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An Alien Walks into a Museum...
on 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.