Robert J. Sawyer's
Calculating God

New York: Tor (2000)

Canadian novelist Robert J. Sawyer is an extremely proficient science fiction writer who somehow manages to pick potentially controversial, albeit relatively "simple", concepts and spin them into books more entertaining than one would expect. His Nebula-winning novel The Terminal Experiment posed the question "What if there was scientific proof of the existence of the soul?" and then wove a exciting and though-provoking thriller around that simply-stated premise.

Calculating God poses the question, "What if there was scientific proof of the existence of God?" Thus, this is very much a complement to Sawyer's previous novel about the soul. Yet this is an even more entertaining novel, because Sawyer has become an even better writer. This new novel's characters are more believable, it is deeper psychologically, and it avoids some of the distractions and rough spots that prevented The Terminal Experiment from being even greater. Calculating God is also genuinely funny in many places. Despite it's "heavy" subject matter, it is exceptionally readable and a difficult book to put down.

The basic premise of the novel kicks off immediately, as the first-ever contact between humans and aliens occurs -- in downtown Toronto. The aliens come not to conquer, not to invite Earth to join a galactic federation, but to conduct scientific research. Their motives are among the most unusual I've ever read, and this is one of the novel's great strengths. The alien which lands in Toronto is an archaeologist, and wants to compare notes with humans and study our fossils. The main purpose behind this research is soon made clear: The other planets the aliens have encountered which also have had intelligent life have experienced mass extinctions simultaneously, mass extinctions which coincide with those on Earth as well. There is no possible exlanation for this, the aliens tell the novel's skeptical main character, other than that God caused the extinctions. Most of the novel deals with a human scientist who is a confirmed atheist, as he confronts multiple alien species, all of whom are more advanced than humans, and all of whom state that the existence of God is a scientifically proven fact.

The mass extinctions are only the beginning of the evidence the alien presents to the archaeologist. Of course, that evidence is fictional. But many of the other topics discussed are not. The alien presents many actual scientific arguments for a created universe, including the notion that the precise quantum physical conditions whereby biological life could arise in the universe are so unlikely that they could not possibly have arisen by coincidence, but that they must have been ordered by an intelligence, intelligence which could have arisen spontaneously in any predecessor universe with sufficient complexity to develop into intelligence (but not biological life). Well, it's heady stuff, and it is not the purpose of this review to present the novel's arguments.

In case it is not already clear, be warned that Calculating God is a potentially subversive, even "dangerous" book. More so than most any s.f. novel I've ever read, this novel might change the reader's mind about some things. The novel might even change the reader's mind about one of the minor themes, abortion. Sawyer seems to take an ardently moderate view on the issue, and although abortion is dealt with less here than in The Terminal Experiment, positions on both the left and right of the issue are forcibly undermined. (The alien's own race does not practice elective abortion, but the book also makes some strong arguments against some pro-life positions.)

Sawyer's novel is an equal opportunity offender. It subverts the atheistic notion that there is no God, but it also subverts traditional religious notions as well. These aren't the usual simple-minded "straw man" or ad hominum attacks one often encounters in novels. The novel really presents intellectually and emotionally challenging arguments. The novel concludes with something in between the two camps of atheism and traditional monotheism, but something which is definitely not agnosticism. (In fact, by the end of the novel, agnosticism might seem to the novel's characters to be the most outrageous position of all.) It's not even entirely clear to what extent the reality finally shown in the novel matches the author's actual beliefs. However valid the destination, Calculating God makes for a very entertaining ride. It presents ideas that will stay with you, which may well disturb you, whoever you are.

Am I glad I read this book? For the most part, yes, I am. (I certainly couldn't stop reading it after I started!) But I would never suggest using this book in a pre-collegiate curriculum. Calculating God has little or no objectionable language, violence, racism, drugs or sex. Yet with its big ideas, just about any group of people who wishes to take offense (whether liberal or conservative, religious or not, libertarian or socialist, etc.) could find the book very inappropriate.

Rated, if a movie: PG
Rating: **** (out of 5)

Review copyright (©) Web page created 8 June 2001. Last modified 8 June 2001.

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