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A Conversation with Robert J. Sawyer -- Part 1
Interview by Steven H Silver
July 2002
Robert Sawyer
Robert J. Sawyer
The winner of the Nebula Award in 1995 for The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer has also won three Aurora Awards, Canada's award for excellence in science fiction. His novel Starplex was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula. In addition, he earned the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.

Robert J. Sawyer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Iterations
SF Site Review: Hominids
SF Site Review: Flashforward
SF Site Review: Frameshift
SF Site Interview: Robert J. Sawyer
SF Site Review: Calculating God
SF Site Review: Factoring Humanity
SF Site Review: Illegal Alien
SF Site Review: Frameshift
Steven H Silver's Review of Starplex
Steven H Silver's Review of The Terminal Experiment

Iterations
Hominids
Flashforward
Frameshift
Calculating God
Factoring Humanity
Illegal Alien

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

The Neanderthal Parallax is your first trilogy since the Quintaglio trilogy, which wasn't conceived as a trilogy. How are did your approaches to the two series differ?
It's very much a question of scale. In the first volume of the Quintaglio trilogy, I covered an enormous amount of material, some of it in only cursory detail, because I didn't know that I was ever going to revisit that world. In the first volume of The Neanderthal Parallax, all of the action takes place over just a few days, and I concentrated on a few aspects of the culture, instead of trying to sketch it all. Specifically, Hominids gives us a good look at the Neanderthal legal system, but not so much about their economics or politics. I knew I could leave those for subsequent volumes, although of course I had to work them all out before I began writing even the first book.

In The Neanderthal Parallax, the Neanderthals divide Europe and Asia into two continents, Evsoy and Galasoy, just like we do. Why?
Oh, it's just because of the way Neanderthals were dispersed in our own world. They started in Europe and eventually crossed into Asia. Europe and Asia are geologically quite distinct, separated by the Ural mountains, which provide a natural barrier between the two land masses. The problem for some people is that they feel the notion of "continent" has to translate directly. "Evsoy" and "Galasoy" mean "Old Land" and "New Land," respectively, but, of course, there's a Neanderthal term for the combined Eurasian land mass, too, although I haven't established it in the text yet. But, gee whiz, we've long had separate names for North America and Central America and South America, and, until the Panama Canal, they were all one continuous land mass.

Why did you decide to use an actual company, Inco, in Hominids instead of a fictitious one?
Much of Hominids is set at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, which is a real-life science facility in Northern Ontario. And it happens that facility is indeed located two kilometers down in a mine that belongs to Inco, a real Canadian mining company. I like spotlighting real science facilities -- see, for instance, the use of CERN in my 1999 novel Flashforward or the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. This time, there happened to be a private-sector concern involved as well. Now, I don't own any Inco stock, or have any other connection with the company, but the fact is that they have been marvelously supportive of this pure-science exercise. They make no money off the neutrino observatory, are doubtless inconvenienced by it, and it has no conceivable applicability to their business -- but they've moved heaven and earth (well, the earth part, anyway -- they dug a new drift and chamber to accommodate the neutrino observatory) -- to make this work. That's just fabulous, a true model of corporate citizenship, and I was delighted to give them a little exposure in Hominids.

The "Companions" in Hominids appear at first to be very useful reference tools, but they also have a "Big Brother" aspect to them and the Neanderthal society itself seems to have certain fascist overtones which are fully accepted. Is this your intention and will this theme be further explored in the future novels?
I've been astonished that some people keep asking when we're going to see some negatives in the Neanderthal universe. Granted, the negatives in our society are explicitly spelled out as Ponter discovers them, while the ones in the Neanderthal world are only implicit -- but they're still there, as plain as the nose on a Neanderthal's face. So, sure, of course I intended the fascist and Big Brother aspects of their society to be just that.

That said, I also intended people think about just how great the cost of preserving privacy is, given how much damage individuals are now capable of. "We preserved personal liberty above all else" might be a noble epitaph for the human race -- but it's still an epitaph. Hominids is hardly a roman clef, but it is instructive to read it as not being about Homo sapiens in contrast with Homo neanderthalensis, but rather as American culture in contrast with Canadian, a point I make explicit in the third book, Hybrids. Canada, after all, is a semi-socialist country that believes in -- as our founding documents state -- peace, order, and good government. The founding documents for the U.S. promise life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, a quite different package -- and, a package, in these post-9/11 days -- that might perhaps come with a very high price in terms of the safety of society. In the Neanderthal world, we see an alternative that does have real benefits, but also came at a real cost.

In an October 2000 interview with Kim Fawcett, you commented that you were "actually quite pleasantly surprised at how much [you were] enjoying conceptualizing on such a large scale" in plotting out The Neanderthal Parallax. In the same interview, you also noted that "series and trilogies are bad for the field of science fiction..." Has work on the trilogy changed your attitude in any way?
I still think trilogies are usually bad artistically for SF -- although not as bad as never-ending series. The heart and soul of drama is closure. Aristotle knew that; all the great writers of the past knew that. A work that doesn't end is incomplete. Trilogies, of course, do end by definition with the third volume, but often the first and second are unsatisfactory reading experiences -- "bookus interruptus" I like to call them. I've really tried in The Neanderthal Parallax to write a trio of books that do have individually satisfying endings. But I've seen far too many great authors be trapped into writing series. I'd much rather see what else Lois McMaster Bujold has up her sleeve besides Miles, or that Anne McCaffrey has besides Pern, or Orson Scott Card is thinking about other than Ender, but the economics of the industry are that publishers will offer authors more -- at least double, and sometimes much more than that -- for a new book in a successful series rather than a stand-alone, even if that stand-alone would be artistically and intellectually more satisfying.

I'm happy I wrote The Neanderthal Parallax, and it did stretch me as a creator, but I'm very much looking forward to writing a nice, tight stand-alone next.

Regarding plotting across three novels, there are certain elements in Hominids which will clearly play a role in the future novels, Mary's rape comes to mind. However, will seemingly innocuous events in Hominids need to be re-evaluated by readers when they've read Humans or Hybrids?
When I wrote the third book of my earlier Quintaglio trilogy, my goal was to get people to re-evaluate everything that happened in the first two books in light of the revelations in Foreigner, the third volume. I'm not doing that to the same extent in Hybrids, but I will say that the title of that third volume doesn't refer to the obvious notion of a child of a Homo sapiens and a Neanderthal -- in that sense, there will be some reevaluation necessary. I do indeed resolve the issue of Mary's rape, mostly in volume 2, Humans, but, of course, it continues to have repercussions on the third book, as well. Also, the fact that Mary and Ponter spent some time looking at the northern lights in Hominids may have seemed, as you say, entirely innocuous, but it is in fact a springboard for a very major plot thread yet to be revealed.

Why did you decide to publish Iterations through a small press which would limit its sales outside of Canada?
Single-author short-story collections sell terribly in the SF field, moving only about one-fifth the number of copies of a novel. Many bookstores order your latest book based on how well your last one did. Well, my novel before my short-story collection, Calculating God, sold very well. I didn't want bookstores seeing a huge dip in sales with my next book, the collection, and underordering on my following book, the novel Hominids. I'm sure my agent could have convinced Tor to do my collection in hardcover in the States, but I'd seen how poorly the next novels had shipped for a bunch of other writers who had had their US novel publisher do their collections. So, after talking all this over with my editor at Tor, David Hartwell, I decided to offer the book to Quarry Press, a respected Canadian small publisher, giving them only Canadian rights. I'm well enough known in Canada, and there are few enough bookstores, that I didn't have to worry about booksellers confusing collection numbers with novel numbers. It worked out fabulously well: the collection ended up being a big success in Canada, shipping 2,500 hardcovers into a market one-tenth the size of the U.S.

While reading Iterations, I was surprised to note how few of your stories were published in the traditional genre magazines. A few serials in Analog, and three stories and a novel excerpt in Amazing. Why do so few of your stories appear in traditional genre markets?
The standard advice for those who want to write SF is to start with short fiction then to move up to novels. I tried to follow that path, but really just wasn't getting the concept of how to do short pieces. Starting when I was 16, back in 1976, I did submit shorts to all the major markets, and was quite rightly rejected. Finally, I decided to move on to doing longer works without really having gotten much of anywhere in short fiction -- and suddenly I was producing decent material. Although I made my first fiction sale in 1979, I count my first significant sale as the novelette version of Golden Fleece in the September 1988 Amazing, and after the success of that, I figured I'd never go back to short stories at all; I was going to be a novelist. Indeed, to this day, when I'm asked what I do for a living, I usually reply that I'm a novelist, rather than simply a writer.

But then, in July 1992, Mike Resnick sent me an email, commissioning a short-story for his anthology Dinosaur Fantastic. Now, I'd made my living in the 80s as a freelance non-fiction writer, and virtually everything I did was commissioned: the editor had agreed to buy it before I'd even written it. And so Mike's offer appealed to me. Still, I hadn't written any short fiction in five years at that point -- and had done none since I'd written my first novel. I was very nervous about letting Mike down.

But something magical had happened by that point. Since I'd last tried to do a short story, I'd written and sold four novels -- and I now, very clearly, saw how to structure a piece of fiction, long or short, to make it work. The story I wrote for Mike, "Just Like Old Times," went on to win both Canada's top SF award, the Aurora, and its top mystery award, the Crime Writers of Canada's Arthur Ellis, got honorable mentions in both The Year's Best Science Fiction and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and has been reprinted more than ten times.

After that, story commissions started coming my way on a regular basis, and I actually found that I enjoyed the challenge they represented. It's harder, but ultimately very rewarding, to come up with a story about, say, a libertarian space federation -- which was the request that led to my Hugo-nominated "The Hand You're Dealt" -- than it is to write just any story. I keep meaning to do stories for the other magazines, and, actually, it has been kind of fun being courted by some of them for the last few years, but I've just been so busy with novels and guaranteed sales to anthologies that I've only rarely found the time. That said, I do have a novelette called "Ineluctable" coming up in the November Analog.

Although you probably don't have specific numbers to back it up, how successful are serializations in acquiring new readers who buy your books (either according to anecdotal evidence or financial evidence)?
My first two serials in Analog were The Terminal Experiment in 1995 and Starplex in 1996. Both went on to be Hugo and Nebula finalists, and The Terminal Experiment won the Nebula. I credit most of that to the exposure gained through the Analog serializations. In addition, those two novels went on to be very successful in book form: seven printings so far for The Terminal Experiment and four for Starplex. So the serialization didn't hurt the subsequent book sales. But did it actually help? That's hard to say conclusively, but my gut feeling is that, yes, it helped very much. The wisdom in publishing is that the very best marketing a book can have is favorable word-of-mouth. Well, on the day those books appeared in the bookstores, there were already 40,000 people who had read them in Analog and could recommend them to others. Some might say that The Terminal Experiment's legs in the marketplace were based on its Nebula win, but HarperPrism had to go back to press after a 40,000-copy first printing within weeks of the book's release -- most of a year before the book was nominated for the Nebula, let alone having won it; in fact, my own author's copies ended up being seconds, because Harper was shipping firsts so fast.

Dinosaurs, or rather saurians, feature prominently in several of your novels and short stories. Do you feel there is more you can say using dinosaurs or have they run their course in your fiction?
I do indeed love dinosaurs, but I think you're right: there isn't anything more to say about them, at least not right now. Arthur C. Clarke waited until the Voyager missions before writing 2010, because he needed more science to fuel his novels set in the outer solar system. Although a lot of interesting things are happening in vertebrate paleontology these days, nothing has come along that has inspired me to write about dinosaurs again.

That said, the Quintaglio books -- Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner -- were only peripherally about dinosaurs, anyway; they were really about science versus superstition. I am toying with writing a new Quintaglio trilogy, metaphorically telling the story of the American civil-rights movement -- just as the first Quintaglio trilogy metaphorically told the story of the dawn of modern science.

Did your interest in dinosaurs develop later in life or is it a continuation of the type of fascination so many children have with them?
Until my last year of high school, I thought I was going to be a vertebrate paleontologist: I was planning to devote my life to studying dinosaurs. Indeed, I would have done that if it had seemed likely that I could have gotten a job, but back then there were only 24 professional dinosaurian paleontologists in the entire world, and it didn't look like any of them would retire just because I'd arrived on the scene. But I'd loved dinosaurs since childhood. I was lucky enough to grow up in Toronto, which has one of the great dinosaur collections in the world. I must have visited the dinosaur gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum a hundred times as a kid. I still very much follow paleontology, and am lucky that through my SF work I've gotten to know a lot of paleontologists, and have been able to count the Smithsonian's Mike Brett-Surman and the Tyrrell's Phil Currie as friends.

What science magazines and journals form the basis of your reading material?
The weeklies, New Scientist and Science News, are indispensable for me. Anyone who wants to write science fiction should be reading them. Discover and Astronomy are valuable, too. As for journals, it really varies depending on what I'm working on. These days, I'm spending a lot of time with anthropology and primatology journals, but I still try to keep up on the literature in astrophysics, particle physics, neurobiology, and, of course, paleontology.

Several themes appear in multiple novels. You discuss immortality in Foreigner, The Terminal Experiment, Starplex, Flashforward, and Hominids. You have a rather bleak view of humanity in several of them as well. Are these recurring themes intentional or do they just find their way into your books?
I certainly didn't intend to write a lot about immortality, but I suppose it is an interest of mine. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool evolutionist, but I'm also what Darwin would have called an evolutionary failure. "Survival of the fittest" refers to succeeding in passing one's genes on to the next generation, and here I am, 42, with a vasectomy and no kids. So, I'm out of the gene pool. If kids are immortality, as many have asserted over the years, I have none... and I suppose that's led me to speculate about other options for immortality. I don't feel an overwhelming personal desire to live forever, although all things being equal, I suppose I'd like to. But, then again, writers often speak about their books as being their immortality, and I do like to quip that I'm more interested in my memes than my genes.

On a bleak view of humanity -- that's interesting that you say that. You know, I firmly believe that works of fiction are Rorschach tests: responses to them tell us about the reader, not the writer. I certainly don't think of myself as presenting a bleak view of humanity; if anything, I think of myself as cheerfully optimistic. Granted, I don't always show humanity as it exists today as having a lot to recommend it, but I do firmly believe that we've got the potential for greatness, and I think most of my novels, including Frameshift, Factoring Humanity, and, ultimately, The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, celebrate that.

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

Copyright © 2002 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a four-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings (DAW Books, January, February and March, 2003). In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.


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