[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Typical Passage


by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

When giving readings at bookstores, I often don't read the opening of a novel; rather, I look for a typical passage that embodies the flavor and theme of the book. I find that in a book superstore, where the acoustics are usually quite lousy, a six- or seven-minute reading is ideal. This is the passage I often read from Calculating God.

       We hadn't expected Hollus to show up for dinner in the flesh. Our dining-room table was a long rectangle, with a removable leaf in the middle. The table itself was dark wood, but it was covered with a white tablecloth. There really wasn't much room for the Forhilnor. I had Susan help me move the sideboard out of the way to free up some space.

       I realized I'd never seen Hollus sit down; his avatar obviously didn't need to, but I thought the real Hollus might be more comfortable if he had some support. "Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?" I asked.

       Hollus looked around. He spotted the ottoman in the living room, positioned in front of the love seat. "Could I use that?" he said. "The little stool?"


       Hollus moved into the living room. With a six-year-old boy around, we didn't have any breakables out, which was a good thing. Hollus bumped the coffee table and the couch on his way; our furniture wasn't spread out enough for a being of his proportions. He brought back the ottoman, placed it by the table, then stepped over it, so that his round torso was directly above the circular stool. He then lowered his torso down onto it. "There," he said, sounding content.

       Susan looked quite uncomfortable. "I'm sorry, Hollus. I didn't think you were actually, really coming. I have no idea whether what I made is something you can eat."

       "What did you make?"

       "A salad — lettuce, cherry tomatoes, diced celery, bits of carrot, croutons, and an oil-and-vinegar dressing."

       "I can eat that."

       "And lamb chops."

       "They are cooked?"

       Susan smiled. "Yes."

       "I can eat that, too, if you can provide me with about a liter of room-temperature water to go with it."

       "Certainly," she said.

       "I'll get it," I said. I went to the kitchen and filled a pitcher with tap water.

       "I've also made milk shakes for Tom and Ricky."

       "This is the bovine mammary secretion?" asked Hollus.


       "If it is not rude to do so, I will not partake."

       I smiled, and Ricky, Susan, and I took our places at the table. Susan brought the salad bowl out and passed it to me. I used the serving forks to move some to my plate, then loaded some onto Ricky's. I then put some on Hollus's plate.

       "I have brought my own utensils," he said. "I hope that is not rude."

       "Not at all," I said. Even after my trips to China, I was still one of those who always had to ask for a knife and fork in a Chinese restaurant. Hollus pulled two devices that looked a bit like corkscrews from the folds of the cloth wrapped around his torso.

       "Do you say grace?" asked Hollus.

       The question startled me. "Not normally."

       "I have seen it on television."

       "Some families do it," I said. Those that have things to be thankful for.

       Hollus used one of his corkscrews to stab some lettuce, and he conveyed it to the orifice on top of his circular body. I'd watched him make the motions of eating before, but had never seen him actually do it. It was a noisy process; his dentition made a snapping sound as it worked. I suppose only his speaking orifices were miked when he used his avatar; I presumed that was why I'd never heard the sound before.

       "Is the salad okay?" I asked him.

       Hollus continued to transfer it into his eating orifice while he spoke; I guessed that Forhilnors never choked to death while dining. "It is fine, thank you," he said.

       Ricky spoke up. "Why do you talk like that?" he asked. My son imitated Hollus by speaking in turns out of the left and right sides of his mouth. "It" "is" "fine" "thank" "you."

       "Ricky!" said Susan, embarrassed that our son had forgotten his manners.

       But Hollus didn't seem to mind the question. "One thing that humans and my people share is a divided brain," he said. "You have a left and right hemisphere, and so do we. We hold that consciousness is the result of the interplay of the two hemispheres; I believe humans have some similar theories. In cases where the hemispheres have been severed due to injury, so that they function independently, whole sentences come out of a single speaking orifice, but much less complex thoughts are expressed."

       "Oh," said Ricky, going back to his salad.

       "That's fascinating," I said. Coordinating speech between partially autonomous brain halves must be difficult; maybe that was why Hollus was apparently incapable of using contractions. "I wonder if we had two mouths, whether humans would alternate words or syllables between them as well."

       "You seem to rely less on left-right integration than we Forhilnors do," Hollus said. "I understand that in cases of a severed corpus callosum, humans can still walk."

       "I think that's right, yes."

       "We cannot," Hollus said. "Each half of the brain controls three legs, on the corresponding side of the body. All our legs have to work together, or we topple over, and —"

       "My daddy is going to die," said Ricky, looking down at his salad plate.

       My heart jumped. Susan looked shocked.

       Hollus put down his eating utensils. "Yes, he told me. I am very sorry about that."

       "Can you help him?" asked Ricky, looking now at the alien.

       "I am sorry," said Hollus. "There is nothing I can do."

       "But you're from space and stuff," said Ricky.

       Hollus's eyestalks stopped moving. "Yes, I am."

       "So you should know things."

       "I know some things," he said. "But I do not know how to cure cancer. My own mother died from it."

       Ricky regarded the alien with great interest. He looked like he wanted to offer a word of comfort to the alien, but he clearly had no idea what to say.

       Susan stood up and brought the lamb chops and mint jelly in from the kitchen.

       We ate in silence.

More Good Reading

First Chapter of Calculating God
More about Calculating God
Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer
Short stories by Robert J. Sawyer
Flight Path of the Starship Merlecas from Calculating God

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