Calculating God, by Robert J. Sawyer
Tor, 0312867131, 334 pp., 2000

A spaceship lands on Earth, for the first time – outside the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Not surprisingly, the book opens with incredulity “I know, I know – it seems crazy that the alien had come to Toronto, Sure, the city is popular with tourists, but you’d thing a being from another world would head for the United Nations – or maybe to Washington. Didn’t Klaatu go to Washington in Robert Wise’s movie The Day the Earth Stood Still?”1 Defying Hollywood alien-human contact mythology, one of the spacecraft’s inhabitants, a six legged two armed alien, emerges from the craft, enters the museum, strolls up to the security officer at the front desk, and says, in perfect English, ‘Excuse me, I would like to see a paleontologist’.2 Assuming this is some kind of joke, the security officer calls Tom Jerico, resident palaeontologist specializing in vertebrae, and the book’s narrator.

Not only is this alien not interested in invading Earth, it – Hollus – is here to study Earth’s fossils – and she’s a theist, believing “’The primary goal of modern science…is to discover why God has behaved as he has and to determine his methods’” (pg 30). This fairly blows our narrator’s mind, as he is, naturally, a scientific atheist. Dear Tom spends the rest of the book terrified he will recant his position and embrace this alien perspective.

As Tom gets to know Hollus, the unlikely creature from outer space, a bit better they discuss each position, peppered with some grade ten chemistry and biology that makes for an intriguing, but, for me, ultimately unconvincing argument for the existence and nature of God.

This book is decidedly Canadian, and makes every effort to express it, from the CityTV crew to the two CSIS operatives who arrive shortly after the crew sets up. CSIS lose control of the situation and afraid of causing a scene, are quickly shooed away by spectators. The Prime Minister even made an appearance: “Prime Minister Crétien did indeed come by the ROM to meet Hollus…And several journalists asked Crétien, for the record, to give his assurance that the alien would be allowed to continue his work unmolested – which was what the Maclean’s opinion poll said the Canadian people wanted. He did indeed give that assurance, although I suspected the CSIS operatives were always still around, lurking out of view”.3 Even outside of the blatantly obvious, Sawyer also mentions little things that only a native would be likely to recognize such as descriptions of specific subway stops, street names, griping about Mike Harris, and even the Octagon restaurant in Thornhill gets a mention. The familiarity of the sights and sounds mentioned are enough to put a smile on the face of any Torontonian.

Calculating God is a fun read, easily accessible to the lay person in both science and theology, very Canadian and often very funny.

  1. pg 13 []
  2. pg 16 []
  3. pg 61 []