by Denyse O’Leary
If Calculating God hadn’t been written by Rob Sawyer, I would be reluctant to even start it. Why start a book that addresses the intelligent design controversy only in order to end up throwing it at the wall when the author turns out to know far less than a person can find out just by reading a single chapter of what a respected ID theorist actually says.
But it was written by Rob Sawyer, … so I was looking forward to it. A prolific Canadian sci-fi author, Sawyer writes science fiction that draws on science and ethics/philosophy issues taken from the headlines. His premise is usually a what if – and better still, he delights in challenging stereotypes.
What if, for example, the aliens land and, instead of trying to destroy New York or conquer Washington, they send a quiet (six-legged) scientist to a museum in Toronto? What if they are actually here on Earth on a religious quest, of sorts?
I knew I was going to like the book at the point where the spidery being emerges from the space shuttle at the Royal Ontario Museum and says “Take me to a paleontologist.”
But of course. The alien scientist Hollus is researching mass extinctions. There have been five mass extinctions on Hollus’s planet, Beta Hydri, and also on another one – and they occurred at the same time as Earth’s five great extinctions.
A coincidence? Hollus doesn’t think so. Scientists on Hollus’s planet assume intelligent design is the correct interpretation of the features of our universe.
What Hollus wants to know is, what exactly is the design? Because, at a certain point, advanced civilizations – a bit more advanced than Earth or Beta Hydri – simply disappear. Where to? How? Why? Should it be prevented? Can it be prevented?
You can’t choose the ways in which you’ll be tested.
- from Calculating God (2000)
Sawyer’s work usually features lots of heady dialogue, which is okay because he generally links it securely to an action-packed plot. For example, one problem with seeing God exclusively as a designer – as Hollus does – is that most humans want more from God. The paleontologist who starts working with Hollus, Tom Jericho, discovers that he has lung cancer – an outcome of a life lived amid the dust of ancient bones- and thus he has a very limited life expectancy.
So he wants more. He wants a cure for cancer, in fact. Unfortunately, neither the Forhilnors (Hollis’s species) nor the Wreeds (the other intelligent one) know a cure for cancer, or old age either.
Not wanting to die was another universal constant, it seemed.
- from Calculating God (2000)
Somehow, that seems intuitively right. Cancer, an abnormal development in cells, riffs off normal development. Old age is the natural outcome of the fact that we live in time and space in a universe with limited physical resources. We cannot declare war on our universe, or change it dramatically either. Against such things, even the victories of advanced civilizations must be small and temporary.
When new developments in the visible universe suggest that the aliens may actually get a chance to meet God at a certain point in spacetime, Tom decides to go away with them and die there.
How do you define God? Like this. A God I could understand, at least potentially, was infinitely more interesting and relevant than one that defied comprehension.
– Calculating God (2000)
A sub-plot revolves around a couple of fundamentalist abortion clinic bombers – a shade too dumb, in my view – who moonlight by blowing up the “lying” Burgess Shale fossils that fascinate Hollus. But could these guys blow up a beach ball? I doubt it.
It’s interesting to look at the question, post-911. Nine-eleven completely changed popular culture’s idea of a terrorist bomber. No longer is he a sweaty, two-neuron rube griping about liberal values – he is an intelligent Middle Eastern suicide aspirant, disgusted by Western depravity.
Rob Sawyer, a Best Novel Hugo and Nebula Award winner, and winner of an awesome string of other awards, doesn’t disappoint, because he takes the questions he raises seriously and avoids simplistic answers.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O’Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada’s Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).