Saturday, June 28

Calculating God - Robert J Sawyer

Tom Jericho is brought to the attention of the world when a spider-like alien who walked up to the main enterance of the Royal Ontario Museum and said "take me to a paleontologist." Tom, who is battling incurable cancer, already has a full plate but can't pass on this amazing opportunity to learn more about the universe. He discovers that Hollus is one of half a dozen ambassadors from a joint research mission between the Forhilnor (Hollus' race) and the Wreeds.
Although the purpose of their research is unclear, it has to do with the history of mass extinctions on Earth - extinctions matched in scale and timing on both other home worlds; this research, they believe, will confirm something both races already accept as self-evident - the existence of God and the intelligent design of the universe.
Sawyer's writing is brisk and involving, and he always manages to incorporate ideas that make me consider my own stance on deeper issues. In Calculating God he has created some interesting ideas, including a race of beings who have never developed mathematics (with a fairly plausible explanation) but who have an innate ability to ascertain the right moral stance (although this does, of course, prompt the question 'right for whom?'). He addresses the black and white stance of evolutionists and acknowledges that this is, to some extent, due to unwillingness to be seen to yield any ground to creationists.
Religion is one of the central themes, and throughout the novel we see Tom's journey from sceptic (verging on atheist) to believer, though the God he discovers is far from the benevolent, seeing-every-sparrow (and therefore cancer curing) God he wants to find.
I'm always excited to be exposed to new ideas, and one of the most interesting for me was the linguistic concepts articulated by evolutionary and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker (I've read some of his earlier popular work, like The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, and another of which is waiting patiently to be read) - Sawyer cites him as discussing consistency of metaphorical speech: arguments as battles (win, lose, attack, retreat, beat), ideas as food (something to chew on/over, delicious notion, bitter taste), and virtue as elevation (upstanding, sinking/stooping to low acts, high road, up to his standards, beneath me), which I had never before considered and now wonder about.
Much as I enjoy reading Sawyer's work, and certainly appreciate the added dimensions he incorporates, he does tend to have a somewhat black and white vision himself, at least in some areas. The only perspectives he depicts in the evolution vs creationism/intelligent design arena are intelligent but unyielding scientists and ignorant, Bible-bashing fundamentalists. I don't deny both personas exist, but there's also a vast middle ground that isn't acknowledged. And I'm not wholly convinced by his theology, but I'm interested. - Alex

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