[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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On Writing Calculating God

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Carl Sagan always struck me as the quintessential rationalist: a logical thinker, a debunker of pseudoscience, a moral man who was also an atheist. But, still, there was a hint of the metaphysical about him: he concluded his novel Contact by announcing "there is an intelligence that antedates the universe."

Of course, Contact was fiction, and Sagan was no more obligated to believe what he wrote there than George Lucas has an obligation to believe in the Force. Excepting what he said in Contact, Sagan did seem to be an unwavering atheist. And, yet, he died young, from a lingering disease, giving him plenty of time to contemplate his own mortality. Could he — or any rational person — really maintain a devotion to logic while facing his or her own death?

Calculating God (Tor, June 2000) is my exploration of that issue. I don't think its main human character, Tom Jericho, resembles Sagan much in personality (without dissing poor Carl, I think it's fair to say that Tom is a warmer and less arrogant man), but, like Sagan, he is a scientist, a clear thinker, a devotee of reason. And, again like Sagan, he knows he will die within a year. Jericho is a paleontologist, just 54 years old, who has terminal lung cancer, the result of having inhaled far too much mineral dust during his work.

Carl Sagan had always hoped for the receipt of an Encyclopedia Galactica — the scientific wisdom of advanced ETs, transmitted to us, and the rest of the universe, via radio. What wonders such a document might hold!

Tom Jericho receives alien knowledge, too, but in a different form. At the beginning of my novel, an alien mothership from Beta Hydri III arrives in Earth orbit. The beings aboard have advanced scientific knowledge, including what they take to be proof for the existence of God.

What would a Carl Sagan-like rationalist have done if the Encyclopedia Galactica asserted that the universe was indeed the handiwork of God? Tom Jericho faces a similar quandary: aliens, clearly more technologically advanced than humans are, show up on his doorstep, convinced that the universe is the product of intelligent design. The meat of Calculating God is the relationship that develops between Jericho and one of the aliens, a gentle, eight-limbed being named Hollus, during the last year of Jericho's life.

Like my previous work, Calculating God is a hard-SF novel: the science is carefully researched, and as we travel through the plot we explore issues in evolutionary biology, cosmology, quantum physics, astronomy, and biochemistry.

I think of Calculating God as a natural thematic completion of the cycle of otherwise unrelated novels that began with my 1995 Nebula Award-winner, The Terminal Experiment. That book dealt with the origin and ultimate fate of individual human beings; Frameshift (a Hugo finalist) dealt with the origin and ultimate fate of the human race; Starplex (a Hugo and Nebula finalist, and an Aurora Award winner) dealt with the origin and ultimate fate of the universe; and now Calculating God caps them all off with an exploration of whether science can ever answer the question of whether a God — an intelligent designer — exists.

Most writers pay little attention to their reviews, and I'm no exception. But one I particularly like was The Toronto Star's assessment of my previous novel, FlashForward (third on BN.com's list of 1999's best SF&F): "Sawyer compels us to think in a concrete way about concepts that we usually dismiss as being too metaphysical to grapple with. As he is clearly aware, the essence of science fiction isn't starships, robots or virtual reality, but a unique philosophical inquiry into the evolution of the human spirit." I like to think I've continued in that vein with Calculating God.

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