Review: Calculating God

I thought this review was particularly timely, coming as it does on top of the WND article discussing the intriguing possibility that the speed of light is declining and the recent discussion here on the Anthropic Principle, (which, as always, devolved into a discussion of evolution). Then, too, the gratuitous slams on Canada bear mention. Dave’s review strikes me as overgenerous on the points considering his description, as the characterizations sounded a lot more like a 2/5 instead of 4/5, but then, I haven’t read the book.

Keep in mind that it is better if one does not describe the plot in a review. This review structure provides adequate information for someone to determine if they’re interested in the book or not without being walked through the events of the story. I’m interested in reviews, not synopses. There is a difference.

Calculating God

Robert J. Sawyer

Rating: 8.5 of 10

Review by:
Dave Munger

The theological science fiction novel “Calculating God” could easily get lost in the recent bumper crop of grandiose eschatological epics with authors who have been compared to Arthur C. Clarke and protagonists dying of cancer. You know, that whole Greggory Benford, Steven Baxter sub-genre that one now finds filling the SF book racks in grocery stores, between authorized biographies of Chewbacca and “The Eco-Feminist Elves Of Shanana”. This would be a shame, since Robert J. Sawyer has written a book much more worthy of your time than most SF available at grocery stores (that’s where I bought it).

“Calculating God” has much to recommend it. I was personally charmed by an extraterrestrial character with religious views superficially similar to my own (God created the universe and life; People do not have immortal souls). This alien, named Hollus, speaks something like the magnificent Dr. Hugh Ross, although the Bible is not taken at all seriously by anyone in this book. There are enough pop-culture references to thoroughly satisfy whatever perverse appetite it is that makes people find this enjoyable, without being gratuitous or grating. Each belongs where it is placed, and furthers the story. Although the phrase “a novel of ideas” is quickly becoming the SF version of the cinematic designation “psychological thriller”, here it is quite fitting.

There are problems though, oh are there problems. For one thing, “Calculating God” is unremittingly Canadian throughout, which lends a slightly queasy “For Better or Worse” quality to the whole, and leads to several particularly sickening scenes. The stomach-churningly Episcopalian ethics of our chicken-boiling brethren are trotted out once in awhile and called “morality” (I’m not accusing Canadians of being Episcopalian, it’s just that they both sicken me similarly). The hero’s physician is incredibly smug about the cheap drugs Canadians have access to as a result of attaching their system lamprey-like to ours and letting our terrible Capitalistic health-care machine absorb all the R&D costs.

The worst flaw in the novel (if one does not consider the title and premise to be heinous blasphemies, that is), is a crappy, bigoted, unnecessary subplot. Ironically, it is the utter irrelevance of this part of the book that keeps it from ruining the whole. It is as if the main body of the story is an entirely separate book, like a beautiful young woman shacked up with a toothless, misogynistic, ass-fiend. You could edit it out yourself with a black magic marker, and significantly improve the storyline.

“Calculating God” has something in it for anyone who enjoyed “A Brief History Of Time” or any science fiction stories. In a period and a field in which Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a novel as a short story padded seems particularly apropos, Sawyer has written a novel that could only have been presented in this form. You are expected to purchase it, read it, and discuss it amongst yourselves.

Story: 3.5 of 5. The rating in this category would be much closer to five if it weren’t for The Bad Part. The protagonist does make a fairly wild surmise about the nature of life in the universe, which turns out, incredibly, to be right. It’s quickly accepted as fact, without even being modified. This is probably necessary though, as the novel could have otherwise gone off on an overly realistic tangent, like the first five or so chapters of any novel written by an astronomer, and ended up a third longer. The story really delivers though, especially after the cardboard villains die, and all life in this part of the galaxy is nearly wiped out.

Style: 4.5 of 5. Oddly realistic. Interstellar travel is subject to the constraints of General Relativity, and no laws of physics are bent beyond credulity. The fifth force introduced by the Forhilnors sounds a lot like Einstein’s cosmological constant, or for that matter, something I saw seriously postulated in a popular science magazine other than Popular Science a few months ago. This reader does not know his multiplication tables, and at no place did the science loose me. A much quicker read that the subject matter would seem to indicate.

Characters: 4 of 5. If you like Spock you will like Hollus. If you do not like Spock, you are probably way too picky about characterization of extraterrestrials. If you like any other Star Trek characters, you are obligated to like all fictional characters, period. If you can stand Canadians, you will be able to stand Tom Jericho. There is some question in my mind as to whether or not the most poorly written characters should even count, as they are confined to the part of the book that I have wished into the cornfield. Other than them, there was no one in this book that I wanted to see killed, even though many of them do belong to groups which I’m afraid I will have to have liquidated when I come to power. This indicates that this reader was reached on some real human level that most authors fail to reach me at.

Creativity: 5 of 5. I was tempted to get cute here and give it seven out of five, or something like that. You will never forget this book. You will not ever confuse it with some other novel. You may very well find yourself paraphrasing it in philosophical discussions a decade after you read it. One could easily be moved to wax Levar Burton about how books like this are magical spaceships of imagination that transport you over astonishing rainbows of delight. I am totally unable to describe this book as a cross between two previous books. That’s becoming a rare distinction.

Text sample:

I shook my head in wonder. “I can’t think of any reason why evolutionary history should be similar on multiple worlds.”

“One reason is obvious,” said Hollus. He moved sideways a few steps; perhaps he was getting tired of supporting his own weight, although I couldn’t imagine what sort of chair he might use. “It could be that way because God wished it to be so.”

For some reason, I was surprised to hear the alien talking like that. Most of the scientists I know are either atheists or keep their religion to themselves — and Hollus had indeed said he was a scientist.

“That’s one explanation,” I said quietly.

“It is the most sensible. Do humans not subscribe to a principle that says the simplest explanation is the most preferable?”

I nodded. “We call it Occam’s razor.”

“The explanation that it was God’s will posits one cause for all the mass extinctions; that makes it preferable.”

“Well, I suppose, if . . .” — dammitall, I know I should have just been polite, just nodded and smiled, the way I do when the occasional religious nut accosts me in the Dinosaur Gallery and demands to know how Noah’s flood fits in, but I felt I had to speak up — “… if you believe in God.”

Hollus’s eyestalks moved to what seemed to be their maximal extent, as if he was regarding me from both sides simultaneously. “Are you the most senior paleontologist at this institution?” he asked.

“I’m the department head, yes.”

“There is no paleontologist with more experience?”

I frowned. “Well, there’s Jonesy, the senior invertebrate curator. He’s damn near as old as some of his specimens.”

“Perhaps I should speak with him.”

“If you like. But what’s wrong?”

“I know from your television that there is much ambivalence about God in this part of your planet, at least among the general public, but I am surprised to hear that someone in your position is not personally convinced of the existence of the creator.”

“Well, then, Jonesy’s not your man; he’s on the board of CSICOP.”

“Sky cop?”

“The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He definitely doesn’t believe in God.”

“I am stunned,” said Hollus, and his eyes turned away from me, examining the posters on my office wall — a Gurche, a Czerkas, and two Kishes.

“We tend to consider religion a personal matter,” I said gently. “The very nature of faith is that one cannot be factually sure about it.”

“I do not speak of matters of faith,” said Hollus, turning his eyes back toward me. “Rather, I speak of verifiable scientific fact. That we live in a created universe is apparent to anyone with sufficient intelligence and information.”

I wasn’t really offended, but I was surprised; previously, I’d only heard similar comments from so-called creation scientists. “You’ll find many religious people here at the ROM,” I said. “Raghubir, whom you met down in the lobby, for instance. But even he wouldn’t say that the existence of God is a scientific fact.”

“Then it will fall to me to educate you in this,” said Hollus.

Oh, joy. “If you think it’s necessary.”

“It is if you are to help me in my work. My opinion is not a minority one; the existence of God is a fundamental part of the science of both Beta Hydri and Delta Pavonis.”

“Many humans believe that such questions are outside the scope of science.”

Hollus regarded me again, as if I were failing some test. “Nothing is outside the scope of science,” he said firmly — a position I did not, in fact, disagree with. But we rapidly parted company again: “The primary goal of modern science,” he continued, “is to discover why God has behaved as he has and to determine his methods. We do not believe — what is the term you use? — we do not believe that he simply waves his hands and wishes things into existence. We live in a universe of physics, and he must have used quantifiable physical processes to accomplish his ends. If he has indeed been guiding the broad strokes of evolution on at least three worlds, then we must ask how? And why? What is he trying to accomplish?”

Of madmen and medications

From Capital Hill Blue:

President George W. Bush is taking powerful anti-depressant drugs to control his erratic behavior, depression and paranoia, Capitol Hill Blue has learned. The prescription drugs, administered by Col. Richard J. Tubb, the White House physician, can impair the President’s mental faculties and decrease both his physical capabilities and his ability to respond to a crisis, administration aides admit privately.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says one aide. “We can’t have him flying off the handle at the slightest provocation but we also need a President who is alert mentally.”

Tubb prescribed the anti-depressants after a clearly-upset Bush stormed off stage on July 8, refusing to answer reporters’ questions about his relationship with indicted Enron executive Kenneth J. Lay. “Keep those motherfuckers away from me,” he screamed at an aide backstage. “If you can’t, I’ll find someone who can.”

Bush’s mental stability has become the topic of Washington whispers in recent months. Capitol Hill Blue first reported on June 4 about increasing concern among White House aides over the President’s wide mood swings and obscene outbursts.

This sounds rather like a piece from The Onion, doesn’t it? Even so, I will say that if it is true that the President is on anti-depressants, no one in their right mind should vote for him. As far-fetched as this report sounds, it might explain why the President is waging such a feeble and haphazard reelection campaign. Kerry lobs him one softball after another, and yet he repeatedly fails to swing.

Political porn

The Red Star waxes feverish:

For an hour Thursday night, Sen. John Kerry got to speak directly to the American people, unfiltered by the carping punditocracy, the Republican smear machine and Fox News. From this perspective, what the American people saw was a smart, serious and compassionate man. Kerry came across as a real human being — a man of integrity who believes deeply in the promise of America and seeks to steer the nation to a more secure, more prosperous future.

But the American people saw something else as well Thursday evening: This is not just about John Kerry; this is about an entire Democratic Party that refuses to be marginalized, refuses to cede the American flag, religious faith and the badge of patriotism to Republicans. They made it clear: They care about this nation, and they intend that their voices be heard and heeded in setting a new American course.

I have the impression that the Star and Sickle’s editorial board watched the Democratic Convention with their collective pants down around their ankles. The very idea that the “real human being” is going to be exposed in the fraudulent charade of spin and image-construction that is a political convention is nonsensical; it’s utterly absurd.

The only religions that Democrats respect are secular humanism and Islam, they’d rather burn the flag than salute it, and they’re far more patriotic about the United Nations than they are about the United States. That new American course they want to set? The nation as a subordinate member state in a sovereign global government.

The bigger problem, of course, is that the Republican leadership has signed onto the same program.

Mailvox: why LP over CP

RK has a familiar question:

It’s refreshing to hear a Christian Libertarian’s viewpoints. I did not previously think the two could overlap quite so well.You have mentioned your disagreements with the Libertarian Party’s stance on abortion and immigration. In past articles and blogs, you mentioned the Constitution Party as another valid alternative to the Republ-ocrat hegemony. My question is: Why have you chosen Libertarian over Constitution (Party)? It seems to me that your social views align more closely with the Constitution Party’s. I must disclose that I am a Constitution Party member, but have strong LP leanings. I made my decision to leave the Republican Party around the time I found your articles on WND.

While I respect both parties and enthusiastically endorse both over either of the ruling party’s factions, the Libertarian Party is far more to my liking despite its two major flaws. While I disagree with the reasoning that led to anti-libertarian positions on abortion and immigration, I understand it and consider the positions to be both reasonable and honest, if mistaken.

The Constitution Party’s position on the War on Drugs, on the other hand, is not only wrong-headed, but completely contradictory to its theoretical raison d’etre. This is the result of an ideological approach based on making a fetish of the Constitution as opposed to an intellectual approach based on limiting the depradations of government. In the long term, I expect the Constitution Party will likely be more amenable to the same compromises and rationalizations that have made a mockery of republican ideals in the Republican Party.

Ideally, I’d like to see a compromise wherein the Libertarians would abjure abortion and the Constitution Party would abandon the War on Drugs and seek a stronger intellectual basis for its constitutionalism.

Clitorectomies for all the girls

I happened to scan a few pages of a chick book the other day. It’s called Princess, and it purports to be the true story of a Saudi Arabian princess. I have to say, I was largely left cold by the plight of the poor oppressed rich girls, as with a few exceptions, the most horrific events of the book were the predictable and easily avoidable consequences of the young women’s actions. And after the eponymous princess destroyed an Impressionist masterpiece in one of her childish tirades, I found myself rather hoping she’d meet with an end similar to those of her reality-challenged friends.

When in Rome, you don’t have to do as the Romans do, but it’s generally a good idea to obey Roman law if you aren’t prepared to experience the consequences.

But all of this is neither here nor there. What actually caught my attention – and so we finally meander towards the purpose of this post – was the attitude of the Saudi women to what appear to not so much be clitorectomies as removal of the external labia.

For more generations than Nura knew, a large number of the women of our family had been circumcised. Our mother was one of these women. She had been circumcised when she became a woman, a few weeks before she was wed. At age fourteen, when Nura became a woman, Mother followed the only tradition she knew and arranged for Nura’s circumcision to be performed in a small village some miles from Riyadh….

To the doctor’s surprise, it was my mother who had insisted upono the circumcision of her daughters. She herself had endured the rite… she could imagine no other path for her daughters than the one she herself had trod….

A disgusting practice, to be sure, and defended with an argument similar to that made by public school-educated parents who are planning to subject their children to the same education they experienced. The fact that these parents are as intellectually dead as the Saudi women are sensually crippled means that they are making their decisions on the false grounds of incomplete experience. In both cases, I think those who condemn their children to like fates have much for which to answer, as one’s own abuse, physical or intellectual, should inspire one to act to prevent the same from happening to the next generation instead of allowing the vicious cycle to be repeated.

When one understands that the teachers of the NEA are every bit as ignorant and prejudiced as the mutawas of Saudi Arabia, and that they serve much the same societal purpose, one soon discovers in oneself as little inclination to hand one’s children over to the former as to the latter.

A belated response

As many of you know, I consider the Libertarian Party’s official position on abortion to be deeply flawed and anti-libertarian, if nevertheless superior to the Democratic and Republican realities. (I freely admit that the Republican platform is better, but their failure to pay any heed to their platform is one reason I left the party in the first place.)

A few weeks ago, the Pan-Gargler challenged me to consider my views on immigration in light of the Libertarian Party’s support of open borders, which is functionally equivalent to the de facto Democratic and Republican positions. I neither forgot nor backed down from that challenge, I merely required some time to think about a subject to which I had never devoted any substantial thought.

In any case, I have now reached my conclusions, and you can read them on Monday. In light of last week’s column, I did not wish for anyone to think that I was, like Brave Sir William, wont to duck a challenge.

Electile dysfunction

I went over the text of Kerry’s speech. All it proved, in my opinion, is that if the American people are foolish enough to vote for this man, (or for his primary opponent, for that matter), they will deserve precisely what they get.

John Kerry is an astoundingly dishonest man whose ultimate goal is to be the same sort of symbolic tool that George Bush is by birthright. George Bush at least has the lineage and so has done only what was expected of him, while Kerry has enthusiastically sold his soul to reach the same point of usefulness to the PTBs. Useful enough to be given the reins in November? It is increasingly beginning to look that way.

We always value that which we acquire more than that which comes to us naturally.

The secret of GDP growth

From Elliott Wave International:

For many years, the credit-card industry wanted you to be able to use your plastic to buy your burger and fries at the drive-through. But the fast-food industry always politely said “no way,” since its business depends on how quickly their servers get you in and out. Making cashiers punch card numbers and hand you slips of paper to sign is no way to shave seconds off the average wait time per customer.

Yet the card industry was willing to bargain. It offered to waive the signature requirement and even to reduce the transaction fees for fast-food merchants. That’s enticing, but if you’re wondering why McDonald’s Corp. really agreed this past March to accept cards throughout its restaurant chain, you needn’t wonder any more:

“McDonald’s found the average transaction jumped from $4.50 to $7 when customers used debit and credit cards instead of cash,” according to a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal.

I wonder how much of the increase of the C component of GDP can be accounted for by that plastic effect. It’s no secret that debt has been funding our GDP expansion – it’s almost all G, which is always debt hence the imminent raising of the debt ceiling again – but it’s factored into C as well.

These levels of debt have never ended well in the past. I still wonder what is so new and different about computers and Greenspans “productivity miracle” leads adults to think it will be any different this time. I wonder just how low the NASDAQ has to go before people will start to wise up.

Freak like John

The Fraters Libertas pull no punches:

Now take a listen to retired Navy Captain, Charlie Plumly, who had Kerry, “under my command for two or three specific operations before his rapid exit.”

Plumly is even less charitable to your new bud than the admiral. His quotes on Kerry’s service include these colorful expressions, “Devious, self-absorbing, manipulative, disdain for authority, disruptive.”

And then he gives us this little jewel, “But the most common phrase would have been requires constant supervision.”

Apparently Plumly must have let him off his leash, as John Francois managed to film his Homeric epic, where, like wrathful Achilles, he descended upon the banks of the River Min-ko to wreak havoc and death upon the multitudinous foe.

Kerry is clearly a creepy self-promoter of the sort to put even Bill O’Reilly to shame, but that being said, I don’t doubt that his Vietnamiad made for a better film than Brad Pitt’s Troy. I carry no water for Bush, but it astounds me that even a single true-believing, mouth-breathing Democrat would embrace this phony. Howard Dean was a Leftist lunatic, but he was an honest Leftist lunatic. If Kerry had been a Texan, I have no doubt that he’d be a loud and proud Republican.

For Pete’s sake, even Doonesbury saw through this guy decades ago. Fortunately, as we learned with Clinton, those who seek power for its own sake seldom have any particular notion of what to do with it. It’s those who see it as a means instead of an end, like Lenin or Mao, that you really have to worry about.

Sheer marketing genius

From CNN/SI:

The Charlotte Bobcats and WNBA Sting are entering a partnership with the YMCA of Greater Charlotte to provide a number of promotional and educational initiatives. The Sting also announced that since its name no longer makes sense with the departure of the Hornets to New Orleans, the franchise will be renamed the Charlotte Bites.

Yeah, working closely with the YMCA should help convince everyone that the WNBA isn’t a bastion of freakishly tall homosexuals. Maybe they can get the Village People to do their new theme song if the Indigo Girls are busy. If there was ever any doubt that the number of individuals with their wires crossed in the population is nowhere near the 10 percent reported by Kinsley, it is the total failure of the WNBA. The WNBA has been embraced more fervently by lesbians than anything since the invention of the vibrator, but despite their enthusiasm and the nonstop advertisements crammed down a hostile NBA audience’s throat, it remains in its own weird little quasi-sporting ghetto with an average attendance less than 60 percent of that of US sporting powerhouse, Major League Soccer.