Review of Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

SFFaudio Review

Audiobook - Calculating God by Robert J. SawyerCalculating God
By Robert J. Sawyer; Read by Jonathan Davis
Audible Download – 12 hours – [Unabridged]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2008
ISBN: None
Themes: / Science Fiction / Aliens / Paleontology / Religion / Philosophy / Space Travel /

One of the things I enjoy most about reviewing audiobooks is that I get to revisit novels that I’ve read and loved in the past. When these beloved novels are given great readers (not always the case), I can’t wait to get at them. Calculating God is one of those novels, and Jonathan Davis is an excellent narrator, so this audiobook leapt to the top of my TBR list the moment I realized it existed.

Jonathan Davis burst onto the science fiction scene with his stellar narration of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (SFFaudio review here). Since then, in the science fiction genre, he’s been almost exclusively reading Random House’s Star Wars abridgments. He reads them well, but I was thrilled to see him step away from that and narrate another of science fiction’s great novels. He is one of our very best narrators and this is a fine performance. I was rapt the entire time, and even near tears at one moment in the book.

When I read this novel for the first time, I was a bit taken aback. I am a Catholic and I’ve been reading science fiction all of my life. I have never had a problem reconciling science and religion and have been both perplexed and dismayed that Christianity is portrayed so often as being incompatible with science. It’s certainly true that for many Christian churches this conflict is real, but those churches are not Catholic churches, despite the most famous illustration of the conflict being the Catholic treatment of Galileo. I tell everyone who cares that Galileo was an aberration in the history of the Church (not the norm), but still, it was a colossal (though admitted) mistake. But for myself, science and religion are NOT in conflict. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this review to an interview of Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer that aired on CBC Radio as an illustration of a Catholic’s relationship with science. Robert J. Sawyer is mentioned in the interview as well.

Back to the novel at hand: The reason I was taken aback when I first read this book was that it’s the first novel I’ve ever read in which the aliens believe in God. That in itself makes this book interesting enough to pick up. Imagine – an alien lands on your front doorstep and starts to question your doubts about the existence of God. Most science fiction portrays religion as something that is grown through or evolved past. By the time an alien species is mature enough for stellar travel, surely they have jettisoned religion? There’s no place for such a thing in a rational, scientific universe. Right?

Well, not according to this novel. Sawyer presents, in a very entertaining and interesting way, arguments for and against God’s existence. The main character (Tom Jericho) is a paleontologist who is dying of cancer. An alien (named Hollus) lands near the Royal Ontario Museum and strolls right in, asking to see the fossils. And off the novel goes. Jericho and Hollus spend much of the novel together looking at fossils and discussing various topics that range from the wide, including mass extinctions and evolution, to the intimately personal, like the approaching death of Jericho. I can think of no better way to present these topics than this lively novel, and I’ll recommend it to anyone interested in thinking about these things, no matter which side of the fence they are on.

Sawyer uses science fiction to create circumstances that make us readers think about important ideas in different ways and from different perspectives. That’s exactly the kind of science fiction I love to read, and why I’ll keep coming back to Robert J. Sawyer for more. I’m very happy to have had a chance to revisit this novel, and even happier to be able to award it our SFFaudio Essential designation.

Audible.com has published a few more of Robert J. Sawyer’s novels: The Neanderthal Trilogy is there (Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids). They also have his Nebula winning novel The Terminal Experiment, published by Recorded Books. We reviewed it back in 2003.

Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God page: LINK

A link to a CBC interview of Brother Guy Consolmagno, Vatican Astronomer: LINK

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

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Scott D.

Reviews Editor, SFFaudio

8 thoughts to “Review of Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer”

  1. I remember reading this book a long time ago. I also really enjoyed it … until the end which I felt was a real cop out a la one of Gene Roddenberry’s favorite scenarios.

  2. I don’t recall the end all that well, but I very much liked the novel and I do remember it gave me a strong desire to visit the Royal Ontario Museum!

  3. I’m pleased as punch to note that the audiobook of CALCULATING GOD has just been nominated for an Audie Award, from the Audio Publishers Association — woot!

    Oh, and Julie D, interesting blog you’ve got (“Happy Catholic: Not Always Happy, But Always Happy to Be Catholic”). We’re obviously not going to see eye-to-eye :), but in my humble opinion, the only “real cop out” would have been NOT to provide answers to the questions raised in the book.

    They may not be the answers you’d have liked to see, but a copout, by definition, is ducking the questions asked (whether or not God exists, and, if he/she/it does, what his/her/its actual nature might be, and whether or not science can meaningfully address these points), and I most assuredly did not avoid answering those questions. :)

  4. I am honored that you checked out the links! :-)

    I really enjoyed hearing a speech that I heard via podcast some time ago (perhaps on Big Ideas?) about science fiction and its role in society. I completely agreed with your main premise, however, could easily tell that you and I wouldn’t agree on lots of details! I never let that stop me from enjoying a good sci-fi story though. One of the beauties of science fiction is that it allows authors and readers to wonder “what if” as they look at problems or questions of the day.

    I think that it was not that you provided an answer that I would have liked to see. Especially because I wasn’t Catholic or even Christian when I read it. Purely agnostic. Even now I don’t put my own faith into the equation when reading science fiction. That’s not the point of reading sci-fi (or any other things … except theology, of course).

    I may have to go back and reread the book but what I remember is that God was essentially a very long-living alien who recreated the universe as a part of its life-cycle. Again, I may have some of that wrong, but that is how it hit me and stayed with me when reading the book. Which was Gene Roddenberry’s favorite, right? Let’s go find God. Hey, He’s really a super powerful alien!

    If my memory is right, I have to say that yours was probably the most creative alien-as-God that I have ever read. But I was still disappointed. I didn’t have any expectations at that point because you had done such a good job leading up to the end that I was unable to put the book down. That much I DO remember correctly!

    I may go get that book again and read it anyway because I remember just how much I enjoyed it up to that point … and then I will be able to evaluate the ending better.

    By the way, since I dragged Star Trek into the mix, if you have never seen Futurama’s episode Where No Fan Has Gone Before … it is a classic playing on many familiar Trek themes and with the voices of all the original actors (minus James Doohan).

  5. In Calculating God aliens visit earth seeking to do research on the evolution of life and on the nature of god. In due course, the aliens mention that they have proof that that god is a scientific fact. Much of the book is an excuse for a Socratic dialogue between an alien scientist and a human paleontologist, Tom Jericho, on proofs for and against the existence of god, with the aliens claiming that god is the scientific answer.

    There is much to be praised in the book. And kudos to Sawyer for actually creating an answer to the nature of the god in the book rather than punting. But the book is also frustrating. While I have no problem granting a book a premise, I did find the theological discussion annoying. Sawyer casts Jericho in the mold of Stephen J. Gould, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, yet puts straw arguments in his mouth, making him a positive atheist rather than an empirical naturalist, apparently so that Jericho can be stubborn and obtuse in his resistance to evidence of god, thus lengthening the theological discourse in the book. Jericho claims there is no god rather than, say, what Dawkins claims, which there is no sound *evidence* for god. Particularly vexing was Sawyer’s invocation of the fine tuning argument / Anthropic Principle, that claims the life could not have arisen without the laws of the universe deliberately set just right for life, just enough strength in nuclear bonds, just enough supernovae to give off heavy atoms and few enough not to blow up planets all the time, thus our universe must have had a creator, and one who specifically created the universe to be biogenerative. Thus there must be a god, an intelligent First Cause. Then Sawyer’s alien makes a special pleading, saying that, of course, while an intelligently created universe is required for life, a random universe could and did create god, because creating a **god** with the intelligence, desire and power to create a fine tuned biogenerative **universe** is much simpler and infinitely more probable than a random universe that can generate simpler forms of life. The alien calls god an “intelligence” rather than “life”–creating a distinction without a difference for purposes of the special pleading. The novel failed for me at that point and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

    Additionally, the novel casts both creationists and empirical scientists as extremists of nearly equal obstinacy, and offers up “Intelligent Design” as the moderate middle. To do this Sawyer offers up straw versions of Intelligent Design and of Evolution, claiming evolution isn’t proven and nobody has seen evolution, both of which are false. Evoution is as proven as any theory in biology, as much so as, say, the Germ Theory of Disease. And significant bacterial evolution in yeast has been observed. And the book proffers “intelligent Design” as the rational explanation for the complexity of life (with the alien bootstrapping the claim, saying that carbon based life and DNA is the only basis of life in the universe.) In reality, Intelligent Design, still offers no predictive models and remains Creationism dressed up in a lab coat. It remains a religious claim promulgated exclusively by religious “scientists”, well, them and Ben Stein.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing the story for creating a slightly more hands on version of god than the god of Deism. I have no problem with that as a fictional story, it is Sawyer’s attempts to add veritas to the idea through rigged theological discussion that tipped the scales for me. Sawyer casts Jericho as the Washington Generals and the alien as the Harlem Globe trotters, where the alien gets to prop up every failed theological argument for necessity of god with assertions such “our scientists have discovered a 5th force that proves the Anthropic principle” and “our scientist have proved that there are no parallel universes” etc. Meanwhile he cripples Sawyer with over broad claims of positive atheism and false concessions of evolution not being proven.

    But, for what Sawyer is trying to do, he did a fair job, and he did have the guts to have his story take a stand, right in the middle, where he had to know he’d be run over by both sides. For that I do give him credit.

  6. Thanks, Scote!

    Not to open up a while can of worms here, but I do agree with you that Intelligent Design does not offer up any predictive models. I often wonder if I know exactly what the words “Intelligent Design” are being used for. To me, the words mean that God had a hand in the formation of the world and everything in it. The words say nothing about how it was done. It is NOT a scientific theory, nor is it a methodology.

    Like the rest of the physical world, scientists explore, hopefully using the scientific method to come to their conclusions. The truth of Evolutionary theories should not affect a person’s faith in God. If one contradicts the other, then one or the other needs to be adjusted.

    Thanks again for this!

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