Calculating God, Robert J. Sawyer

Tor, 2000, 334 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86713-1

The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest for issues related to religion and science. Mostly fuelled by the evolution versus creationism debate, these questions more or less seek to explore the relationship between faith and proof, or the place of religion in a secular western civilization obviously ruled by the objective standards of science.

Few authors have dealt with this theme as often as Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer. His novels have often featured, either as vignettes, sequences or significant subplots, faith issues. (With an appropriateness that is often disputable.) With Calculating God, his twelfth book in eleven years, Sawyer finally devotes a whole book to the issue and, hopefully, gets it out of his system for some time.

It’s a measure of how theme-oriented Calculating God is that the thin plot begins like what may sound like a really bad joke: See, this alien lands at the Royal Ontario Museum and asks to see a paleontologist… Fortunately, things get more serious shortly after that, as it becomes apparent that the alien is there to investigate human studies of the archaeological record. Seems that the aliens, themselves believers, have noticed a troubling pattern in extinction events, and they want us to confirm it… which we do with our own extinction events.

Sawyer cheats and stacks the deck in his faith-vs-science debate by positing an alien Theory of Everything that denies the luxury of the anthropic principle. (ie; the “isn’t it infinitely improbable that we’re here?” creationist argument is usually answered by the “we’re here to see it, otherwise no one would care”.) What if, in other words, we had increasingly convincing proof of the existence of God?

Make no mistake; this polite, reserved, even restrained novel is supposed to make you think! It covers a vivid intellectual argument, presented rigorously and treated fairly. (How Canadian!) Don’t assume, however, that this is pro-creationist propaganda: Sawyer knows his stuff, obviously can’t justify creationists and never questions the basic foundations of evolution. His argument runs deeper than that, going beyond the simple superficial debate created by creationism.

In a speech delivered to the First Canadian Conference on Science and SF in Ottawa in October 2000, Sawyer argued that the new role of SF would be to promote rationalism, and Calculating God is a model for this type of new SF. While pro-God, Sawyer’s novel isn’t exactly pro-religion, but it is in fact pro-faith. If that’s not middle-ground enough to make you think, what is?

In strict fictional terms, there isn’t much to see in Calculating God. The plot is an excuse to bring forth a debate and assorted arguments. The protagonist the same middle-aged scientist that has starred in the majority of Sawyer’s novels. The writing is limpid but not exceptionally polished. The introduction of stock terrorist caricatures near the end detracts from the novel’s intellectual suspense. The conclusion goes nowhere, aiming at a transcendental conclusion but ending as a muddled, perfunctory end.

But literary worth is not the point. The point is the debate, the respectful exploration of the boundaries between faith and logic. As a non-believer (most of the time), I wasn’t really convinced by Calculating God, but I wasn’t insulted or disappointed. That’s an unusually meritorious achievement for Sawyer, to manage to please and respect both believers and atheist. (One could make an argument that it took a Canadian to be able to be so vigorously non-threatening, but I’ll refrain for the moment.) In any case, Calculating God is a keeper, another good example of modern SF that faithfully (ho-ho) upholds the golden intellectual standards of the genre.

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