An alien shuttle craft lands outside the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. A six-legged, two-armed alien emerges, who says, in perfect English, "Take me to a paleontologist."
It seems that Earth, and the alien's home planet, and the home planet of another alien species traveling on the alien mother ship, all experienced the same five cataclysmic events at about the same time (one example of these "cataclysmic events" would be the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs). Both alien races believe this proves the existence of God: i.e. he's obviously been playing with the evolution of life on each of these planets.
From this provocative launch point, Sawyer tells a fast-paced, and morally and intellectually challenging, SF story that just grows larger and larger in scope. The evidence of God's universal existence is not universally well received on Earth, nor even immediately believed. And it reveals nothing of God's nature. In fact. it poses more questions than it answers.
When a supernova explodes out in the galaxy but close enough to wipe out life on all three home-worlds, the big question is, Will God intervene or is this the sixth cataclysm:?
Calculating God is SF on the grand scale.
Calculating God is a 2001 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel.
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By Sawyer, Robert J.
Tor Science FictionCopyright © 2001 Sawyer, Robert J.
All right reserved.
I know, I know--it seemed crazy that the alien had come to Toronto. Sure, the city is popular with tourists, but you'd think a being from another world would head for the United Nations--or maybe to Washington. Didn't Klaatu go to Washington in Robert Wise's movie The Day the Earth Stood Still?
Of course, one might also think it's crazy that the same director who did West Side Story would have made a good science-fiction flick. Actually, now that I think about it, Wise directed three SF films, each more stolid than its predecessor.
But I digress. I do that a lot lately--you'll have to forgive me. And, no, I'm not going senile; I'm only fifty-four, for God's sake. But the pain sometimes makes it hard to concentrate.
I was talking about the alien.
And why he came to Toronto.
It happened like this...
* * *
The alien's shuttle landed out front of what used to be the McLaughlin Planetarium, which is right next door to the Royal Ontario Museum, where I work. I say it used to be the planetarium because Mike Harris, Ontario's tight-fisted premier, cut the funding to the planetarium. He figured Canadian kids didn't have to know about space--a real forward-thinking type, Harris. After he closed the planetarium, the building was rented out for a commercial Star Trek exhibit, with a mockup of the classic bridge set inside what had been the startheater. As much as I like Star Trek, I can't think of a sadder comment on Canadian educational priorities. A variety of other private-sector concerns had subsequently rented the space, but it was currently empty.
Actually, although it was perhaps reasonable for an alien to visit a planetarium, it turned out he really wanted to go to the museum. A good thing, too: imagine how silly Canada would have looked if first contact were made on our soil, but when the extraterrestrial ambassador knocked on the door, no one was home. The planetarium, with its white dome like a giant igloo, is set well back from the street, so there's a big concrete area in front of it--perfect, apparently, for landing a small shuttle.
Now, I didn't see the landing firsthand, even though I was right next door. But four people--three tourists and a local--did get it on video, and you could catch it endlessly on TV around the world for days afterward. The ship was a narrow wedge, like the slice of cake someone takes when they're pretending to be on a diet. It was solid black, had no visible exhaust, and had dropped silently from the sky.
The vessel was maybe thirty feet long. (Yeah, I know, I know--Canada's a metric country, but I was born in 1946. I don't think anyone of my generation--even a scientist, like me--ever became comfortable with the metric system; I'll try to do better, though.) Rather than being covered with robot puke, like just about every spaceship in every movie since Star Wars, the landing craft's hull was completely smooth. No sooner had the ship set down than a door opened in its side. The door was rectangular, but wider than it was tall. And it opened by sliding up--an immediate clue that the occupant probably wasn't human; humans rarely make doors like that because of our vulnerable heads.
Seconds later, out came the alien. It looked like a giant, golden-brown spider, with a spherical body about the size of a large beach ball and legs that splayed out in all directions.
A blue Ford Taurus rear-ended a maroon Mercedes-Benz out front of the planetarium as their drivers gawked at the spectacle. Many people were walking by, but they seemed more dumbfounded than terrified--although a few did run down the stairs into Museum subway station, which has two exits in front of the planetarium.
The giant spider walked the short distance to the museum; the planetarium had been a division of the ROM, and so the two buildings are joined by an elevated walkway between their second floors, but an alley separates them at street level. The museum was erected in 1914, long before anyone thought about accessibility issues. There were nine wide steps leading up to the six main glass doors; a wheelchair ramp had been added only much later. The alien stopped for a moment, apparently trying to decide which method to use. It settled on the stairs; the railings on the ramp were a bit close together, given the way its legs stuck out.
At the top of the stairs, the alien was again briefly flummoxed. It probably lived in a typical sci-fi world, full of doors that slid aside automatically. It was now facing the row of exterior glass doors; they pull open, using tubular handles, but he didn't seem to comprehend that. But within seconds of his arrival, a kid came out, oblivious to what was going on at first, but letting out a startled yelp when he saw the extraterrestrial. The alien calmly caught the open door with one of its limbs--it used six of them for walking, and two adjacent ones as arms--and managed to squeeze through into the vestibule. A second wall of glass doors faced him a short distance ahead; this air-lock-like gap helped the museum control its interior temperature. Now savvy in the ways of terrestrial doors, the alien pulled one of the inner ones open and then scuttled into the Rotunda, the museum's large, octagonal lobby; it was such a symbol of the ROM that our quarterly members magazine was called Rotunda in its honor.
On the left side of the Rotunda was the Garfield Weston Ex
hibition Hall, used for special displays; it currently housed the Burgess Shale show I'd helped put together. The world's two best collections of Burgess Shale fossils were here at the ROM and at the Smithsonian; neither institution normally had them out for the public to see, though. I'd arranged for a temporary pooling of both collections to be exhibited first here, then in Washington.
The wing of the museum to the right of the Rotunda used to contain our late, lamented Geology Gallery, but it now held gift shops and a Druxy's deli--one of many sacrifices the ROM had made under Christine Dorati's administration to becoming an "attraction."
Anyway, the creature moved quickly to the far side of the Rotunda, in between the admissions desk and the membership-services counter. Now, I didn't see this part firsthand, either, but the whole thing was recorded by a security camera, which is good because no one would have believed it otherwise. The alien sidled up to the blue-blazered security officer--Raghubir, a grizzled but genial Sikh who'd been with the ROM forever--and said, in perfect English, "Excuse me. I would like to see a paleontologist."
Raghubir's brown eyes went wide, but he quickly relaxed. He later said he figured it was a joke. Lots of movies are made in Toronto, and, for some reason, an enormous number of science-fiction TV series, including over the years such fare as Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict, Ray Bradbury Theater, and the revived Twilight Zone. He assumed this was some guy in costume or an animatronic prop. "What kind of paleontologist?" he said, deadpan, going along with the bit.
The alien's spherical torso bobbed once. "A pleasant one, I suppose."
On the video, you can see old Raghubir trying without complete success to suppress a grin. "I mean, do you want an invertebrate or a vertebrate?"
"Are not all your paleontologists humans?" asked the alien. He had a strange way of talking, but I'll get to that. "Would they not therefore all be vertebrates?"
I swear to God, this is all on tape.
"Of course, they're all human," said Raghubir. A small crowd of visitors had gathered, and although the camera didn't show it, apparently a number of people were looking down onto the Rotunda's polished marble floor from the indoor balconies one level up. "But some specialize in vertebrate fossils and some in invertebrates."
"Oh," said the alien. "An artificial distinction, it seems to me. Either will do."
Raghubir lifted a telephone handset and dialed my extension. Over in the Curatorial Centre, hidden behind the appalling new Inco Limited Gallery of Earth Sciences--the quintessential expression of Christine's vision for the ROM--I picked up my phone. "Jericho," I said.
"Dr. Jericho," said Raghubir's voice, with its distinctive accent, "there's somebody here to see you."
Now, getting to see a paleontologist isn't like getting to see the CEO of a Fortune 500; sure, we'd rather you made an appointment, but we are civil servants--we work for the taxpayers. Still: "Who is it?"
Raghubir paused. "I think you'll want to come and see for yourself, Dr. Jericho."
Well, the Troödon skull that Phil Currie had sent over from the Tyrrell had waited patiently for seventy million years; it could wait a little longer. "I'll be right there." I left my office and made my way down the elevator, past the Inco Gallery--God, how I hate that thing, with its insulting cartoon murals, giant fake volcano, and trembling floors--through the Currelly Gallery, out into the Rotunda, and--
I stopped dead in my tracks.
Raghubir might not know the difference between real flesh and blood and a rubber suit, but I do. The thing now standing patiently next to the admissions desk was, without doubt, an authentic biological entity. There was no question in my mind whatsoever. It was a lifeform--
And I had studied life on Earth since its beginnings, deep in the Precambrian. I'd often seen fossils that represented new species or new genera, but I'd never seen any large-scale animal that represented a whole new phylum.
The creature was absolutely a lifeform, and, just as absolutely, it had not evolved on Earth.
I said earlier that it looked like a big spider; that was the way the people on the sidewalk had first described it. But it was more complex than that. Despite the superficial resemblance to an arachnid, the alien apparently had an internal skeleton. Its limbs were covered with bubbly skin over bulging muscle; these weren't the spindly exoskeletal legs of an arthropod.
But every modern Earthly vertebrate has four limbs (or, as with snakes and whales, had evolved from a creature that did), and each limb terminates in no more than five digits. This being's ancestors had clearly arisen in another ocean, on another world: it had eight limbs, arranged radially around a central body, and two of the eight had specialized to serve as hands, ending in six triple-joined fingers.
My heart was pounding and I was having trouble breathing.
And, without doubt, an intelligent alien. The creature's spherical body was hidden by clothing--what seemed to be a single long strip of bright blue fabric, wrapped repeatedly around the torso, each winding of it going between two different limbs, allowing the extremities to stick out. The cloth was fastened between the arms by a jeweled disk. I've never liked wearing neckties, but I'd grown used to tying them and could now do so without looking in a mirror (which was just as well, these days); the alien probably found donning the cloth no more difficult each morning.
Also projecting from gaps in the cloth were two narrow tentacles that ended in what might be eyes--iridescent balls, each covered by what looked to be a hard, crystalline coating. These stalks weaved slowly back and forth, moving closer together, then farther apart. I wondered what the creature's depth perception might be like without a fixed distance between its two eyeballs.
The alien didn't seem the least bit alarmed by the presence of me or the other people in the Rotunda, although its torso was bobbing up and down slightly in what I hoped wasn't a territorial display. Indeed, it was almost hypnotic: the torso slowly lifting and dropping as the six legs flexed and relaxed, and the eyestalks drifting together, then apart. I hadn't seen the video of the creature's exchange with Raghubir yet; I thought that perhaps the dance was an attempt at communication--a language of body movements. I considered flexing my own knees and even, in a trick I'd mastered at summer camp forty-odd years ago, crossing and uncrossing my eyes. But the security cameras were on us both; if my guess was wrong, I'd look like an idiot on news programs around the world. Still, I needed to try something. I raised my right hand, palm out, in a salute of greeting.
The creature immediately copied the gesture, bending an arm at one of its two joints and splaying out the six digits at the end of it. And then something incredible happened. A vertical slit opened on the
upper segment of each of the two front-most legs, and from the slit on the left came the syllable "hell" and from the one on the right, in a slightly deeper voice, came the syllable "oh."
I felt my jaw dropping, and a moment later my hand dropped as well.
The alien continued to bob with its torso and weave with its eyes. It tried again: from the left-front leg came the syllable " bon," and from the right-front came " jour."
That was a reasonable guess. Much of the museum's signage is bilingual, both English and French. I shook my head slightly in disbelief, then began to open my mouth--not that I had any idea what I would say--but closed it when the creature spoke once more. The syllables alternated again between the left mouth and the right one, like the ball in a Ping-Pong match: " Auf" "Wie" "der" "sehen."
And suddenly words did tumble out of me: "Actually, auf Wiedersehen means goodbye, not hello."
"Oh," said the alien. It lifted two of its other legs in what might have been a shrug, then continued on in syllables bouncing left and right. "Well, German is not my first language."
I was too surprised to laugh, but I did feel myself relaxing, at least a little, although my heart still felt as though it were going to burst through my chest. "You're an alien," I said. Ten years of university to become Master of the Bleeding Obvious...
"That is correct," said the leg-mouths. The being's voices sounded masculine, although only the right one was truly bass. "But why be generic? My race is called Forhilnor, and my personal name is Hollus."
"Um, pleased to meet you," I said.
The eyes weaved back and forth expectantly.
"Oh, sorry. I'm human."
"Yes, I know. Homo sapiens, as you scientists might say. But your personal name is...?"
"Jericho. Thomas Jericho."
"Is it permissible to abbreviate 'thomas' to 'Tom'?"
I was startled. "How do you know about human names? And--hell--how do you know English?"
"I have been studying your world; that is why I am here."
"You're an explorer?"
The eyestalks moved closer to each other, then held their position there. "Not exactly," said Hollus.
"Then what? You're not--you're not an invader are you?"
The eyestalks rippled in an S-shaped motion. Laughter? "No." And the two arms spread wide. "Forgive me, but you possess little my associates or I might desire." Hollus paused, as if thinking. Then he made a twirling gesture with one of his hands, as though motioning for me to turn around. "Of course, if you want, I could give you an anal probe... "
There were gasps from the small crowd that had assembled in the lobby. I tried to raise my nonexistent eyebrows.
Hollus's eyestalks did their S-ripple again. "Sorry--just kidding. You humans do have some crazy mythology about extraterrestrial visitations. Honestly, I will not hurt you--or your cattle, for that matter."
"Thank you," I said. "Um, you said you weren't exactly an explorer."
"And you're not an invader."
"Then what are you? A tourist?"
"Hardly. I am a scientist."
"And you want to see me?" I asked.
"You are a paleontologist?"
I nodded, then, realizing the being might not understand a nod, I said, "Yes. A dinosaurian paleontologist, to be precise; theropods are my specialty."
"Then, yes, I want to see you."
"Is there someplace private where we can speak?" asked Hollus, his eyestalks swiveling to take in all those who had gathered around us.
"Umm, yes," I said. "Of course." I was stunned by it all as I led him back into the museum. An alien--an actual, honest-to-God alien. It was amazing, utterly amazing.
We passed the paired stairwells, each wrapped around a giant totem pole, the Nisga'a on the right rising eighty feet--sorry, twenty-five meters--all the way from the basement to the skylights atop the third floor, and the shorter Haida on the left starting on this floor. We then went through the Currelly Gallery, with its simplistic orientation displays, all sizzle and no steak. This was a weekday in April; the museum wasn't crowded, and fortunately we didn't pass any student groups on our way back to the Curatorial Centre. Still, visitors and security officers turned to stare, and some uttered various sounds as Hollus and I passed.
The Royal Ontario Museum opened almost ninety years ago. It is Canada's largest museum and one of only a handful of major multidisciplinary museums in the world. As the limestone carvings flanking the entrance Hollus had come through a few minutes before proclaim, its job is to preserve "the record of Nature through countless ages" and "the arts of Man through all the years." The ROM has galleries devoted to paleontology, ornithology, mammalogy, herpetology, textiles, Egyptology, Greco-Roman archaeology, Chinese artifacts, Byzantine art, and more. The building had long been H-shaped, but the two courtyards had been filled in during 1982, with six stories of new galleries in the northern one, and the nine-story Curatorial Centre in the southern. Parts of walls that used to be outside are now indoors, and the ornate Victorian-style stone of the original building abuts the simple yellow stone of the more recent additions; it could have turned out a mess, but it's actually quite beautiful.
My hands were shaking with excitement as we reached the elevators and headed up to the paleobiology department; the ROM used to have separate invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology departments, but Mike Harris's cutbacks had forced us to consolidate. Dinosaurs brought more visitors to the ROM than did trilobites, so Jonesy, the senior invertebrate curator, now worked under me.
Fortunately, no one was in the corridor when we came out of the elevator. I hustled Hollus into my office, closed the door, and sat down behind my desk--although I was no longer frightened, I was still none too steady on my feet.
Hollus spotted the Troödon skull on my desktop. He moved closer and gently picked it up with one of his hands, bringing it to his eyestalks. They stopped weaving back and forth, and locked steadily on the object. While he examined the skull, I took another good look at him.
His torso was no bigger around than the circle I could make with my arms. As I noted earlier, the torso was covered by a long strip of blue cloth. But his hide was visible on the six legs and two arms. It looked a bit like bubble wrap, although the individual domes were of varying sizes. But they did seem to be air filled, meaning they were likely a source of insulation. That implied Hollus was endothermic; terrestrial mammals and birds use hairs or feathers to trap air next to their skin for insulation, but they could also release that air for cooling by having their hair stand on end or by ruffling their feathers. I wondered how bubble-wrap skin could be used to effect cooling; maybe the bubbles could deflate.
"A" "fascinating" "skull," said Hollus, now alternating whole words between his mouths. "How" "old" "is" "it?"
"About seventy million years," I said.
"Precisely" "the" "sort" "of" "thing" "I" "have" "come" "to" "see."
"You said you're a scientist. You are a paleontologist, like me?"
"Only in part," said the alien. "My original field was cosmology, but in recent years my studies have moved on to larger matters." He paused for a moment. "As you have probably gathered by this point, my colleagues and I have observed your Earth for some time--enough to absorb your principal languages and to make a study of your various cultures from your television and radio. It has been a frustrating process. I know more about your popular music and food-preparation technology than I ever cared to--although I am intrigued by the Popeil Automatic Pasta Maker. I have also seen enough sporting events to last me a lifetime. But information on scientific matters has been very hard to find; you devote little bandwidth to detailed discussions in these areas. I feel as though I know a disproportionate amount about some specific topics and nothing at all about others." He paused. "There is information we simply cannot acquire on our own by listening in to your media or through our own secret visits to your planet's surface. This is particularly true about scarce items, such as fossils."
I was getting a bit of a headache as his voice bounced from mouth to mouth. "So you want to look at our specimens here at the ROM?"
"Exactly," said the alien. "It was easy for us to study your contemporary flora and fauna without revealing ourselves to humanity, but, as you know, well-preserved fossils are quite rare. The best way to satisfy our curiosity about the evolution of life on this world seemed to be by asking to see an existing collection of fossils. No need to reinvent the lever, so to speak."
I was still flabbergasted by this whole thing, but there seemed no reason to be uncooperative. "You're welcome to look at our specimens, of course; visiting scholars come here all the time. Is there any particular area you're interested in?"
"Yes," said the alien. "I am intrigued by mass extinctions as turning points in the evolution of life. What can you tell me about such things?"
I shrugged a little; that was a big topic. "There've been five mass extinctions in Earth's history that we know of. The first was at the end of the Ordovician, maybe 440 million years ago. The second was in the late Devonian, something like 365 million years ago. The third, and by far the largest, was at the end of the Permian, 225 million years ago."
Hollus moved his eyestalks so that his two eyes briefly touched, the crystalline coatings making a soft clicking sound as they did so. "Say" "more" "about" "that" "one."
"During it," I said, "perhaps ninety-six percent of all marine species disappeared, and three-quarters of all terrestrial vertebrate families died out. We had another mass extinction late in the Triassic Period, about 210 million years ago. We lost about a quarter of all families then, including all labyrinthodonts; it was probably crucial to the dinosaurs--creatures like that guy you're holding--coming into ascendancy."
"Yes," said Hollus. "Continue."
"Well, and the most-famous mass extinction happened sixty-five million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous." I indicated the Troödon skull again. "That's when all the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, mosasaurs, ammonites, and others died out."
"This creature would have been rather small," said Hollus, hefting the skull.
"True. From snout to tip of tail, no more than five feet. A meter and a half."
"Did it have larger relatives?"
"Oh, yes. The largest land animals that ever lived, in fact. But they all died out in that extinction, paving the way for my kind--a class we call mammals--to take over."
"In" "cred" "i" "ble," said Hollus's mouths. Sometimes he alternated whole words between his two speaking slits, and sometimes just syllables.
"How did you arrive at the dates for the extinctions?" he asked, ignoring my question.
"We assume that all uranium on Earth formed at the same time the planet did, then we measure the ratios of uranium-238 to its end decay product, lead-206, and of uranium-235 to its end decay product, lead-207. That tells us that our planet is 4.5 billion years old. We then--"
"Good," said one mouth. And "good" confirmed the other. "Your dates should be accurate." He paused. "You have not yet asked me where I am from."
I felt like an idiot. He was right, of course; that probably should have been my first question. "Sorry. Where are you from?"
"From the third planet of the star you call Beta Hydri."
I'd taken a couple of astronomy courses while doing my undergraduate geology degree, and I'd studied both Latin and Greek--handy tools for a paleontologist. "Hydri" was the genitive of Hydrus, the small water snake, a faint constellation close to the south celestial pole. And beta, of course, was the second letter of the Greek alphabet, meaning that Beta Hydri would be the second-brightest star in that constellation as seen from Earth. "And how far away is that?" I asked.
"Twenty-four of your light-years," said Hollus. "But we did not come here directly. We have been traveling for some time now and visited seven other star systems before we came here. Our total journey so far has been 103 light-years."
I nodded, still stunned, and then, realizing that I was doing what I'd done before, I said, "When I move my head up and down like this it means I agree, or go on, or okay."
"I know that," said Hollus. He clicked his two eyes together again. "This gesture means the same thing." A brief silence. "Although I now have been to nine star systems, including this one and my home one, yours is only the third world on which we have found extant intelligent life. The first, of course, was my own, and the next was the second planet of Delta Pavonis, a star about twenty light-years from here but just 9.3 from my world."
Delta Pavonis would be the fourth-brightest star in the constellation of Pavo, the peacock. Like Hydrus, I seemed to recall that it was only visible in the Southern Hemisphere. "Okay," I said.
"There have also been five major mass extinctions in the history of my planet," said Hollus. "Our year is longer than yours, but if you express the dates in Earth years, they occurred at roughly 440 million, 365 million, 225 million, 210 million, and 65 million years ago."
I felt my jaw drop.
"And," continued Hollus, "Delta Pavonis II has also experienced five mass extinctions. Their year is a little shorter than yours, but if you express the dates of the extinctions in Earth years, they also occurred at approximately 440, 365, 225, 210, and 65 million years ago."
My head was swimming. I was hard enough talking to an alien, but an alien who was spouting nonsense was too much to take. "That can't be right," I said. "We know that the extinctions here were related to local phenomena. The end-of-the-Permian one was likely caused by a pole-to-pole glaciation, and the end-of-the-Cretaceous one seemed to be related to an impact of an asteroid from this solar system's own asteroid belt."
"We thought there were local explanations for the extinctions on our planet, too, and the Wreeds--our name for the sentient race of Delta Pavonis II--had explanations that seemed unique to their local circumstances, as well. It was a shock to discover that the dates of mass extinctions on our two worlds were the same. One or two of the five being similar could have been a coincidence, but all of them happening at the same time seemed impossible unless, of course, our earlier explanations for their causes were inaccurate or incomplete."
"And so you came here to determine if Earth's history coincides with yours?"
"In part," said Hollus. "And it appears that it does."
I shook my head. "I just don't see how that can be."
The alien gently put the Troödon skull down on my desk; he was clearly used to handling fossils with care. "Our incredulity matched yours initially," he said. "But at least on my world and that of the Wreeds, it is more than just the dates that match. It is also the nature of the effects on the biosphere. The biggest mass extinction on all three worlds was the third--the one that on Earth defines the end of the Permian. Given what you have told me, it seems that almost all the biodiversity was eliminated on all three worlds at that time.
"Next, the event you assign to late in your Triassic apparently led to the domination of the top ecological niches by one class of animals. Here, it was the creatures you call dinosaurs; on my world, it was large ectothermic pentapeds.
"And the final mass extinction, the one you have referred to as occurring at the end of your Cretaceous, seems to have led to the shunting aside of that type and the move to the center of the class that now dominates. On this world it was mammals like you supplanting dinosaurs. On Beta Hydri III, it was endother-mic octopeds like me taking centrality from the pentapeds. On Delta Pavonis II, viviparous forms took over ecological niches formerly dominated by egg layers."
He paused. "At least, this is how it seems, based on what you have just told me. But I wish to examine your fossils to determine just how accurate this summary is."
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."
"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 stokes of evolution on at least three worlds, then we must ask how? And why? What is he trying to accomplish? We need to--"
At that moment, the door to my office opened, revealing silver-haired, long-faced Christine Dorati, the museum's director and president. "What the devil is that?" she said, pointing a bony finger at Hollus.
Copyright 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer
Excerpted from Calculating God by Sawyer, Robert J. Copyright © 2001 by Sawyer, Robert J.. Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
* Note that these questions reveal much of the novel's plot; to preserve your reading pleasure, please don't look at these questions until after you've finished reading the book.
1. When was the last time you were in a museum or planetarium? How important are these institutions to your life? What did you think of Tom Jericho's fight against the "dumbing down" of museums?
2. Is there any way to solve the dilemma of family when traveling in space? Hollus carried photos of her two children, but she never saw them again after leaving Beta Hydri III. Tom never saw Ricky again. The Wreed lifespan is so short that, by the time they reached Earth, their children would have been dead. Can you take your family with you? Or will space travel be for the unattacheda single lifestyle?
3. Did you believe the way the two alien species used science to prove the existence of God? Do you believe that science and religion should be completely separate? Or do you believe that science and religion are two sides of the same cointwo different ways of explaining our world?
4. To Hollus, abortion is not a moral quandary because with infallible birth-control methods no woman should ever have an unplanned, or unwanted pregnancy. Given that the Forhilnor are about 100 years ahead of us, do you think Earth will be like that in 100 years, too? Or is science reducing our need to be moral beings by eliminating the consequences of our mistakes?
5. For the dramatic purposes of the novel, why does Tom Jericho have lung cancer? Did Sawyer's depiction of Tom's disease ring true? Did you expect either the aliens or God to save Tom at the end of the novel?
6. What would you do if Betelgeuse went supernova right now? Where would you go? Who would you want to see? Would you try to stay alive as long as possible and hope for a miracle? Do supernatural miracles exist, or are they just scientific phenomena we don't yet fully understand?
7. Do you believe it was the morally correct decision for Tom to leave Susan and Ricky and go to Betelgeuse? Contrast Tom's decision-making process with that of the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Given that Tom was dying, should we simply accept whatever decision he made as his "last wish?" Tom asked a Wreed for advice in this one matter: if you could ask a Wreed one question, what would it be?
8. Are you a creationist or an evolutionist? Is it possible to find a middle ground between such disparate points of view? Did Sawyer portray creationists fairly in his novel? Did he portray the evolutionists fairly?
9. Tom Jericho seems to waver in his scientific convictions as he faces his own mortality. Did that ring true? Contrast Jericho's feelings with those of the late atheist scientists Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, who publicly maintained their rationalism right up till the end.
10. Sawyer predicts that the corporeal (physical body) lifespan of a technological race is very short. Do you agree with him?
11. What did you think of the creation of Wibadal? Early Christians seemed to feel that humans need a tangible god; do we still have that need today? What purpose, if any, does prayer serve if God exists but is not listening?
12. Did it bother you that Hollus was essentially a large spider? Did you find yourself thinking of her as a human being? What about T'kna? Was he too alien for you to relate to?
13. Speaking of T'kna: his name is an anagram for Kant, as in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that reason is the means by which the phenomena of experience are translated into understanding. How important is having a coherent philosophical worldview to the lives of most people?
14. What do you think ultimately happened to Susan and Ricky? Are they dead, or uploaded into a computer, or immortal? Do you want science to continue to find ways to lengthen our life spans? What about immortality inside a computer? Inside a computer you never have to age, fall ill, or become senile. Is real life better than life inside a virtual world?