April 18, 2005

Calculating God

The purest essence of science fiction is a good "what if?" Really good SF does its best to make both the question and answer consistent with real (or extrapolated) science.

What if aliens landed on Earth? And what if, instead of saying "take me to your leader," they said: "Excuse me. I would like to see a paleontologist." And what if, like many scientists, that paleontologist was a devout atheist? And what if the aliens believed that a god created the universe?

That is the setup for the extremely entertaining and thought-provoking Calculating God, by Canadian Robert Sawyer. And, by the "what if" standard, this book makes for some excellent SF reading.

Thomas Jericho, the paleontologist who makes first contact with the spider-like Hollus from Beta Hydri, is an atheist. Hollus explains that he came to Earth with his colleagues (some of whom are aliens from Delta Pavonis II) to investigate mass extinctions as turning points in the evolution of life. During their initial interchange, Hollus reveals that Earth, Beta Hydri, and Delta Pavonis II all experienced mass extinctions at the same points in their histories, even though the three planets were all of very different ages. When Jericho states that he can't think of any reason why evolutionary history should be so similar on multiple worlds, Hollus drops the bomb that sets the story in motion:

"One reason is obvious," said Hollus. . . . "It could be that way because God wished it to be so."

Awkward silence ensues. Jericho is completely taken aback. But over many subsequent conversations, Hollus lays out his case for a creator (essentially, the weak anthropic principle). And Sawyer is kind enough to have his narrator, Jericho, mention the various sources for further study on the anthropic principle. But don't think that god of the aliens resembles the God of most mainstream religions, i.e., some personal wish-granter like a Santa Claus writ large in the sky with the impressive beard and golden throne. Instead, this is God-as-author-of-the-Universe, the Deist god:

"A caring God," repeated Hollus. "I have also heard the phrases 'a loving God,' and 'a compassionate God.'" His eyestalks locked on me. "I think you humans apply too many adjectives to the creator."

"But you're the ones who believe that God has a purpose for us," I said.

"I believe the creator may have a specific reason for wanting a universe that has life in it, and, indeed, as you say, for wanting multiple sentiences to emerge simultaneously. But it seems clear beyond dispute that the creator takes no interest in specific individuals."

"And that's the generally held opinion amongst members of your race?" I asked.


Interesting stuff. Overall, the story's thought-provoking premise and rapid pace during the latter last third overcome the few glaring weaknesses:

1. First, the author is bit too enamored with Canada's socialized medical system, and makes that position all too clear.

2. Second, the only representatives of young earth creationism are a couple of murderous yokels from Arkansas (named - I kid you not - Cooter and J.D.). This makes them mere stereotypes, rather than the more common (and realistic) YECs that I encounter on a daily basis. It would have been better intellectually to set up a reasoned dispute between the aliens and a Baptist like Billy Graham rather than the violent confrontation portrayed in the book. (Of course, the violent confrontation made for a more entertaining read).

3. Finally, Sawyer reaches for a grand ending on a scale similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Carl Sagan's Contact, and fails to achieve the same level of grandeur. I just couldn't suspend my disbelief in the last chapter to accept the encounter with the Divine as presented.

In all, I would highly recommend this book. Sawyer has a way of tackling controversial issues in an entertaining manner. His earlier Terminal Experiment was a thought experiment posing the question "What if we found hard evidence for a human soul?" and attempting to answer it. And it looks like his next book, Mindscan, examines just what it is that makes us human.

(Cross-posted to GNXP Science Fiction)

Posted by JohnL at April 18, 2005 11:11 PM
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