Friday, July 22, 2011

"Calculating God" by Robert J. Sawyer

In Calculating God (2000) by Robert J. Sawyer, a spider-like alien lands a spaceship in Toronto and walks into the Royal Ontario Museum, asking to speak to a paleontologist. From the very first page, the story grabbed my attention - and held it throughout the book.

The alien, Hollus, may look weird (although she's only superficially similar to a giant spider), but she has a great sense of humor. And the paleontologist, Tom Jericho, is an appealing character who happens to be dying of lung cancer, to the dismay of his wife and young child.

Sawyer quickly sets up the central theme of the book. Jericho is an atheist, but the aliens (there are two different species on a ship orbiting the Earth) claim to have scientific evidence of God. They trot out the standard creationist line about how the universe has been "fine-tuned" for life, but they also have additional evidence.

In particular, it turns out that both alien planets suffered identical mass extinction events - five of them - exactly when the Earth did. They speculate that this was God's way of nudging evolution towards sapience. (Hollus is at the museum to study the evidence of this on Earth.)

So far, this might seem to be like something from the publishers of the Left Behind novels - Christian propaganda. But this "God" isn't really anything Earth religions would embrace. Indeed, the aliens think that it's a natural creature from a previous universe which not only survived the end of that one and the beginning of ours, but actually adjusted the parameters when this universe began.

So this might be our creator, but I'm not sure it qualifies as a god. To my mind, one of the fundamental characteristics of gods is that they're magic (or "supernatural," if you wish). A natural creature might have god-like powers, but it's not really a god, is it? If highly-advanced aliens had created our universe, would we worship them as gods? I doubt it. Not most of us, at least.

I also wonder about these aliens leaping to that "God" explanation, just from the evidence that someone or something has been manipulating all three planets. This is evidence, since coincidence is not at all plausible in a situation like this. But an advanced alien species could have done the same thing (and for roughly the same reasons, too). It wouldn't have to be a "god."

Nevertheless, as I say, Sawyer quickly grabbed my interest and held it through the whole book. The situation was interesting, and the characters were appealing. But I must say that I had a real problem with the end of the story.

I don't like to put spoilers in my reviews, but I just can't talk about this book without completely giving away the ending. But I'll put that below the fold. If you think you might read Calculating God, you probably should stop here.


For the rest of you, here's how the story unfolds: The red giant star, Betelgeuse, begins to go supernova, which will wipe out all life on Earth, and on both alien planets, too. But suddenly, some vast... thing emerges from a tear in space to shelter all three planets. Apparently, "God" has saved us from annihilation.

The alien ship decides to travel there, a trip that will take about 400 years (but far less than that subjectively, of course), in the hope of speaking to God. And Jericho decides to go with them. After all, he only has a couple of months left to live, and the aliens can put him in stasis for the trip.

When they arrive, "God" takes DNA from all three species to create a new being. Apparently, this has been the plan all along. The new creature, God's offspring, would become the god of the next universe. As Jericho dies, it's... the end.

But what does this mean for human beings? By then, presumably, the rest of humanity is either extinct or retreated into a computerized virtual world. (We learn earlier in the book that those seem to be the fates of all intelligent species, when they reach a technological level very near our own.)

At least Jericho gets to die, having outlived his wife and child - and likely his species - by hundreds of years. But what about Hollus, the alien, who never saw her children again and who survives to face this same bleak reality. Is there any point to not just flying the ship into the nearest sun?

The rest of this book was great, but the conclusion of Calculating God was deeply unsatisfying. You know the ending I wanted? At the end of this, I wanted them to encounter another ship, a faster-than-light vessel crewed by all three species, all of whom are still alive and vigorous.

All of the other sapient species, those which had either destroyed themselves or retreated into a virtual world, had been alone in the galaxy at the time. But this time, there were three species alive at the same time, at about the same technological level, and in contact with each other. I really wanted to see the synergy between them make a difference, so that they'd avoid the fate of other intelligent species.

So this "God" had manipulated us for its own purposes? So what? Our parents generally create us for their own purposes, don't they? But that doesn't limit us. We grow up and go on to create our own purposes. And maybe that's what humans and these aliens could do, too, all three working together.

At the end, they could even have cured Jericho of cancer. Sure, his wife and child were long dead, but death happens. Death is a part of life. We accept that, mourn, and, normally, get over it. But Jericho himself could have looked forward to new adventures - perhaps with Hollus - before his inevitable end.

Or not. That's not really the most important thing here. Basically, I wanted human beings and our new alien friends to flip the bird to that "God" and go on about our own purposes. God might have manipulated us for its own reasons, but we'd refuse to be limited by that.

I'm no author, but that would have been an inspiring ending, don't you think? Instead, I thought the conclusion was just... dispiriting. This could have been a great book - the rest of it was really very good - but the ending was very disappointing.

PS. This is our July read in the ClassicScienceFiction group at Yahoo, where one reader expressed concern that Sawyer's presentation would give ammunition to creationists of the so-called "Intelligent Design" persuasion. But that doesn't bother me at all.

For one thing, this is just fiction. But also, I don't think that people believe in creationism for these reasons. Think about it. Scientists tend to be much less religious than non-scientists. And from what I hear, biologists and physicists - the people who know the most about these issues - are even less likely to believe in God than most other scientists.

What that tells us is that people don't believe in God because of these arguments. Instead, they believe first, and only try to use arguments like these to convince others that they're right. And, after all, if the people who know the most about these things are persuaded by them the least, that tells us that these arguments really aren't very good.

Sure, they might sound convincing to the ignorant, to laymen who really don't have the knowledge or the background to tell. But if they really were valid, then biologists and physicists would be the most likely people to believe in God, rather than among the least religious.

I must say, I thought it was particularly funny that Sawyer used the argument here that cilia are "irreducibly complex." Calculating God was first published in 2000, and that idea was a big thing in creationist circles at the time. (Still is, I think, with people who don't know any better.) Michael Behe had pushed the argument in his book, Darwin's Black Box, in 1996. Supposedly, this was scientific evidence for "intelligent design."

The idea was that some things are so complex that the individual parts couldn't have evolved separately. Take one piece away from a mousetrap and it would no longer function. So it couldn't have evolved, but had to have been designed as is. And cilia were his prize example.

That was the situation when Calculating God was written. But then, in 2004, there came the Dover trial (Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District), where creationists tried to get this through the federal courts. They had a Republican judge appointed by George W. Bush, so they thought they were all set. During the trial, Michael Behe testified about cilia being "irreducibly complex,"...

... And the scientists on the other side just destroyed him. They showed example after example of the biological parts of cilia being used separately in organisms, sometimes one part all by itself, sometimes several of them together. If you take one part away from a mousetrap, it might not function as a mousetrap - or not very well, at least - but that doesn't mean the parts would be useless for everything.

(Incidentally, if you want a great book about the Dover trial, highly entertaining and a real pleasure to read, I strongly recommend Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul by Edward Humes. It really is a great read.)

Anyway, I really don't think that Robert J. Sawyer buys the arguments he presents so persuasively in Calculating God. This is just fiction, after all, and he needs to set up the storyline. But the argument that cilia are "irreducibly complex" really put a smile on my face.


Chimeradave said...

I didn't read the book this month and hadn't looked at the spoiler till now.

The ending seems kind of similar to the ending of "Childhood's End." In both novels humanity's one purpose is to go on to some sort of higher realm.

I didn't like this ending when Clarke wrote it. Why do we need to go to a higher realm? I like the one we all live in already.

WCG said...

Well, John, humanity doesn't really go on to a higher realm in "Calculating God." Part of our DNA is used to make a god, true, but it's nothing like us. We just supply the raw materials.

And although we never learn what happens to humanity in general, not for sure, the implication is that we either destroy ourselves or retreat into a virtual realm, like all other intelligent species.

Indeed, moving on to a higher realm would have been more optimistic than the ending here, which seemed to indicate nothing but defeat for human beings (or anyone else, either).

Jim Harris said...

Yeah, humanity gets the shaft in both books, it's the star children that get to have all the fun.

I wished I had the time to write a review of Calculating God - it was such a fun read, until the supernova. I should have seen it coming though. I should have been leery when Sawyer told us that five planets had the same mass extinctions at the same time. Unless the answer was five astronomical events that effected all five systems, that kind of coincidence is silly to contemplate. I knew it was unbelievable but I went along, but that was a big mistake.

WCG said...

Well, Jim, that was the central puzzle. That's why the aliens believed in a god. Because it wasn't believable as a natural phenomenon (although I don't believe it necessarily pointed to a god, either).

I liked how Sawyer set it up. Really, I liked the whole book, until the end.