Bewildering Stories

Robert J. Sawyer, Calculating God :
Satire or Crock?

reviewed by Don Webb

Robert J. Sawyer, Calculating God
New York: Tor Books, 2000; 335+4 pp.

Introduction
Synopsis:
The major plot
The minor plot
Resolution
 
The writer’s scrapbook
Conclusion
Recommendations

Introduction

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.

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Synopsis

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 major plot

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.

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The minor plot

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.

Resolution

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?

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The writer’s scrapbook

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?

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Conclusion

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.

Here are two possible ways — not to exclude others — of reading Sawyer’s Hominids and Calculating God :

  1. Mr. Sawyer is dramatizing philosophical positions that he personally espouses, and he expects them to be taken seriously.
  2. 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:

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.

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Recommendations

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.

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Copyright © 2003 by Don Webb

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