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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 28 December 2011
An alien space shuttle lands in front of the Royal Ontario Museum and a large, spider-like alien climbs out. It negotiates the stairs and the front door and walks unhurriedly up to the information desk. In articulate, unaccented English, the alien asks to speak with a paleontologist. The security guard on duty directs the alien to the office of Tom Jericho, paleontologist. And so it begins...

The alien, Hollus, is from the crew of a spaceship traveling to several worlds in search of answers. Why are some habitable worlds empty, seemingly abandoned by races that once lived there? Why have massive "extinction events" occurred simultaneously in the histories of Earth and the home planet of the visiting aliens? Hollus looks for part of the answer in Earth's fossil record.

As they work together, Hollus and Tom learn about each other. To Tom's astonishment, Hollus believes firmly in God, persuaded by the "argument from design" accepted by many Earth theologians. There must be a creator because the universe seems so carefully designed. Tom and Hollus debate this issue while they work. This part of the book presents a balanced review of creationist versus evolutionist thought. Hollus's creationism is a scientific position, leaving the debate untainted by our society's social baggage. Tom's atheism is well-argued, and flavored with personal observations and admissions. The author plays fair by not giving the aliens any argument-trumping new knowledge supporting their views.

As the story nears its conclusion, the nature of God becomes a more immediate and personal issue. I won't spoil the plot by saying more.

I enjoyed the book immensely, and recommend it to fellow science fiction fans. It covers old ground in a new way, yielding feelings of familiarity blended with the joys of discovery. Do read it.

That said, I note two flaws. First, it seems that Tom and Hollus never address the basic question of what kind of God they are discussing. There is a difference between an abstract initial creator of the universe and a personal God who hears day-to-day prayers. This is touched upon by the book, but not in the initial discussions between Tom and Hollus. Clearly the author is aware of this distinction--why are his characters largely unaware of it?

Second, it seems that the careful standards of reasoning followed early in the book are loosened, if not abandoned later on. Tom and Hollus both make incredible leaps of deduction about unfolding events--and of course turn out to be largely correct. At each point there are alternative explanations which are not considered. This is not unheard-of in science fiction, but here is a striking contrast to the earlier tone of the book. There are no examples which are not spoilers, so readers will have to judge this observation after reading.

One final comment. I find some of Tom's decisions personally questionable. They suggest that one can use the excuse of "searching for God" to justify simply indulging one's curiosity to the point of irresponsibility. This is not a flaw in the story, but one way in which the author has--I believe intentionally--provoked reflection from a reader. Nicely done.
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on 11 October 2011
While Sawyer has a number of novels published, this is my first exposure to his work simply because it is a Nebula award-winner. He has been compared to Michael Crichton, of whom I'm not a great fan of even though I've read Congo and Andromeda Strain. On a similar note, there are Nebula award-winner books, too, which I didn't care very much for including The Lefthand of Darkness and Timescape. Yet, the bait lured for me on the back cover reeled me in, which read, "Take me to your paleontologist."

Initially, the reading is brisk as the story is entertaining in a way which, as far as I know, hasn't been explored before; that situation being the light-hearted approach to `first contact' with an alien species and its reciprocal nonchalant attitude to having the privilege of being so. So the first third of the book (roughly 110 pages) is fluffed up with this unique juxtaposition and the dialogue therein. All throughout the remainder of the novel is a hearty helping of, what feels like, the abridged best-of information grabbed from Science News magazines from the last two decades. This is all included in the dialogue between cancer-patient human Thomas Jericho and alien counterpart Hollus, so the scenes tend to be quite thick, which would satisfy most hard-sci-fi readers out there. Yet (and it's a big yet) the science and Creationism-vs.-Evolution debate takes center stage and also takes the limelight away from the alien-human relationship aspect of the novel., which I found extremely well written. Sawyer's exploration of the alien species, their language, their anatomy and their evolution of culture from these factors is gripping! Consider it on par, if not better, than the specifics on Motie anatomy and culture in Niven & Pournelle's Motie books.

This novel is caulked-full of good science fun and random bits of human science which I didn't even know about (even though I'm a keen follower of current science news and events [though still distancing myself from the geek crowd]). There are three points which really taint this book from a 5-star to a 4-star review. Firstly, there is a parallel story about two religious extremists who mindlessly wreak havoc according to their dogmatic agenda. These two characters are stereotypical and poorly explored as real people (which may actually be a projection of Sawyer's dislike of Creation supporters and religious conservatives). Secondly, there is no sense of time between the thirty-four chapters. As Thomas Jericho battles terminal cancer, we are left with little scope as to how much time is receded since the previous passage. Time gets muddled somewhere between his diagnosis, the alien first contact and the near-conclusion to the story. Lastly, there seems a loose connection between speculation and reality, whereas the hypotheses of the characters tend to become reality with the dawning of an epiphany. Events should work themselves out (or even up) rather than being thrust out onto pages for everyone to see. I prefer a bit of guesswork when it comes to solving mysteries in a novel!

One light-hearted note about the novel is that it's peppered (pretty appropriate word for it, actually) with near-millennial pop-culture references, science fiction trivia, extensive homage paid to the late Carl Sagan and facts surrounding the real Royal Ontario Museum. Amidst the debate about Creationism-vs.-Evolution, a scientific fact regurgitation (reminiscent of Crichton, as a matter of opinion) and loosely-glued-at-the-joints plot there lays a story which can be thoroughly enjoyed, if not cherished by most in the science fiction community.
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HALL OF FAMEon 17 February 2004
This is speculative fiction at its very best. Sawyer addresses fundamental questions with a clarity rarely approached by today's fiction writers. Why are there 'forces' in nature which exceed all logic? We've accepted gravity and electromagnetism for centuries. The strong and weak nuclear forces have been deduced. None of these forces truly make sense. They can be measured, but they can't be known. Atomic nuclei should fly apart and the issue of light as wave or particle remains unresolved. So why do these abnormal phenomena exist? Whell, it turns out that's what the Sprite used to make Nature work.
Sawyer has updated the old philosophy of Deism. Concerned by their inability to reconcile Biblical dogma with what was being observed in nature, 18th Century thinkers simply pushed the Judeo-Christian god further into the background. The god had wound up the clock of the universe, then sat back observing what transpired. Sawyer has adapted this idea to accommodate the findings of modern scientific revelations. It's an impressive achievement.
His research is visible on every page - either he has a stunning library, or owes a bag of money to the local public one. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Timothy Ferris are all here along with Gregory Paul and Earl Cox [Beyond Humanity - read it]. Even Terry Pratchett puts in an appearance. Sawyer's science is solid - it's clear he's no amateur. He doesn't have to make anything up - the realities of Nature are bizarre enough. He merely stirs in some fresh ideas about possible alien life forms and life styles. And what they might be like if the whole shebang was actually initiated by The Sprite instead of a random singularity.
There's some heavy irony and a few anomalies here. Occupational Health and Safety issues for a paleontologist? It used to be limited to rattlesnakes and mosquitoes. Jericho is facing the Great Mystery, but the issue of an afterlife remains unresolved. If The Goggle Box and radio broadcasts don't cover science well enough, why is Hollus a walking Cambridge Catalog of stellar bodies? The Wreeds and Forhilnors managed to escape a nuclear holocaust, but no mention is made of why they came so close. Do those two alien races have nations like on Earth? Jericho never thinks to ask Hollus for a universal translator of his own. He could have become President of the Earth. The Christian vandals at first appear to be a non-sequitur. They don't seem necessary in the story, but Sawyer has a subtle use for them. If humanity will become immortal and The Sprite really exists, paleontology will become irrelevant. It's an interesting prospect. These aren't flaws in the book, merely more thought experiments we should all consider performing in assessing real human values. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 26 May 2011
This is the first book of Sawyer's I have read and it won't be the last. Sawyer presents arguments in a very amusing way and I often wonder if the aliens in the novel are supposed to be so human!

The book does have it's downsides, it seems quite hurried in places and lacking for ideas. I would have liked to seen a bit more of God in action as it were (without wanting to give away spoliers), instead of the alien and human intellectual chin stroking. It's also a bit clumsy with some of the coincidences. However the plausiable is very much the point of this book.

My biggest complaint about this book was I would have liked it to have been deeper, a bit more philosophical perhaps - another couple of hundred of pages would have been wonderful! Not that any of this detracts from this being a good book... merely I was sad to come to the end as quickly as I did.

If you're into the philosophy of religion, evolution, and the kind of musings stoned and idle university students come up with - then this one is for you.

(Couldn't help but imagine the Canadians in the book as looking like the Canadians from Southpark!)
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on 20 December 2012
So the alien that lands outside the geology museum believes in God. The geologist with whom he wishes to do research (on epoch-ending events) isn't. Cue an enjoyable and unusual SF novel with fun characters and plenty to think about, especially the Anthropic Argument. There are shades of Olaf Stapledon in his cosmology, which is high praise.

I enjoyed this book. It's not four or five stars because the plotting gets creaky in places and I wondered if he'd been guilty either of some injudicious spicing up of the plot, or an editor had some made some not-so-good suggestions which he had enacted. But it's good fun, and would be a particularly good book to sit round with friends and discuss.
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on 22 May 2010
Robert Sawyer has a subtle humor, and maybe this book that shows this best. I like it very much, because humor and SF are not seen very often together. It starts with an alien landing on Earth who is not interested at all in talking to our "leaders", but just wants to talk to a paleontologist. The really funny thing however is that Sawyer takes arguments that are normally used to proof evolution theory and uses them to proof the existence of god. I guess that a professional geologist or paleontologist can show where his story is wrong, but if you are not one of them, then the story is quite intriguing. I don't think that the book is pro-creationism, as some reviewers do. The paleontologist does start to have doubts, but they are at least in part emotional and caused by his fatal illness.
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on 11 November 2005
So compelling are the ideas in this book that you find yourself almost wishing it were a true story! As someone else said, speculative science done very very well. Particularly exciting is the way he developed the alienc character, introducing the various gestures it uses that are equivalent to some of ours, and the history of it's planet and race. Wonderfully imaginative stuff.
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on 16 October 2000
In his previous novel, "Factoring Humanity", Sawyer expanded on the ideas of Roger Penrose - that conciousness is a quantum mechnical process. In that excellent story, aliens send the coded information to build an engine which allows the operator to visit the minds of others. In "Calculating God", the aliens take a far more direct route. They land in Canada (where else) and demand to be taken to a paleontologist. It's another modern and contentious idea which is then explored: that the devlopment of man and intelligence is not a result of evolution alone, but intervention through "a watchmaker". The aliens refer this intelligence as "God" much to the alarm of the sober scientists of 20th century Dawkinsian persuasion. The aliens appear in North America in order to determine if, as they suspect, the interventions (mass extinctions of big-dumb-animals like dinosaurs) happened at exactly the same time on many different worlds.
This anti-Darwinian view is widely debated in modern biology/physics. It's a nice dissasembly of recent thought on the origins of the universe and the possibilities of an ever present intelligence carrying-over ideas from before the big bang.
But, there are drawbacks: there's the now common attack-on-the-cute-alien-by-crazed-maniac-chapter, the simplistic prose which has been seen before, not to mention the unlikely academic lead characters who tend to save the world(s).
These don't offset the fact that this is important and philosophical sci-fi. Easy to read but with some really sophisticated ideas going on in the background.
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on 9 February 2014
I don't lightly give a one star review. I like sci fi, and even a flawed novel can be enjoyable. This book isn't just flawed, it is atrocious. It comprises a series of high school science lectures loosely held together with an unconvincing plot. Not only does the author fail to sustain any interest in his characters or what will happen to them, he seems constitutionally incapable or letting much happen in his book. Now, loose slow plots don't guarantee a boring book - but in this case they surely produce one. Do yourself a favour and find something else to read: this is by far the worst book I have come across in the last few years, and you might well feel the same way...
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on 27 April 2016
Excellent read - covers philosophy, science and humanity.
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