- Calculating God
- By Robert J. Sawyer
- Tor Books
- $23.95/$34.95 Canada
- Hardcover, June 2000
- ISBN 0-312-86713-1
Thomas Jericho is your prototypical paleontologist -- which means, among other things, that for him science must explain creation. Science is the ultimate authority, and science predicates that physical laws, not divine intervention, brought the universe into being.
So Jericho's world is turned upside down even more than everyone else's when Earth is visited by alien creatures -- peaceable, eight-limbed arachnoids from Beta Hydri. That's because alien scientist named Hollus visits Jericho in his office at the Royal Ontario Museum and calmly explains that cumulative evidence from the worlds they've studied indisputably proves the existence of God.
Hollus's proofs include identical catastrophic events on different worlds now bearing intelligent life, the extreme unlikelihood of certain universal constants, and inconsistencies in evolutionary theory that paleontologists try to ignore. Nonetheless Jericho rebels. His experience with creationists who deny the fossil record as deceitful blasphemy has made him allergic to any talk of God. Not only that: Jericho, a non-smoker, has recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Cancer in a random universe he can accept; but what just God would countenance such suffering of the innocent?
Still, Jericho works closely with Hollus, as his illness and Hollus's understanding of humans progress. Jericho is fascinated to learn that the aliens have encountered several worlds that became unpeopled when their societies were only a little more advanced than Earth's. Perhaps they died out, or found another evolutionary state? Then a rocket sent from one of the unpeopled worlds is discovered -- apparently on a mission to destroy a nearby star. That would flood the surrounding space with radiation, sterilizing Earth, Beta Hydri and countless other worlds.
Meanwhile, two fundamentalists have been plotting the destruction of other profanities against God besides abortion clinics. Their new target: the "lying" fossils at the nearby museum.
Is DNA God's phone number?
At one point Jericho mentions college bull sessions, with their endless, revolving hypotheticals, and there are several places where Calculating God stops for pages at a time while Hollus and Jericho swap postulates and poke apart each other's premises like a couple of earnest grad students. The pervasive undercurrent of Jericho's self-pity adds further plot drag. Sure, he reacts to his cancer in a truly believable way, and his defensiveness in the face of challenges to his core beliefs is equally credible: Jericho is a well-crafted character. Nonetheless, personality and circumstance threaten to make him one of the least pleasant protagonists in speculative fiction since Stephen Donaldson's morose leper, Thomas Covenant.
In a way, though, Jericho's personal flaws go to the heart of Calculating God. Provided with arguments for an intelligent creator, the natural human response is dissatisfaction: "Then why did he do this? And this?" Humans want a perfect world, but don't know what's meant by that; few see the perfection, interplay and balance of what already exists. Provocative issues and emotions raised in a novel meet as much resistance and misunderstanding as their counterparts in real life. Sawyer has postulated a universe in which the physical and the metaphysical plausibly synergize. Moreover, he provides a role for humanity grander than pure science might suggest for any species riding a microscopic speck of a planet through an incomprehensibly vast cosmos.
Meanwhile, the characters' discussions about the scientific evidence for a deliberately created universe are compelling, though the deck is partly stacked with Hollus's evidence from other (fictional) worlds. Even more interesting is Sawyer's success in creating an utterly alien race. He accomplishes this by letting readers get to know the very alien Hollus, then introducing another race so fundamentally different in its thinking (with a fascinating "evolutionary" backstory) that even Hollus has trouble understanding them.
One of Jericho's reactions to an alien visitor is to want to show Hollus Star Trek and Star Wars, which also struck me as dead on -- especially since Hollus has of course been monitoring Earth's transmissions. That Sawyer was able to tweak a nuance from Star Wars to advance his own plot is a nice touch.