Science Fiction Review

Calculating God

(2000) Robert J. Sawyer, Tor, 6.99 (UK import price) / US$6.99, pbk, 338pp, ISBN 0-812-58035-4


The alien lands in Toronto and says, 'take me to your palaeontologist'. (Actually he says 'paleontologist' but this is because this is an American import and, of course they do not speak English (but then it's not the alien's first language either).) At the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, the alien asks when Earth's recorded mass extinctions (like the one wiping out the dinosaurs) took place? The answer naturally being: 65, 210, 225. 365 and 440 million years ago. The alien becomes excited for it transpires that mass extinctions have also occurred on two other planets in nearby star systems exactly 65, 210, 225. 365 and 440 million years ago. God, it appears moves in mysterious ways and has been manipulating evolution.

Calculating God takes a large canvass for its subject in attempting to address some of the fundamental questions that have dogged humanity for centuries. Is there a God? Does s/he/it have an interest in humanity, or in us as individuals?

Of course it is not the answering of these questions that counts - after all Robert J. Sawyer may well be an above-average SF author but philosophical sage he is not. Besides we are talking about an SF novel here and not proverbial scriptures handed down from on high. So it is not the answering (Sawyer has brought nothing new to) the 'God'/Universe debate, but it is very much the treatment that counts. Basically, Robert Sawyer has reviewed much of the evidence surrounding the weak anthropic principle (and old Concatenation hands may recall that I reviewed Barrow and Tipler's The Anthropic Cosmological Principle back in our first paper edition in 1987). Now Sawyer has coveredit in the form of an SF story with fairly standard characters thrown in for good measure (and yet another ill protagonist as per Sawyer's Frameshift reviewed elsewhere on the Concat site). The aliens are competently done (providing you are not a natural scientist and don't have a firm stance on exobiology which regrettably for my own personal enjoyment of the book I do). I did, though, find the alien Wreed's non-mathematical perception fun. (Didn't necessarily go along with it, but enjoyed it nonetheless.) And Sawyer's humorous perceptions are absolutely great (more please, but do not over do it). Overall, Calculating God is an engaging read packed with science at its most fundamentally exotic.

Robert Sawyer is clearly a bit of a polymath within the sciences. If he is a regular reader of the journal Science then I'll lay an odds-on bet that he likes their in-house science writer Richard Kerr. He also has done his research, and from the acknowledgements at the front he has secured a little help from academics. This shows. The science (as far as we currently know (2002 AD)) he portrays is nearly always accurate and he mostly gives the right caveats. There are of course a few slips. For instance, Margulis may well have suggested in 1982 prokaryotic-eukaryotic symbiosis (the mitochondria in your cells and chloroplasts in plant cells had free living bacterial or algal evolutionary ancestors) but she did not come up with the idea as Sawyer implies; such a notion had been common place for many years and indeed is mentioned in the 1974 Cell Biology textbook by Dyson I used in my undergraduate days. Nor is Sawyer's review of the scientific literature complete. Of course it would be unrealistic to expect it to be, but if the author touches upon a specialist topic then it is reasonable to expect him to follow through. For example, in chapter 9 Sawyer rightly considers amino acids and their handedness but then, amazingly, walks away! He did not touch upon the evidence that suggests that handedness in a protobiosphere may be forced. (Sawyer - See Rikken & Raupach (1997) Nature 390, 493-494, and more recently (contemporaneous with the publishing of Calculating God) there is an excellent mini-review article Nature 405, 895-896.) These are of course picky points to make and would be out of order in most reviews but this is the Science Fact and Fiction Concatenation and the science and SF interface is something with which we and our regulars have considerable interest. Nonetheless to re-address the balance it should be pointed out that there were times when I thought the man had ignored an important body of work only to find chapters later that he had not - it was my (mis)interpretation of the prose. For example, when asking the Wreed what s/he thinks of Earth, s/he replies: "Large moon, aesthetically pleasing..." which to me implied that the Wreed's home world had no large moon and that Sawyer was unaware of the need for a large natural satellite to confer sufficient orbital stability to a planet for the evolution of complex ecosystems. (Now I could forgive him had he omitted this as much of the initial mathematical modelling on orbital stability was done in France and for many years failed to be published in English (though one might have hoped that, of all Anglophone authors, a Canadian might have scored here).) Nonetheless, over 100 pages later in chapter 26, Sawyer's characters refer to the necessity of a moon. Clearly the Wreed was simply praising the look of our Moon or acknowledging it within the anthropic scheme of things. My mistake. Nice one Sawyer.

My one complaint, one that I have made before with SF novels packed with science, is that the book would have greatly benefited from a decent scientific appendix. This is not just an add-on luxury, but I believe a duty. If an SF author is to tread the fine line between science fact and fiction (something that we at Concatenation do encourage), then it is important that the reader knows where that line is drawn; where the science ends and the SF begins. After all the reader, even with high-school science or even university qualifications may not be reading primary research journals hence know about cutting edge science, and they certainly will not have had the benefit of experts knowledge the author has had.

I have devoted a fair bit of space to reviewing Calculating God. In part this is because of its high science content. In part it is because Sawyer has written a number of above average novels and this one is no exception other than - though not a classic - it is decidedly above average. More importantly Calculating God was nominated for the 2001 Hugo (World Science Fiction Achievement) Award. Even more importantly it was the most voted for SF novel in that award's 2001 short-list! So congratulations Robert though not in fact you are now technically a Hugo winner. Naturally, World SF Convention fandom may give a double take here. 'Hang on, mate, Sawyer did not win the Hugo in 2001.' Correct, he did not. The winner went to one of Rowling's children's Harry Potter fantasy novels, purely owing to latitude in the constitution of the World SF Society so as not to exclude works bordering on fantasy. But, as has been pointed out by many elsewhere, given that fantasy novels have their own World SF event and awards it was a bit of a waste conferring the 2001 Hugo on a Harry Potter book let alone an undermining of the spirit of the Hugo. Ho hum. Nonetheless, it is a unassailable fact that the most votes an SF novel received that year for the Hugo was Calculating God and in our book at least Calculating God would have been more of an appropriate and deserving a winner. So forget American Worldcon voters (well the non-SF ones anyway), and go out and get Calculating God. Your deity might well know it makes sense.

Jonathan Cowie

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