the kind “It’s funny if you think so”) or else humor is almost completely absent.
- Let’s reconsider the premise in Hominids: Mr. Sawyer deliberately stands his own culture’s model of justice on its head: your guilt is presumed, and only an “alibi machine” can prove your innocence. Trouble is, that machine is not what it’s cracked up to be: it’s fallible, and it’s vulnerable to sabotage and trickery. The result may be comedy or tragedy, but enthusiasts may claim it’s better than even more fallible human justice.
- In Calculating God, Sawyer’s aliens argue mightily for creation by intelligent design. And the proof of their pudding will be nothing less than an encounter with God. Only, God turns out to be just another space alien, although a lot bigger than all the rest.
True, the point of having faith in God is believing in a purpose larger than oneself, but is “size matters” all there is to it? Do the heroes really have to go to Betelgeuse to meet God? The novel ends with a high-minded moral, but the sheer materialism makes it a metaphysical comedy: at best, the heroes hasten to extend official greetings to a cosmic janitor’s dust mop.
Here are two possible ways — not to exclude others — of reading Sawyer’s Hominids and Calculating God :
- Mr. Sawyer is dramatizing philosophical positions that he personally espouses, and he expects them to be taken seriously.
- Mr. Sawyer has been writing secret satire and indulging in some of the most gigantic leg-pulls in the history of science fiction.
I would like to think that Mr. Sawyer is putting us on:
- The Neanderthals’ “alibi machine” in Hominids amounts to a soft parody of Orwell’s 1984, and the novel underscores the weaknesses in a totalitarian criminal justice system.
- As for Calculating God, C. S. Lewis — a true mystic — would have said about Betelgeuse: “So what?” And the ludicrous coincidences in the space-aliens’ paleontology set an impossibly high standard of proof for a “designer universe.” They show at least one thing clearly: faith based on the argument from design requires a whole lot more evidence of “design” than the universe actually provides. What can the reader conclude but that the novel ends with a parody of the argument from design and demonstrates that a faith based on such circular logic is intrinsically pointless.
However, I suspect I may be reading a little too much into the novels. Their premises can be either hysterically funny or the basis of tragedy, depending on the results; but the novels are not written in either mode: they are unrelievedly earnest.
Mr. Sawyer nonetheless creates enjoyable, well-crafted stories. His aliens are likeable folk, and — aside from the Wreeds’ having a lot of trouble doing arithmetic — they differ from humans mainly in their appearance. Trouble begins when one embraces the non-humans’ crackpot social and theological notions. Read the novels as you will; I nonetheless retain the fervent wish that Mr. Sawyer has been trying just a little too gently to show us what some popular crocks are full of.
Admirers of Robert J. Sawyer owe it to themselves to keep and treasure Calculating God. It is as close to Mr. Sawyer’s personal and intellectual autobiography as they’re likely to get at this time.
While I read everything of Mr. Sawyer’s I come across, I can’t count myself as a “fan.” His main character in Calculating God, Thomas D. Jericho, explains why not: at one point he ruefully says of himself, “Ten years of university to become Master of the Bleeding Obvious...” I have to say he’s right.
Copyright © 2003 by Don Webb