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Calculating God

by Robert J. Sawyer

A new novel from Toronto science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer is always a major event; Maclean’s once called him “the genre’s northern star – in fact, one of the hottest SF writers anywhere.” Calculating God is Sawyer’s 12th novel; the others have garnered multiple awards, including four Hugo nominations.

Calculating God opens with a spaceship landing in front of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. An eight-legged alien emerges, enters the building, and asks to see the museum’s senior paleontologist. The security guard summons Dr. Tom Jericho, who is astounded to find out that the alien, named Hollus, wants to study Earth’s fossil records to prove the existence of God.

Like many human scientists, Jericho is an atheist – he’s been the target of too many ill-informed “creation scientists” to take the idea of an intelligent creator seriously. Jericho is also dying of lung cancer, and unreceptive to the idea that his suffering could be part of a divine plan. But he agrees to work with Hollus and finds his rationalist beliefs to be on thinner intellectual ground than he thought.

Sawyer is very hard-working and his books are good, but I always wish they were better. His strength as a science-fiction writer is the way he can synthesize complex scientific ideas in an accessible manner and extract philosophical meaning from them. The book is most compelling when Jericho and Hollus debate the role of circumstance in the origin of organic life, taking in quantum theory, paleontology, evolution, biochemistry, and astronomy.

Sawyer’s weakness, however, is characterization. The people in his books always seem like afterthoughts; it’s hard to remember much about them at all afterward. In Calculating God, the first-person perspective of Tom Jericho alleviates this weakness somewhat, but the alien Hollus still ends up being the most memorable character. The story’s ending also feels tacked on; the finale is strangely dispassionate compared to the buildup. Is it wrong to want a book that struggles with some big issues to end with more of a bang?