Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

Calculating GodCalculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Mr. Sawyer made it difficult to enjoy this book by “poisoning the well” in his preface. He made it abundantly clear that he hoped to show that people who disregard theology in favor of a reasoned approach to the world based on scientific study were just as biased and closed minded as some theists. The “Science is just another religion” view. This position shows both a lack of understanding of the process of science and, apparently, religion.

He accomplished no such thing, of course. It was about as much a useful parable on the acceptance of theism by critical thinkers as Sherlock Holmes is a textbook of crime scene investigation. Mr. Sawyer thought that by changing what we know, adding new fabricated knowledge and introducing a foreign perspective he could enrich the discussion of the “does god exist” question. He didn’t. He trod old ground and made the same logical mistakes that many have made before. That aspect of the story was so infantile it seems clear that Mr. Sawyer has been lax in his consumption of modern philosophical thought.

It’s a shame, really. The actual narrative is very sweet. Especially with the excellent reading by Jonathan Davis. The very human aspects of the story are well done, if a little more sentimental than absolutely necessary. Still, it is always nice to read a science fiction story that is more interested in people than technology or aliens.

Yes, there are aliens in this story, but they are only alien in their form and origin. They are not advanced or particularly different in any other meaningful way. I’m having a difficult time in deciding whether I respect the novelty of this or not. It is very common to have aliens that do not differ from us in form, but have significantly different culture and thought processes, this is the opposite. A nice twist for creating sympathetic characters, but it is a cumbersome way to play at confirming his premise without actually bringing in any new evidence. Kind of like paying a shill to extol the virtues of your snake-oil.

Not a bad read, but kind of a ham-fisted effort to push a particular agenda. Having characters in the book draw bad conclusions from contrived evidence does not a compelling argument make.

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Balticon 42 Reflections (Part 1: What are those kids doing here?)

So, over Memorial Day weekend the wife and I brought the kids to the annual convention of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society better known simply as Balticon.

This is our third year in attendance. Science Fiction literature, Science, Fantasy, original fiction and even music. Each year has been more enjoyable and fulfilling than the last. This is a weekend that we look forward to all year. All of us. Even the kids. Especially the kids. Yes, my 16 year old son and 14 year old daughter are really the driving force for this outing.

For many of the panels, mine were the only kids in sight. Not the only kids at the convention, of course. Plenty of young people gaming and in cosplay. Not many (any) in the Science Panels and just as rare in the the Podcasting panels where we spend much of our time.

Over the last few years genre podcasting has become something of a virtual Greenwich Village. It is a place for risk taking, edgy creation and the free sharing of ideas and talent. The community developing around this new market is particularly tight-knit and supportive of each other, finding “cons” like Balticon and Dragon*Con rare opportunities for in-person socializing and collaboration.

My son and daughter were 14 and 12, respectively, the first time we went to Balticon. Being more outgoing, my son found the game room and made friends. My daughter clung pretty close to my wife and I. We’re the introverted ones. Really more like spectators than participants. It was a pretty big deal for us to muster the courage to say “hello” and gush a bit on a favorite author (Tee Morris) and Podcaster/Essayist (Mur Lafferty).

Last year, we were a bit better and had actual conversations with very cool people like Steve Eley, Matt Selznick, J.C. Hutchins, Michael Mennenga and Evo Terra.

When this year rolled around we consciously committed to be more like my son and step out of our shells. We spend countless hours over the course of the year listening to these people read their stories, talk about their lives and keep us informed on the latest in geekdom. It was such a waste not to engage with them in person when the chance presented itself.

It wasn’t easy. Getting out of your comfort zone never is. Then again, it is where the biggest rewards are.

This is going very long, so I want to wrap up. The point of all this talky-talk is to thank the wonderful group of podcasters who treated us so well, AFTER providing us with countless hours of entertainment. I think the following fragment of an email I sent to Soccergirl after bringing my 14 year old daughter to her very ‘R’ rated show, helps to explain:

"I'm a conservative person by nature. OK, maybe I should say introverted,
not conservative. My kids, however, really are not and I think that is a
gift. I've always told them that "just putting it out there" reaps far
greater rewards than playing it safe. Even if it is very difficult for
me to demonstrate that personally.

So, there you go. It was kind of like Steve Austin upping somebody's
clearance. The kids are in a new ball park now. Whether they choose to
take risks in the same way you did, or just carry with them how exciting
it was to see someone be emotionally brave, they're probably better off
for the experience."

I could have written very similar sentiments to George Hrab, Mur, Tee and many others who have inspired and enriched us.

I found this particular post very difficult to write, not emotionally or anything like that. I just had a lot to say and I didn’t know how to structure it. Oh, well, there it is.

— Icepick


Golden Compass Quick Review

The Golden Compass movie has finally arrived in theaters. This movie, derived from the books by Phillip Pullman, has been highly anticipated in our house. We are all fans of the books and were anxious to see the movie adaptation. Would they screw it up?


While allowance has to be made for the time-compressed format of a theatrical release, the movie adaptation left us all pretty satisfied. One should still read the books, if only to really understand the relationship between a child and their demon. While reading the book, my son was inconsolable when he found out the activities at Bolvangor. In the movie, this has lost some of its impact.

The cumbersome voice-over at the beginning was quickly forgotten as we began our two hour long dash through Lyra’s world. The movie was visually lush and the casting was spot-on. Dakota Blue Richards’ precocious performance manages to draw the attention away from such charismatic screen personalities as Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman and Sam Elliott. All cast in roles they were meant to play.

Don’t even get me started on the fantastic Ice Bears! The great armored bear, Iorek Byrnison, was neither cartoonish nor arbitrary. He was natural, menacing and regal by turns. The battle between Iorek and Ragnar was dramatic and exciting.

While there remains the shadow of the Magisterium and its mission to control the hearts and minds of the people of Lyra’s world, this is primarily Lyra’s story. It is an adventure story of great scope and wonder with plenty of thrills for everyone.


Why is fiction so frightening?

Recently, I was forwarded the following email from a friend:

Subject: Pass on to anyone with children – Anti-God kids movie

Dear Friends,

Pass this on to anyone who might have children…click on the link below to find out more about the movie The Golden Compass which is to be out in December

Anti-God kids movie coming out:

The interesting thing about this particular bit of fear mongering by the religious right is that it is pretty accurate. That’s correct, the collection of books in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass and The Subtle Knife quite purposefully challenge religion. They are also quite fantastic. Smart, compelling and complex in a way that Harry Potter (another difficult fictional character for religious types) doesn’t quite achieve. Of course, how the religious themes play out in the movie is left to be seen. As we know, movies don’t always capture the spirit of the book.

Philip Pullman is not shy about expressing his disdain for organized religion. From an interview with Third Way:

“Well, all right, it comes from history. It comes from the record of the Inquisition, persecuting heretics and torturing Jews and all that sort of stuff; and it comes from the other side, too, from the Protestants burning the Catholics. It comes from the insensate pursuit of innocent and crazy old women, and from the Puritans in America burning and hanging the witches – and it comes not only from the Christian church but also from the Taliban.

Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him. Wherever you look in history, you find that. It’s still going on.”

That is the author’s view in his own words. Seems to me, he clearly expresses why we should all fear and distrust religion. Having said that, His Dark Materials IS A WORK OF FICTION. There are talking armored bears and flying witches! What occurs in the book involves fictional characters in clearly fictional circumstances.

So, why is it that fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Jews and probably others I’m not as aware of, find this kind of fiction so threatening? It’s all made up stories, right? Well, as a recent Barna Group poll shows, a large number of Americans have a very difficult time distinguishing reality from “made up stories”. If super-beings, magic, ghosts and superstition in general made up your world view, you would find fiction very frightening indeed.

It is particularly important, they believe not to expose their children to these stories. There is the danger that, already indoctrinated in to believing fanciful things, they might find they prefer a mythology that is more consistent, intelligent and caring than their own.

Trying to establish a habit of finishing with an excellent quote. This particular one comes from a friend of mine who is currently reading The Amber Spyglass:

“Well that’s just it. If anything, I thought the books were condemning the hunger for power and dominance that can develop out of ANY organized movement that claims to be ‘Truth’ and ‘Right’, including religion and certainly political systems, whether its capitalism or communism. I was assuming the fight was against the evil urges of power and domination — thinking one’s perspective is so right and justified, and to be pursued at the expense of harming others, that one completely loses track of ethics.”