Friday, March 10, 2006

Calculating God, Robert J. Sawyer (spoilers)

Title: Calculating God
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Rating: Lousy

Warning: spoilers appear all over this review.

What an irritating book. Grrrrr.

Some time back this book was reviewed in Skeptical Inquirer - the magazine of CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal) - and there was something of a furor over it. The reviewer didn't like it, and said so. A bunch of people jumped in on both sides of the issue as I recall (my issues are long gone now). Some defended the book as a work of fiction while others thought it was significant in some way - some bad way that I don't exactly recall. My wife bought the book to try to figure out first hand what the problem was. I'm only getting to it now, quite a while later.

I'm going to say that the book is bad, but probably not for the same reasons that the CSICOP reviewer did.

First off, let me state that I am open to many things in fiction. I have no problem with religion being an important part of a work, but what happens here is just plain silly.

First and foremost, the premise of the novel is completely unbelievable. Aliens come to earth (fine so far) and the first one to appear lands in Canada (again, fine so far). Said alien is a spider like thing (again, fine) and it comes to the Royal Ontario Museum to see a paleontologist. (We're still fine.) And the alien settles in with our hero from the museum to study earth's fossil record.

Now wait just a minute.

I'm willing to buy that the aliens can get here, that they aren't that much ahead of us technologically, etc. I'll even grant that they might be interested in our fossil record for one reason or another, but they cannot possibly be so stupid as to fail to take into account the political ramifications of their arrival. After all, they've been monitoring us for some time - long enough to speak various earth languages pretty well. Their arrival is going to throw our planet into chaos on umpteen different levels, but they - and the author - just pretend that issue doesn't exist.

But never mind that. They're here because they're looking for God. They're seeking the creator of the universe, and we're a step along that path. We're quickly told Earth is the third planet currently harboring intelligent life that they know of, that each planet had the same number of mass extinction events in its history, and they were all at the same points in time.

Ummm.... wait. We've just been told something patently absurd. But the author is using it as a major premise in his plot. OK. I'll do my best to open really wide and swallow that one. Continuing...

Then we're told that the aliens are all religious - that the presence of God is a fact in their eyes. And then a lot of mumbo-jumbo is thrown at us to support that. (It all amounts to the anthropic principle, for those who follow that sort of thing.) But our aliens have knowledge we don't have, and it proves that a creator must have had a hand in the mix. No argument allowed.

OK... I'm not done yet, but I have to stop here for a moment and say that there was something really aggravating about the way all of this was dumped on me as the reader. Our hero doesn't challenge things as he should (or would, given his training and background) and I don't buy it. I know that fiction assumes some things that aren't true to tell whatever tale is being told, and I can accept that. Science fiction has to go farther in that way than many other kinds of fiction for various reasons, and I can accept that too. But this particular telling just plain didn't work. Far too many impossible things in a row, with only the authority of the aliens telling us this to back it up. After a while, I just couldn't stomach it any more. But back to the content of the book.

Our hero spends the next N chapters - where N is far too large a number - in conversation with his alien friend. Unfortunately these chapters all read like creationist (and particularly Intelligent Design) apologist tracts. They're crap. But the author can (and does) resort regularly to the fact that the aliens know more than we do, and so they can simply assure our hero that they're right. Many times I set this book down wondering just what I was reading. It sounded like it came from some ID publishing house so often it was depressing.

Then we get a pointless sub-plot about some wacky creationists that bombed an abortion clinic and are now going to do other dastardly deeds that impact our hero and his alien friends. That sub-plot has no business here. It's entirely useless, but I digress, as did the author.

And then we get to the end of the book, where all kinds of things are revealed. "God" turns out to be some sort of organism (yes, a biological organism) that existed in a previous cycle of our closed universe and somehow adjusted the parameters for the next cycle so that there would be intelligent life here.

I'm going to digress here again. As best we know, the universe is not closed, and we knew that in 2000 when this book was published. The universe is expanding at an increasing rate. As best we can tell, it will not come back together in a "Big Crunch" so it's open. Sawyer tries to use science all over in here to back things up, but he gets it wrong, and this is just another example. Grrr. OK back to the book again...

This "God"/organism has plans for us too. Plans that help it get reborn. Huh? Wait. It's already here. It's been meddling in evolution on at least three planets for hundreds of millions - if not billions - of years. And it does something spectacular right under our nose too, so clearly it is already "here" and capable of doing big important things. But it needs us (specifically our DNA) to be reborn? Something makes no sense at all. (Anyone remember Kirk asking "Why does God need a starship?" in one of the Star Trek movies?)

I'll avoid telling you about the other intelligent life forms out there that are missing now. Just assume that the aliens tell you there are some, and that our hero has theories about where they went - theories based on no evidence. But our alien friends eventually believe them.

I guess in the end even the IDers will hate this book because "God" turns out to be something less than the omniscient, omnipotent, personal deity that Christianity predicts. That sort of conclusion - that life here was created by some other species "out there" in space somewhere - would be just fine with me, but the rest of the book was so irritating that when the conclusion finally arrived I was just pissed off about it.

As an exercise in writing craft, the book isn't that good either. Sometimes the hero is believable, particularly as he interacts with his family, but much of it is flat and fails to seem real, or even reasonable. And why is it told in first person from the point of view of someone who dies at the end? There is actually text at the end where the narrator talks about his last words, in the past tense, as in after he died. Excuse me? Nothing in this book explains that.

Finally, I have to state again that the author simply ignores the reality of what real contact with aliens would be like. Even if the aliens simply didn't talk to the authorities, everyone they interacted with would be grilled at huge length after each and every interaction. Our hero - a mucky-muck at the museum - would have no time to do or see anything other than the alien and the myriad people who want to know more about the alien, its society, technology, etc. He wouldn't even get to sleep given the demands on his time. The book was simply not believable in this area, and I found that really bothersome given the way he tried to keep it grounded in reality in other places.

As you can see, I didn't like this book. I did finish it, but looking back I really wonder why. There was nothing new raised by it as far as I can see, and the willing suspension of disbelief never happened.

Skip this one.