It’s a hell of an opening for a book. A six-legged alien lands on earth. He doesn’t land in Washington, DC in front of the White House. No, he lands in Toronto in front of a museum. And he doesn’t ask the nearest passerby to “take me to you your leader,” he goes to the front desk and inquires of the security guard if he might speak to a paleontologist.
So begins Calculating God, Robert Sawyer’s twist of one of the most beloved tropes in science fiction.
That trope is the alien who comes to earth to share the advanced knowledge of his species with humanity, often for good, though sometimes for ill. Think Klatuu from The Day the Earth Stood Still or the Overlords of Arthur C. Clark’s (and SyFy’s!) Childhood’s End. Hollus, the alien in question for Sawyer does the same, but with a twist – she’s come to share the Good News.
Well, not quite. But she’s looking for God. Actually, she’s a believer, certain that there was an intelligent designer. Her cancer-riddled human counterpart, Tom Jerrico, is not. Thus the usual frame of received wisdom from aliens is flipped. Thus ensues a lot of talking, of the vaguely scientific and philosophical variety, about the possibility of an intelligently designed universe.
To be certain, this is not a serious exploration of the issue. That’s because Sawyer stacks the deck, adding in a few additional “facts” known to the aliens but not us that pushes well beyond the basis for modern intelligence design or “Goldilocks” theorists. Rhetorically it’s a cheat, but dramatically it’s quite interesting. Tom, after all, is a man of science as well as an atheist and skeptic. If anyone should be open to new evidence about a feature like the existence of God, it would be him (contrary to popular belief, most of we atheists don’t claim to know for certain God doesn’t exist, just that we haven’t seen proof of his/her existence). Given that, it’s silly for people to get upset about the arguments presented and Tom’s eventual “conversion,” given that, to paraphrase MST3K (talk about resurrections!), it’s just a book and folks should really just relax.
In this sense, Sawyer’s book hasn’t aged well. In 2000, when the book came out, it might have been possible to give the benefit of the doubt to those arguing “intelligent design.” However, just five years later in a landmark court decision, it was revealed that intelligent design purveyors are simply religious folks trying repackage creationism into a “science” they can shove into public schools. The hilarious find and replace evidence in that case speaks for itself.
Not that those people are interested in the same kind of designer as the aliens Sawyer constructs. Their designer is just another advanced alien intelligence, one so far ahead of the rest of us as to appear magical (kind of like the Vorlons from Babylon 5, now that I think of it). The aliens aren’t interested in saving souls, condemning sinners to hellfire, or purging heretical ideas. That the book ignores that this is true for so long is one of its primary faults.
But far from its only one.
For one thing, the book is awfully talky. Which makes sense, as the main interest is in Hollus learning about Earth’s history and how that plays into her theories about a created universe. But it can be kind of dull and doesn’t have any real tension to it. In addition, Tom is a pretty bad foil for Hollus (he turns Occam’s Razor from a guidepost into dogma) – more stacking of the deck. For most of the book the only breaks are Tom’s maudlin asides about his cancer, which don’t add much to things.
Sawyer does something about this in the last third of the book, but in incredibly ham-handed fashion. He introduces to Arkansas Christian terrorists – one is even named Cooter (the other is JD – thanks Robert!) – who bomb abortion clinics and, eventually, shoot up a bunch of priceless fossils at the museum. Putting to one side how these rednecks ex machina manage to get into Canada after first blowing up a clinic in Buffalo (but, remember, this was before 9/11), their stories end when they’re both killed at the museum, so they come and go so quickly and without any real impact that you’re left wondering just what the point was.
The second attempt at action fares better, but makes you wonder why it hadn’t come earlier. A celestial event that should destroy life on Earth (and the other alien worlds) is blocked, literally, by the hand of God, leading the aliens to pick up and head to that part of space. Naturally, cancer-ridden Tom comes with them – who wants to spend your last days with your loving prop family, anyway? What plays out frantically in the last bit of the book might have been interesting with some more room to breathe, but it’s so rushed that you just don’t care.
The jaunt to the stars also highlights how the alien technology conveniently moves at the speed of plot. Yes, they’re advanced enough to travel at near light speeds from star to star. No, sorry Tom, they’re not any more advanced than late 20th century Canada when it comes to treating cancer – not only do they not have a cure, they don’t even have a better way of treating it. But, good news! In spite of the fact that you’re lurching toward your death bed, they can put you in suspended animation (twice!) for the space trip! It just doesn’t make much sense.
All this makes the book sound worse than it is. It’s a fairly quick read, has a fun premise, and raises a couple of interesting ideas. It could have been a lot more engaging and epic, however.