The novel intertwines three stories:
- The story of aliens who come to earth to study earth's fossil record, and the interactions of one of those aliens, Hollus, with a paleontologist, Thomas Jericho.
- The story of the paleontologist's battle with cancer
- The story of some fundamentalist christians who try to destroy the Burgess Shale.
I felt Sawyer was at his best when he was explaining scientific principles. I am fascinated by the Burgess Shale so I'm happy a novel has included it as a "character," so to speak. Also, I had fun when Jericho, who works at the Royal Ontario Museum, was ranting about museum politics. (He is against the trend of "dumbing down" museum exhibits, and so am I, so I especially enjoyed those parts.) I also liked his attempt to show that the Forhilnors and Wreeds have very different ways of thinking (although I thought it was a little too convenient that the Wreeds could intuit the right way to think ethically about everything...while being really bad at math. Does that remind you of any human beliefs?).
The stories, though, felt a little weak to me.
I felt that Sawyer did a good job of explaining some of the "intelligent design" arguments pro and con, but also some of it felt a little contrived. The god that the aliens believe in is basically a long-lived, powerful life form, who set this particular universe in motion with particular rules of physics. So, a "creator." But not omniscient, omnipotent, or supernatural the way god is often characterized in human religions. Sawyer does touch on this difference a few times, but Hollus and Jericho never come right out and have a conversation about "Why do you call this entity god instead of considering it simply another form of life?" If they had said that, it would have left less room to examine the various arguments, but I found it hard to believe that they didn't. I mean, they were supposed to be scientists.
A number of other interesting ideas come up in the book, but since it almost all takes place on earth as conversations between Jericho and Hollus, not much comes of these ideas, story-wise. For example Jericho theorizes that various civilizations that the aliens have found on other worlds -- civilizations which seem to have died out -- have really uploaded themselves into computers. But it remains a theory. (Given some of the practical problems inherent in uploading your whole civilization into a computer for all eternity, maybe that's a good thing.) And something happens at the very end of the book that made me want to know more about how it played out, but I don't get to find out.
Sawyer seems to lack a few clues about feminism. I ranted about this in an earlier entry: About 2/3 of the way into the book, Jericho is shocked to learn that Hollus is female. I found it difficult to suspend disbelief about this. They spend lots of time talking about DNA and about how all three alien species are prone to cancer -- and they never mentioned reproduction? It annoyed me that Jericho immediately brushed off this discovery, saying "I'm just going to continue calling you 'he', if that's OK."
I read this part after writing my rant: A while later he discovers that Hollus has children. (Why haven't they ever discussed Hollus's family, when Hollus has already come to Jericho's house to meet his wife and kid?) All of a sudden it dawns on him that Hollus is a mother. And then he begins to call Hollus "she." If Sawyer was trying to make a feminist point here, it felt very contrived to me. There were a few other blunders that bothered my feminist sensibilities, but I'll leave it at that for now.
When I read a few stories in a row that are highly regarded and that leave me annoyed at what I perceive are pretty serious flaws both in the storytelling and in the ideas being explored, never mind the sexual politics, I start to wonder whether I really ought to be reading science fiction at all. Maybe I am too nitpicky to enjoy it. Maybe I should just not read any fiction at all.
I usually eventually read a book I like and get over that attitude.