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A Conversation With Robert Sawyer
An interview with Kim Fawcett
October 2000

Robert Sawyer
Robert Sawyer
Winner of the Nebula Award in 1995 for The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer has also won over 20 Canadian and international writing awards (including 7 Aurora Awards, Canada's award for excellence in science fiction). A prolific author of 12 novels (with 3 more upcoming), he regularly teaches writing and provides science fiction commentary for radio and television.

Robert Sawyer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
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

Calculating God
Factoring Humanity
Illegal Alien

Last year you announced a new contract with Tor for three novels, including one titled Neanderthal Parallax. What can you tell us about Neanderthal Parallax and the other two novels you've signed on to write?
Actually, I've signed a contract with Tor for a trilogy; the working title for the series is Neanderthal Parallax, although I'm sure that will change. I'm just finishing up the first of the three books, and am very pleased with it. The series will explore an alternate timeline in which Neanderthals, instead of our own ancestors, survived to the present day; it looks at whether the sort of ecological and political mess we made of the world was inevitable, or whether it could have been avoided. Although I really try to include a lot of different sciences in each of my books, if I had to identify which science these particular novels are most about, it would be the nascent field of evolutionary psychology: the study of how our behaviour is influenced by our biological roots.

Aside from your Far-Seer trilogy, you've never written a sequel, let alone a series, before this. Why is that?
I really believe series and trilogies are bad for the field of science fiction -- SF is supposed to be about exploring strange new worlds, not rehashing tired old ones -- so it's ironic that I'm now under contract to produce a series. Far-Seer was originally intended as a standalone novel; it was only when it was a success that a sequel, and, finally, a sequel to that sequel, was contemplated. On the one hand, I was pleased that the sequels actually were written because of reader and publisher demand, rather than me having committed trilogy from the outset. Still, I did a number of things in Far-Seer that I never would have done had I intended from the outset to write more in that universe. Most notably, I blinded the main character, and I established that my race of intelligent dinosaurs, the Quintaglios, can't lie without their faces betraying it. These worked well dramatically in the first book, but really painted me into a corner at times in the second and third.

My agent at the time was very big on series, and he felt I should develop another, so I came up with Starplex -- a sort of Star Trek done right -- and actually sold it to Ace as the first two books of a series. As I set out to write the first book, though, I realized I was deliberately holding things back for future books. And I thought that was wrong; that was cheating the readers. So I said to heck with it, and threw everything I had into one volume, setting myself the task of solving all the outstanding problems in astrophysics and cosmology in a single book. I know I made the right decision: Starplex was the only book from its year to be nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, and it won Canada's Aurora Award and the CompuServe SF Forum's HOMer Award. But, ironically, of all the books I've done, it's the one that generates the most requests for a sequel. Certainly the universe I created is complex enough that it could support further books, and so I might indeed go back and do that at some point.

But now I am indeed doing a trilogy conceived as such from the outset. There are two reasons for this. First, British publishers really want series rather than standalone books these days; standalones just don't seem to sell well in the U.K.  And, second, for every writing project I undertake, I try to challenge myself in some new way. For Frameshift [1998 Hugo Award finalist], for instance, it was, by setting, a legitimate SF novel entirely in the present day. For Factoring Humanity [1999 Hugo Award finalist] it was doing a female protagonist, something notoriously difficult for a male author to pull off. Well, this time out, I'm trying a bigger canvas. My earlier novels have ranged from about 70,000 to 100,000 words; this project will weigh in at 300,000 words and although each volume will have its own definite beginning, middle, and end, I'm actually quite pleasantly surprised at how much I'm enjoying conceptualizing on such a large scale.

Do publishers try to influence your choice of format, content, theme, etc. to fit into their line of books?
Tor, my current publisher is wonderfully supportive. I've never felt any pressure from them to deliver any particular kind of book. Previously, I did run into problems. I'd started out writing fairly traditional spaceships-and-aliens SF, and, to my surprise, I did get pressure from my previous publisher to stay in that mold. To break out, I wrote The Terminal Experiment on spec, without a contract, even though at that point I was having no trouble landing multi-book contracts from my publisher based just on brief outlines. The Terminal Experiment is obviously hard SF -- it was serialized in Analog after all, under my original title for it, Hobson's Choice -- but it was also set entirely on Earth and in the very near future. To my considerable shock, my then-publisher rejected the book, saying that it wasn't the sort of thing they wanted from me. I ended up finding a new publisher at that point, and The Terminal Experiment went on to win the Nebula, the Aurora, and the HOMer, as well as being nominated for the Hugo and Japan's Seiun Award.

But then, with that book outselling all my previous novels, I realized I was in danger of being pigeon-holed again, as a sort of Crichton who actually liked science. And so for my next novel, I very deliberately did something completely different. That book was Starplex. I'm now at the point were I really think publishers and my readers understand that a Rob Sawyer novel isn't defined by its setting but rather by an interest in social commentary, in a belief in rationalism, and in a combination of the intimately human and the grandly cosmic. There's no particular pigeon-hole to put such books in, though, and I'm just delighted about that.

What impact do you expect web-based SF news, review, and fiction zines will have on the genre?
It's interesting that you put the topics in that order: news, reviews, and fiction. I think the web has already completely changed our approach to SF news. Obviously, SF Weekly is a great, but I also really like the SF/F news page at the SFWA site; I think Keith Stokes, the newsmaster there, does a fantastic job, and I check that page every day -- sometimes with some trepidation, because, sadly, it seems often enough these days that one of our own has passed on. By the time the hardcopy SF newszines arrive in my physical mail box, there's almost no news in them that I haven't already read online.

On reviews, I think that field is maturing online. There are some credible review sites starting to appear, with SF Weekly and SF Site probably being the most notable; indeed, you're starting to see them being quoted on book covers. Also the official, signed editorial reviews on and -- I'm talking about the ones they commission from professional reviewers, not the comments left by readers -- have become quite in-depth and insightful in the last year or two.

But for fiction, I've not yet been impressed by much of what I've seen online. Most writers I know consider online publishing to be an oxymoron; we want the permanence of a book or magazine. Also, most of us are sympathetic to the low pay rates of print publications -- I've co-edited three small-press anthologies and am painfully aware of the economics of such undertakings -- but we have a harder time understanding why a web-based publication feels justified in paying just two or three cents a word; editorial is their only real cost, and as a business person, I find myself reluctant to sanction the notion that all the cost savings related to online publishing should accrue to the publisher, with none of it being passed on to the writers in the form of higher word rates.

Actually, though, I have a lot of my previously published short stories posted on my own web site at This has proven enormously useful on two counts. First, people who are reluctant to shell out money for a book by an author they haven't read before can try me before buying. I've also got sample chapters of all my books, but those only tell you about the premises and the use of language -- they really don't tell you if a writer can plot, because the elegance of a plot is only apparent in a finished work. Well, the free short stories let readers see how I am at all aspects of story telling before they spend money for one of my novels.

Second, to my delight, having the stories online has actually substantially boosted my resale rights. Every month, I get an inquiry about paper reprint rights or translation rights for one or another of the stories on my web site. It's turned into a nice little source of subsidiary revenue.

Gardner Dozois recently commented that most of the SF he sees is "near-future, soft-science dystopian stuff" and that he'd like to start seeing more stories involving alien worlds and far future settings. Have we done near-future SF to death? What's your take on this?
Well, Gardner should have a look at the other magazine his company publishes -- you know, the one that outsells Asimov's. Analog is full of wonderful far-future, hard-science, mostly upbeat tales. Really, I think what Gardner is seeing is some of the same pigeon-holing that authors are subjected to: people have grown to expect a certain kind of story in Asimov's, and that story is indeed near-future, soft-science, and often dystopian, and so that's what the writers submit to that market. They've also grown to expect a certain kind of story in Analog, and again, that shapes what the writers tend to submit to Stan Schmidt.

One of the healthiest things I've seen recently in the SF magazines was the issues of Analog and Asimov's launched at this year's Worldcon in Chicago: the Analog contained a Michael Bishop story, a writer normally associated with Asimov's, and the Asimov's had a Larry Niven kzin story -- the kind of fare one usually expects in Analog. I really think SF readers are just as tired of pigeon-holing as are SF writers; I read the far-future SF of James White and the near-future SF of Stephen Dedman with equal pleasure, and a versatile writer like Robert Charles Wilson can show a great range -- contrast his Bios with his Darwinia, both of which are excellent -- without ever producing something that his fans don't recognize as being absolutely Wilsonian.

You mention on your website that your novel Illegal Alien has been optioned for film, and the script is almost complete. How do you feel about making the jump to film?
Actually, I should update the information on my web site; the screenplay, by Michael Lennick, is essentially done now, and I think it's quite wonderful. I lost track of how many drafts Michael did, but the latest one really does sing. Michael and producer David Coatsworth [Dick, Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Sixth Day] have just renewed their option for a third year -- meaning I'm seeing some serious coin at this stage, which is very nice, and although I'm realistic enough to know that any number of things can derail a film project, it really does look at this point like Illegal Alien will go before the cameras in about a year's time.

I have nothing but good feelings about this. Yes, changes are being made in my original story -- the action has been moved from Los Angeles to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; poor Frank Nobilio has had a sex change and is now Fran Nobilio; and so on -- but my basic story is remarkably intact. Obviously, a writer can't beat the exposure that having a film made gives to his or her work; millions of people will see the Illegal Alien film, versus only hundreds of thousands who will read it in the various English and foreign-language editions.

Also, of course, there's the money. I'm making quite a comfortable living right now, but the money that I would get if just one of my books was made into a movie would handily take care of my retirement. As the sole income earner in my household, and as someone who is completely self-employed, that's something I do worry about.

Your books serve as social commentary on issues ranging from the existence of God in Calculating God, to abortion in The Terminal Experiment, to racism in Illegal Alien. What issues do you plan to explore in your next few books?
It used to be that when people would complain to me about something somebody else had done, I'd always say, "Yeah, but his heart is in the right place." And I really believed that; I really thought, despite surface conflicts, that almost all human beings were decent, honourable, loving people. I suppose I was naïve to be able to hold onto that worldview well into my 30s, but some of the crap I've personally encountered and some of the stuff that's been perpetrated on others I know in the last few years has awoken me to the fact that a lot of people are at best amoral and at worst downright immoral. As an evolutionist, the question that most fascinates me right now is, did it have to turn out this way? Will survival of the fittest and selfish genes drive all intelligent lifeforms into being the kind of mean S.O.B.'s that we turned out to be, or could it have turned out more pleasantly? That's what I'll be exploring in my next few books.

In a speech at the recent 1st Canadian Conference on Science/Science Fiction, you suggested that one purpose of SF is to reveal what scientists cannot because of the restrictions their positions place on them. For instance, university and government scientists have to watch what they say in order to keep their grants, and industry workers the same in order to keep their jobs. Can you expand on what you see as the ethical responsibilities of SF?
We SF writers fill an ecological niche that no one else does. We aren't beholden to industry or government grants. We can freely speculate on the pluses and minuses of new inventions; in William Gibson's words, we can, and should, be profoundly ambivalent about new technologies. There is a faction of SF writers that use the genre for pure technological boosterism; science can do no wrong. There's also another faction that still intones that old B-movie cliché that "there are some things man was not meant to know." But I think the majority of us fall in the middle. We understand and appreciate science, but we also know how things can go awry. And, of course, almost all of our current moral debates are fundamentally scientific: the abortion debate, after all, is entirely about weighing the consequences and ramifications of a technological breakthrough, namely the ability to terminate a fetus without harming the mother. Our job is to present a smorgasbord of possibilities, and let society chose which of the potential futures they want to make actual.

These days it seems that we're constantly hearing news of education cutbacks, and science itself seems to get increasingly specialized and inaccessible to the layman. You've spent considerable time teaching over the years, at places like Ryerson Polytechnic, the Taddle Creek Writers' Workshop, and the Banff Centre for the Arts. Have you seen any impact from these trends in the quality of new SF writers?
Actually, the most buoying thing that happens to me these days is going into a classroom. In addition to occasionally teaching science fiction writing at university, I also visit a lot of high-school classes to talk about SF; like David Brin, I really think we have an obligation, as well as some enlightened self-interest, in encouraging the development of a new generation of science fiction readers. And whenever I see students in the flesh -- rather than reading the horror stories about them that the media seem to report on a daily basis -- I am enormously encouraged. Not only are today's students intelligent and sophisticated, but they're polite, good-humoured, and a real joy to spend time with. After one of those visits, I don't despair at all about the future of science fiction writing or reading; as far as I can tell, the cutbacks, lamentable though they are, haven't dampened the enthusiasm today's youth has about the future.

I understand you're embarking on a non-fiction book soon, A Fantastic Life: Writing Science Fiction in Canada. Do you feel that your experience as a Canadian SF author has been significantly different enough from that of American or British SF authors to warrant such a book? How so?
Bram Stoker Award-winner Edo van Belkom is an acquisitions editor for Quarry Press, one of Canada's leading literary publishers. It was actually he who asked me to do this book; he's a big fan of Richard Laymon's A Writer's Tale, which is indeed an excellent memoir, and he asked me if I'd like to do something similar, and, of course, I jumped at the chance.

As for whether my experiences as a Canadian SF writer are materially different from those of my U.S. colleagues, actually I think the answer is indeed yes. At this stage, of course, A Fantastic Life is just a working title; another title I'm considering is The Best of Both Worlds, which is what I really think I've got in a couple of ways.

First, of course, I am making a rather substantial income these days, when you factor in North American advances and royalties, foreign advances and royalties, and TV/movie stuff; it's not unusual for a genre-fiction writer with a good backlist and a decent following to have a reasonable degree of fortune; that's one of the two worlds. But the other world is fame, and most U.S. genre fiction writers are ignored in their own country. But, to my astonishment and delight, I do enjoy a degree of fame in Canada. My books are mainstream bestsellers here, appearing on the bestsellers lists in both Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine and The Globe and Mail: Canada's National Newspaper; I appear frequently on national television, averaging about one appearance every two weeks; the CBC and many Canadian newspapers call me for comments on science stories; I get recognized with a fair bit of regularity on the street; and so on. This is astonishing to most U.S. SF writers, but it's par for the course here in Canada. So, I really do get the best of those two worlds, fame and fortune.

But I also enjoy the lovely combination of the best of the worlds of literary respectability and commercial success. Maclean's recently did a profile of me that called me "among the most successful Canadian authors ever"; it's hard to imagine something similar being said about a U.S. hard SF author. I get invited constantly to speak at mainstream literary festivals -- in August, I was at one in British Columbia where Michael Ondaatje gave the opening reading and I gave the closing one -- and my books are shelved not just in the SF section but also up at the front of stores with the general new releases; I get literary grants; my books are widely taught at Canadian universities, and not just in SF courses but in Canadian literature courses and philosophy courses; and so on.

I rarely talk about this in the earshot of American SF writers, because, of course, few of them enjoy that kind of life, but since you asked about it, yes, I will say my writing life in Canada is indeed quite fantastic, and I'm having a blast. I feel real kinship with my friend Stephen Baxter, who enjoys the same sort of double life in the U.K. -- all the perks that come with success in commercial fiction writing, and all the perks that go with being a respected mainstream literary success. It really is heaven.

Copyright © 2000 by Kim Fawcett

Kim Fawcett is a professional writer who finances her SF/F habit with contract work in the Ottawa high-tech industry. She aspires to expertise in a variety of areas, including photography, sketching, gourmet cooking, fencing, and herbalism. Once a year she suffers a bout of temporary insanity and writes a novel in three days.

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