Reviewed: February 1, 2002
By: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: TOR Books
335 Pages, $8.99
Tom Jericho wasnt actually
on hand when the spacecraft landed in front of the Royal Ontario
Museum. He was inside one of the galleries, making some last minute
decisions. The alien (six legs, eye stalks, round body)negotiated
its way through the ROMs front door, sidling up to a guard
and requested (in textbook English) a meeting with a paleontologist.
That was where Tom entered the picture.
Turns out that the alien
and Tom are of the same profession. Hollus (his name) has come
to Earth with his colleagues in search of corroborating evidence
for a theory that they already believe to be pretty much a scientific
fact. Its a bit of a shock, but all the existing intelligent
races in the galaxy agree on at least one thing: there is a god.
To take it further, they
agree that there is some sort of a divine plan, worked out on
a scientific basis, to advance some specific goal. They havent
been travelling around the galaxy looking seeking out new
life, boldly going where no one has gone before just for
the fun of it. They are testing the first hypothesis and trying
to formulate another: what is the meaning of life?
For Tom, like his namesake
(Doubting Thomas - see the New Testament), this is all a little
hard to take. Hes never bought into the intelligent creation
way of thinking, and has been finding the idea of any sort of
a god increasingly difficult since he developed lung cancer a
few years earlier. Tom is nearing the end of his time on Earth
and is determined to spend as much of it as he can on projects
he feels worthwhile: his work, his wife, his son.
Mind you, its hard
to say that being the pointman for an alien first contact mission
isnt worthwhile. Its just exhausting, thats
Sawyer makes each of his
alien races as physically unhuman as he can, and tries very hard
to give them a sketchy culture and intellectual makeup to match.
The Forhilnor have two mouths and alternate words and syllables
between them. The Wreed have one panoramic eye, no concept of
math, and reason intuitively.
What all three races have
in common is a history on planets which have, at about the same
time on the celestial calendar, undergone mass extinctions, apparently
as a means of wiping the slate partly clean and starting something
over. Determining what this might mean is the aliens sole
reason for coming to Earth, and nothing else is really of interest.
This results in a delightful scene in which Hollus declines to
be taken to our leader or anyone else who might get
in the way of his mission, in a manner which leaves the agents
of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service with no options
The conversations in the
book are long and complex, as you might expect, dealing as they
do with theology, genetics and planetary history. There is so
much talking that I ended up wondering is it might not put some
people off, but the book has sold well and was nominated for the
major award in the SF field last year, so its doing just
There are two subplots which
work their way through the book. One is the tale of Toms
life, from his early inspiration to become a scientist to his
having to cope with cancer.
The other is almost a sideshow,
a plot by a group of American Fundamentalists to destroy the Burgess
Shales exhibit which Tom has mounted at the ROM. They see it as
a blasphemy against their concept of God. While this part of the
story did eventually connect with the main plot, I think it was
originally intended to look a bit ridiculous. In the light of
events in New York last September, it now looks less so, and the
kind of mind set shown by Cooter and J.D. has turned out to be
way too real to be amusing.
The dramatic tension in the
main plot is further advanced by the discovery that the entire
galaxy is about to wiped out by radiation from an exploding star
many light years distant. When a strange event occurs to change
this outcome, the aliens know where they must go next, and Tom
is invited to go with them. The outcome of that journey does not
quite provide the answers to life, the universe and everything
(as the late Douglas Adams so blithely put it), but it comes close.
It appears that, while three
intelligent races have been trying to calculate their way to an
understanding of the divinity, that being has been engaged in
another sort of calculation, for reasons which do become clear
at the end of the book.
The authors disclaimer
at the beginning of the book asks us to excuse the invention of
all the personnel at the Royal Ontario Museum, where a good deal
of this book takes place. Some of Sawyers invented bureaucrats
are fairly nasty and rather stupid people. No such disclaimer
is made with regard to his narrators frequent references
to the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris.
If youre at all interested
in Sawyers work, theres an ongoing discussion group
which conferences pretty much daily. Details are available through
his web site at www.sfwriter.com.