28 February 2009

Robert J. Sawyer's Calculating God (Tor, 2000)


As mentioned in my blog Mission Statement, I would like at some point to try writing science fiction and/or fantasy. Toward that end, I figured reading and analysing the works of successful SF&F authors might be helpful and instructive.

I start, then, with Robert J. Sawyer and his novel Calculating God (2000). I start with him primarily because, by his own and others’ admission, he is currently the most successful Canadian SF author and one of the most recognised SF authors in general. Chance, for the most part, brought me to Sawyer, yet I became truly curious when I stumbled upon his website –– specifically, his series of essays on writing and publishing advice. “What makes Sawyer tick? What makes him successful and an award nominee/winner?” I wondered.

So, my thoughts on Calculating God ….

I want to approach the novel in terms of its narrative structure, of its formal strategies. For me, the novel ultimately stumbles in these terms, though it does also offer some effective lessons in plot and character.

The good stuff first, then.

Sawyer’s opening hook is excellent; it immediately establishes interest in the story, the novel’s premise, and the main character (and narrator). The handling of scientific discussions and debates mostly through dialogue between Tom and Hollus, and from the intimacy of Tom’s personal meditations, makes them accessible and intriguing; moreover, Sawyer manages anthropology, paleontology, chemistry, biology, and astronomy with confidence, demonstrating the fruits of thorough research and giving the story a mostly strong foundation of plausibility. As well, the idea at the novel’s heart is provocative, engaging: i.e., the attempt to “calculate,” or prove scientifically, the existence and intentions of God, which Sawyer tackles mostly through theories of evolution. Finally, Tom Jericho offers the reader a complex and intriguing voice, and Jericho’s struggles with lung cancer are treated with pathos.

As a whole, however, the novel’s various pieces do not quite fit together comfortably.

A major problem, I feel, resides in an inconsistency of tone. The title and the cover image (a detail from Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling) promise a certain level of gravity and sophistication –– large questions of faith and science, of existence and creation. Such expectations, though, are undermined by off-key notes of humour, silliness, and caricature, elements that also at times trouble plausibility and suspension-of-disbelief.

Regarding humour, the interest established by Tom’s opening words (“I know, I know––it seemed crazy that the alien had come to Toronto” [1]) quickly gets troubled by the initial appearance and description of Hollus: “The alien sidled up to the blue-blazered security officer … and said, in perfect English, ‘Excuse me. I would like to see a paleontologist’” (4); “It tried again: from the left-front leg came the syllable ‘bon,’ and from the right-front came ‘jour’” (8); “‘Of course, if you want, I could give you an anal probe…’” (9). I admit that I smiled and laughed at the irony of the alien playing satirically with our conventions of alien visitors/invaders, and I was endeared to Hollus’ character, but on reflection the tone of Sawyer’s humour is out of step with the scale and profundity of the issues he wants to tackle. A kind of cuteness creeps into the novel here, with an alien sidling up to a counter and speaking out of two mouths in “perfect English” and then in French. Such cuteness seems to operate at cross-purposes in a novel speculating on first contact and the nature of God and creation and the universe, not to mention with the pathos of Jericho’s thoughts on his cancer, looming death, and wife and son.

Elements of silliness (for lack of a better word) also disrupt the expected gravity of the novel’s subject. The aliens themselves come close not just to implausibility but also to the ridiculous. Granted, from the perspective of evolutionary biology, perhaps also of imagination, who can say for certain what forms species from other planets (and hence other environmental stresses) might take. Yet six-legged spider-like aliens with two mouths (Forhilnors), or four-armed and headless aliens with 360-degree vision (Wreeds), become difficult at times to accept seriously. These are not the suitably horrifying Martians of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds or the believable gill-breathers of Murray Leinster’s “First Contact.” As well, the name of one of the alien species, “Wreeds,” plays uneasily in the novel, like an out-of-tune guitar string (this issue crops up again in the novel’s latter stages with “Wibadal,” the name for the hybrid creature begotten by the Betelgeuse entity).

The caricature comes in the subplot, with the white-trash, fundamentalist-Christian, pro-life abortion clinic bombers Cooter Falsey and J.D. Ewell. (More on the subplot below.) They are, in essence, an exaggeration of this type of person and of this ideology. I think Sawyer passes up an opportunity with these characters to explore the psychology and morality of the creationist, pro-life position in view of the scientific pursuit to prove God’s existence. Instead, Falsey and Ewell are simplistic, predictably violent and destructive, and thus more comical than truly frightening. As with the humour and silliness, then, the caricature of Falsey and Ewell produces an inconsistency in tone in the novel, a disjunction with the seriousness intimated by the title and cover image, and found in the erudite discussions of evolutionary theory and Jericho’s medical condition.

A second significant problem appears in the occasional shifts between 1st-person and 3rd-person narration, the latter tied specifically to the subplot involving Falsey and Ewell and two police officers who nearly catch them. I see this shifting between 1st- and 3rd-person narration a lot in recent SF, and it is usually awkward or disorienting, particularly because it occurs without a clear justification or rationale for doing so. (See, for instance, Neal Asher’s short story, “Alien Archaeology,” in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois [St. Martin’s, 2008]. An effective use of shifting the narrative perspective is Dan Simmons' Ilium/Olympos duology.) Calculating God lacks any such justification or rationale. The break from Jericho’s narration comes jarringly; the purpose of it appears mostly concerned with setting up dramatic irony and tension for Falsey and Ewell’s attack on the Burgess Shale fossils at the ROM. Here, I wonder why Sawyer did not stay with Jericho’s narration, perhaps fleshing out Falsey and Ewell’s background from newspaper stories, police reports, a CBC documentary, or the like. Doing so might also have given the subplot more credibility and strength.

In some respects, a related problem is continuity in Jericho’s narration. We get his narrative in retrospect: “It happened like this …” (1); “We hadn’t expected Hollus to show up for dinner in the flesh” (156); “the agony … had been growing worse, and I had been growing weaker” (334). Yet not only is Jericho in the process of dying from cancer during the bulk of the story, we learn right at the story’s close that he has died, which raises the question –– upon looking back –– of how and why we get his story, which Sawyer leaves thinly answered. Jericho says at his and the novel’s end, “I told Hollus to write down my final words and transmit them back to Earth … so that Ricky, or whoever was still there, would know what I’d said” (334). At this point, Jericho is near Betelgeuse, some 400-plus light years from earth and so some 400-plus years in the future from the story’s main events. I see this as a troubling of continuity because we spend so much time with Jericho’s personal, internal thoughts and impressions (“But I was exhausted by this point––absolutely bone weary” [280]), the intimacy of which becomes difficult to accept considering the novel’s final stages. Here, then, I think Calculating God needs a clearer rationale and a more plausible, innovative device for providing us Jericho’s 1st-person narration. We do learn, for example, that Jericho kept a thorough journal of his time and discussions with Hollus; we also learn, as just mentioned, that Jericho had Hollus record and transmit his last words from space. Thus, who, ultimately, put together Jericho’s journal entries and those last words? When was this done, and why? Perhaps a device such as a frame narrator, along with identifying and dating Jericho’s journal entries, would address these questions and alleviate the problem of continuity (see Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for a good example).

Considering the nature of these various structural and formal problems, I am struck by the mention of an editor (David G. Hartwell) in the novel’s publication data and by the novel’s nomination for a 2001 Hugo award (losing out to J.K. Rowling, though apparently garnering the most votes for an SF novel that year). While Sawyer does proffer an engaging hook and central idea, which he supports with accessible and at times fascinating discussions of evolutionary science, the novel’s missteps detract from the gravitas suggested, if not demanded, by the subject matter. I am left, in fact, uncertain as to the audience Sawyer envisioned for Calculating God. On the one hand, the hard-SF elements of the novel as well as Jericho himself (54 years old, dying of cancer) target, certainly, a relatively educated, likely adult reader; on the other hand, the discordant notes of humour, silliness, cuteness, and caricature somewhat “dumb down” the narrative, suggesting maybe a YA reader.

In the end, Sawyer’s novel teaches me much about pitfalls to avoid: inconsistency of tone; inconsistency of narrative perspective (or, at least, the lack of a good reason for switching between 1st- and 3rd-person narrative); an unclear or potentially implausible rationale for the narrative we are given; and, perhaps most significantly, biting off more than one’s abilities can successfully chew. If I set Neal Stephenson’s recent Anathem or Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos and Ilium/Olympos duology alongside Calculating God, their aesthetic, intellectual, and philosophical complexity and challenges overshadow Sawyer. Still, Sawyer’s skill with hooking the reader, developing a sympathetic and rounded character, and assured handling of intricate scientific ideas and debates are positives to take away from Calculating God.

Up next, another work by Sawyer: Hominids, the first novel of the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy ….


TSC said...

Whether you like the novel or not, Rob Sawyer is a generous guy. He actually agreed to critique a cover letter I wrote for one of my novels (unpublished, sadly). He did it for free and gave me some great advice.

His piece on the writing process, which is floating around the Internet, is also a good read.

Travel By Thought said...

His web site is definitely a treasure trove of material, especially his series of essays on writing and getting published. From what I know, he's also very active in the Canadian SF&F scene -- at conventions, with new writers, and the like. Moreover, he obviously loves what he does.

While I'm tough on Calculating God, it is overall an entertaining read. I can see why Sawyer does well. I just felt that in the end, the novel could have been ... more. :-)