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That we live in a created universe is apparent to anyone with sufficient intelligence and information.
-Calculating God

A spider-like alien lands in Toronto and says: "Excuse me. I would like to see a paleontologist." Thus is Thomas Jericho, of the Royal Ontario Museum, embarked on an adventure that will bring him "face-to-face" with God, in a joyful science fiction tale that defies all of the anti-human, technophiliac, hard science trends that have been stifling the genre in recent years. For one thing, it's very amusing, especially the dry wit of the alien, Hollus:

"I have been studying your world; that is why I am here."

"You're an explorer?"

The eyestalks moved closer to each other, then held their position there. "Not exactly," said Hollus.

"Then what? You're not...you're not an invader are you?"

The eyestalks rippled in an S-shaped motion. Laughter? "No." And the two arms spread wide. "Forgive me, but you possess little my associates or I might desire." Hollus paused, as if thinking. Then he made a twirling gesture with one of his hands, as though motioning for me to turn around. "Of course, if you want, I could give you an anal probe..."

There were gasps from the small crowd that had assembled in the lobby. I tried to raise my nonexistent eyebrows.

Hollus's eyestalks did their S-ripple again. "Sorry--just kidding. You humans do have some crazy mythology about extraterrestrial visitations. Honestly, I will not hurt you--or your cattle, for that matter."

For another, both Tom and Hollus are fleshed out as full and interesting characters, unlike the rather cardboard figures of many a space opera. Moreover, they develop a genuine and touching friendship. By the end of the book we care about them both and have a vested interest in their fates.

Most of all though, it's the conceit of the novel that stands conventions on their collective head. Though I take it from various interviews that Mr. Sawyer is not particularly a religious believer, the story assumes that there is indeed a God and that a fair bit of "evolution" is his handiwork. Hollus, you see, has come to Earth to see if our geological and biological past bears a resemblance to that of his home world and a series of other inhabited systems that his people have explored:

"I am intrigued by mass extinctions as turning points in the evolution of life. What can you tell me about such things?"

I shrugged a little; that was a big topic. "There've been five mass extinctions in Earth's history that we know of. The first was at the end of the Ordovician, maybe 440 million years ago. The second was in the late Devonian, something like 365 million years ago. The third, and by far the largest, was at the end of the Permian, 225 million years ago."

Hollus moved his eyestalks so that his two eyes briefly touched, the crystalline coatings making a soft clicking sound as they did so. "Say" "more" "about" "that" "one."

"During it," I said, "perhaps ninety-six percent of all marine species disappeared, and three-quarters of all terrestrial vertebrate families died out. We had another mass extinction late in the Triassic Period, about 210 million years ago. We lost about a quarter of all families then, including all labyrinthodonts; it was probably crucial to the dinosaurs--creatures like that guy you're holding--coming into ascendancy." [...]

"You have not yet asked me where I am from."

I felt like an idiot. He was right, of course; that probably should have been my first question. "Sorry. Where are you from?"

"From the third planet of the star you call Beta Hydri." [...]

"There have also been five major mass extinctions in the history of my planet," said Hollus. "Our year is longer than yours, but if you express the dates in Earth years, they occurred at roughly 440 million, 365 million, 225 million, 210 million, and 65 million years ago."

I felt my jaw drop.

"And," continued Hollus, "Delta Pavonis II has also experienced five mass extinctions. Their year is a little shorter than yours, but if you express the dates of the extinctions in Earth years, they also occurred at approximately 440, 365, 225, 210, and 65 million years ago."

My head was swimming. It was hard enough talking to an alien, but an alien who was spouting nonsense was too much to take. "That can't be right," I said. "We know that the extinctions here were related to local phenomena. The end-of-the-Permian one was likely caused by a pole-to-pole glaciation, and the end-of-the-Cretaceous one seemed to be related to an impact of an asteroid from this solar system's own asteroid belt."

"We thought there were local explanations for the extinctions on our planet, too, and the Wreeds--our name for the sentient race of Delta Pavonis II--had explanations that seemed unique to their local circumstances, as well. It was a shock to discover that the dates of mass extinctions on our two worlds were the same. One or two of the five being similar could have been a coincidence, but all of them happening at the same time seemed impossible unless, of course, our earlier explanations for their causes were inaccurate or incomplete."

"And so you came here to determine if Earth's history coincides with yours?"

"In part," said Hollus. "And it appears that it does."

I shook my head. "I just don't see how that can be." [...]

"One reason is obvious," said Hollus. He moved sideways a few steps; perhaps he was getting tired of supporting his own weight, although I couldn't imagine what sort of chair he might use. "It could be that way because God wished it to be so."

As if such a premise wasn't politically incorrect enough in the broader literary world, it's darn near blasphemy in the sci-fi subculture. But that seems to have done nothing but liberate Mr. Sawyer and the novel he's written as a result has more fun, more challenging ideas and more humanity in it than a whole stack of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence driven cyber-thrillers.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    SF Writer: The ROBERT J. SAWYERY Web Site
    ROBERT J. SAWYER (Writers in Electronic Evidence, York U)
    Robert J. Sawyer - Bibliography Summary (SF Site)
    -ESSAY: The age of miracle and wonder (Canadian Authors on 2000, CBC)
    INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Robert J. Sawyer (Interview by Steven H Silver, July 2002, SF Site)
    INTERVIEW: Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer calculates the past and future of SF (Glover Wright, SF Weekly)
    INTERVIEW:  with Robert J. Sawyer (interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer, December 31, 1998 , Challenging Destiny)
   
Robert J. Sawyer (James Schellenberg)
    ARCHIVES: "Robert J. Sawyer" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Calculating God. By Robert J. Sawyer (Barry F. Seidman, Skeptical Inquirer)
    REVIEW: of Calculating God (James Schellenberg)

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