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 all.
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 at all.
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 fine.
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.