(originally posted on 5/15/12)
I tend to reread a lot of books, seeking the relative safety and comfort of stories I’ve already enjoyed and want to enjoy again. When it comes to picking up a new novel, I have a tendency to waver and balk at allowing myself to experience something different. I like the security in reading something I know for sure will entertain me more so than the unknown of picking up a book I know little about and giving it a go. That I’ve mostly had great experiences picking up new novels hasn’t seemed to remove that brief hesitation I experience every time I reach into my bookcase for that give-it-a-try book I bought some months ago and have yet to attempt.
That’s how I came to pick up Calculating God, by Robert J. Sawyer which had been on my reading list for some time. It’s a science fiction story focusing on an alien’s visit to Earth and his assertion that he and another alien race had proven the existence of God. It was a premise that caught my attention because the debate between science and religion interests me to no end. When you can find open minds on either side, it is a refreshing yet far too infrequent moment. There are many who believe that the two are perpetually disconnected. That to believe in one is as clear an indicator that you had no belief in the other. Calculating God does a very good job of both touching on this common sentiment and attacking it from either end. The story discusses the idea of God as an entity that is both above the laws of science and a part of it.
On the surface, I enjoyed this book a lot. It reminded me a lot of the novel Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. In that story, a man befriends a gorilla named Ishmael and they discuss the evolution of man as a means of understanding social and cultural issues stemming from his continued attempt to dominate the world. In Calculating God, our protagonist Thomas often has long conversations with his alien counterpart Hollus, dealing with evolution, the existence of God as we understand it, and man’s place in that existence. There is a lot of science in the book and it gives the story an air of credibility. Sawyer mixes his own speculations and ideas nearly flawlessly with the actual science and the result is a realistic and approachable story, based in part, on reality. (Some might say otherwise since the book opens with the line “I know, I know – it seemed crazy that the alien had come to Toronto…”)
All that said, I felt there were sections of the book that could have been stronger. The parts that dealt solely with Thomas’ personal life weren’t nearly as interesting as the parts to do with Hollus and the alien’s mission. But I guess that is understandable. The emotional parts were needed to create empathy for our main character, as a representative of the human race. Thomas acts as a surrogate to the reader, asking the philosophical questions we all might have yelled out to the heavens at one point in our own lives. If God exists, why then did He seem indifferent to the sufferings of his creations? Why does He allow things like terminal illness or famine to exist at all. That Thomas is himself suffering from illness, adds a depth to these questions and to his desire to find answers before he dies. My issue though was that the sections of the book that dealt primarily with Thomas and his family dragged in comparison to the parts of the book that dealt with the implications of the aliens’ discovery of proving God through science.
I want to explore more of Sawyer’s work, despite my inclination to go and reread Ender’s Game for the 100th time. I like to think that thanks to novels like Calculating God, my hesitation to read new books will eventually fade and I’ll get to fully enjoy the great work that is just waiting to be discovered.