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A Conversation with Robert J. Sawyer -- Part 2
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 Interview: Robert J. Sawyer (Part 1)
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

Calculating God
Factoring Humanity
Illegal Alien

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

Your books each seem to have a hot button topic incorporated into them... rape, incest, divorce... how do you select which social themes to include?
It's not out of any desire to push buttons. Rather, it's about finding the best possible human story to make concrete the philosophical issues I want to talk about. The rape in Hominids is there to underscore both the themes of male violence and evolutionary psychology that underpin the whole Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. The supposed recovered memories of childhood abuse in Factoring Humanity are there to underscore just how much credence we put in this fallible thing we call memory, how little empathy we have for each other, and to make concrete the abstract point about quantum physics producing alternate universes: perhaps the main character didn't abuse his daughter in this universe, but does quantum physics really imply that there must be an alternate reality in which he really did?

Secondarily, I refuse to sanitize science fiction. No one would think twice about mainstream novels, mystery novels, or romance novels that have rape, incest, or marital strife in them. But, for some reason, some people seem to think science fiction should be devoid of such realities. I firmly believe that SF is not escapism, and yet the sanitized, entirely intellectual -- or entirely noble -- lives lived by so many characters in category SF represent nothing but an escape from reality. Yes, SF is the literature of ideas -- but all literature, including SF, is about the human heart, and I want to explore all facets of that.

Obviously, your next project is to finish The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. Can you give any indication of projects beyond that?
I recently finished a novelette called "Shed Skin" for the Bakkanthology, a book being published in Canada to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bakka, Toronto's SF specialty store. The anthology contains stories by all of us who have worked at Bakka at one time or another and gone on to be professional writers, including myself (whose tenure goes back the farthest; I worked at Bakka in 1982), Tanya Huff, Michelle West, Cory Doctorow, and Nalo Hopkinson. "Shed Skin" is a story about uploaded consciousness that explores an angle I haven't seen done before, and I'd very much like to expand on. As soon as I finish Hybrids, the final volume in The Neanderthal Parallax, I'll be pitching that, along with an offbeat first-contact idea, to David Hartwell, my editor at Tor.

Starplex was initially supposed to be part of a series. Although it was nominated for the Hugo Award, no subsequent books in that universe appeared. Why not?
Two reasons. First, I decided not to hold anything back in the first book, and instead cram it as full of ideas as I possibly could. I think that was the right choice, ultimately, and led to the book's success... but it also left me with no immediate place to go with a sequel. Starplex, after all, spans billions of light-years of space, and ten billion years of time. What do you do for an encore?

Second, a business reality: Starplex was bought by Susan Allison at Ace, but, by the time it was published in October 1996, I had moved to Tor, which had acquired Frameshift and a novel to be agreed upon later in an auction organized by my agent, Ralph Vicinanza. If I were to do a sequel to any of my older titles -- something I don't have any immediate plans for -- it would be one of the books Tor has, not one of the Ace ones, simply because Tor would be able to push the new book as well as the older, original book. It's simply bad business to split series over two publishers.

Do you ever re-read your novels? If so, how often?
Never! One has to read a book so many times during the writing, revising, editing, copyediting, and proofreading process that the thought of looking at one of them again has no appeal for me. Actually, I do look forward to reading them again in my dotage, when I won't remember having written them. My first novel, Golden Fleece, came out in 1990, when I was 30; I think re-reading it 40 years on, when I'm 70, would be about right for me.

Have you considered going back to write a sequel to any of your novels or do you view them as either self-contained or things of the past?
Writing is a business, and sequels can do very well, so, sure, I've considered it. Indeed, Far-Seer was intended to be a stand-alone novel; it was only because of reader and publisher interest that I went back and wrote first one sequel (Fossil Hunter) then another (Foreigner).

But I'm a huge fan of something Arthur C. Clarke said many years ago: the best way to end a novel is so that the readers can write the sequel themselves in their own minds. I like that Golden Fleece ends with an opening up to a whole new level, for instance. That said, The Terminal Experiment actually started life as a sequel to Golden Fleece. On the surface, it's hard to imagine to more different SF novels -- Golden Fleece is set in the far future aboard a spaceship, and Terminal Experiment is set in the very near future on Earth -- but, in fact, both deal with the scanning of brains to duplicate human minds. If I were to write a sequel to one of my extant works, I suspect it would be Illegal Alien, because the idea of a lawyer dealing with the issues that 21st-century science will put on the table suggests numerous possibilities that I'd like to explore.

Are you embarrassed by any of your published work, either by your writing ability at the time or by the views you espoused in the works?
Well, as I said above, I haven't re-read any of my works since they were published. But, no, I don't regret any of them, except perhaps the occasional infelicitous phrase that somehow slipped passed both me and my editor. If the subtext to the question is, Am I embarrassed by my "talking-dinosaur books," as a few people dismissively refer to the Quintaglio series (mostly people who have never read those books), the answer is a resounding no. I'm enormously proud of that series, and very much want to get it back into print.

As for the views expressed in my earlier works, some of them aren't the views I'd express today -- but so what? Life is a journey, and finished books are snapshots taken along the way. I wouldn't change them now, even if I could. Indeed, when Tor reissued both Golden Fleece and End of an Era, the first two novels I'd written, I had the opportunity to revise them, and I changed almost nothing in terms of plot, character, description, or dialogue. Mostly, I just updated the science, and incorporated a few additional cool ideas that had occurred to me in the time since they'd been first released.

You website proudly trumpets "700,000 words / 480 documents / 25,000 links." Who maintains the website? How involved with it are you?
I'm totally involved. It seemed obvious to me early on that the World Wide Web was going to change the world (there's a reason why I got for my domain name -- I got in early), and the best way to learn about the web seemed to be by trying to master the techniques of hypertext that underlie it. My web site dates back to 1995 -- Reuters says it was the first SF author site, and it predates Ninety-five percent of what's on the site has been handcoded by me in ASCII; I don't use an HTML editor, because I really want to see how the code works. I admit the result is massive, but it really is only about one day's work a month. It's just that, over seven years now, that's added up to about four months worth of five-day weeks -- and one can do a lot in that much time.

Is the film Illegal Alien still a viable project?
Yes, indeed -- although whether it will actually ever get made, who knows? So many things can derail a motion picture. But there have been twelve drafts of the screenplay written by Michael Lennick, and he's really gotten it down to a very slick, very entertaining two hours of screen time. The producer involved, David Coatsworth, was one of the producers of Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Sixth Day and Jackie Chan's The Tuxedo -- indeed, my wife and I got to go onto the set of The Tuxedo and watch a bit of the filming, which was great fun. The option of Illegal Alien is in its fourth year -- which means that, by this point, quite a bit of money has been spent by the producer. The option is up for renewal in November. I've been told that Coatsworth is definitely going to renew again, and very much wants to move the project to the front burner.

Which of your novels (or short stories) do you think would make the best film or television mini-series?
I've actually written series proposals based on both End of an Era and Flashforward, both of which I think could be done very nicely for television; anyone who's interested can contact my Hollywood agent, Vince Gerardis, at Created By. As for movies, most SF films are not star vehicles -- the special effects are the stars. But I think that both Frameshift and Hominids offer roles that could be Academy Award-winning turns in the hands of the right actors. In Frameshift, the part of Pierre Tardivel, as he descends from vigorous health into Huntington's Disease would be very poignant. Tom Cruise stood by and watched Dustin Hoffman take home the Oscar for Rain Man, because the challenging role in that film was indeed Hoffman's -- but Cruise actually would make a very fine Pierre Tardivel. I also think there's a really meaty role for someone playing Ponter Boddit, the Neanderthal stranger-in-a-strange-land from Hominids.

In your opinion, how do written science fiction and filmed science fiction differ?
Filmed SF is usually about special effects, and spends little time on the inner emotional life of characters. Modern printed SF is usually exactly the opposite. It's often painful watching Enterprise, for instance: those characters never have anything but the most sophomoric of conversations. A good SF novel contains characters you'd like to spend some time with, not a bunch of arrested adolescents. Also, of course, there's hardly any real science in SF film, but in SF literature the science is rigorously researched and logically extrapolated. I find myself rarely going to SF movies these days, and watch no SF TV series on a regular basis. I don't think that it's true any longer that the golden age of SF is when you're sixteen, at least as far as print SF is concerned -- but it's absolutely true that 16-year-olds are the market that most SF filmmakers and TV producers are aiming for.

At the time of this interview, you're involved in making the pilot for "Faster Than Light," a radio series to be broadcast on the CBC. Although I imagine it is too early to say if the series will be picked up, what can you say about the first episode and where you would like to see the series go in the future if it is picked up?
The pilot will be broadcast in September -- but it's already been recorded and it came out very well indeed, so I certainly do hope it will be picked up. I'm the host of "Faster Than Light," which is a series consisting principally of full-cast radio-drama adaptations of classic SF stories. For the first episode, we did Tom Godwin's always-controversial "The Cold Equations." I do the Rod Serling bit, introducing each adaptation. But I also do interviews with SF authors -- for the pilot it was Nalo Hopkinson -- and three- or four-minute commentaries on the state of SF. It was an absolute treat to get to do the pilot, and I would be thrilled if the series ran for five years.

In a 2002 interview with Marc Bailly, you commented "But if aliens do exist, yes, I suspect we'll make contact in this century -- hopefully while I'm still alive." At the same time, you noted that you don't believe anything without evidence. What is the basis for the above stated suspicion?
I was mostly referring to SETI -- the search for signals from alien intelligences by the use of radio telescopes and optical scans of the sky. We will certainly have completed a very thorough survey of the entire sky long before the end of the 21st century, and so if SETI is going to ever bear any fruit, it will do so by then.

Also, I wouldn't be surprised if we're traveling to other stars by the end of the century. That might seem incredible, but if you'd asked someone in 1902 about what advances the 20th century was going to hold, they never would have guessed lasers, or the decoding of the human genome, or people on the moon, or heart transplants, or birth-control pills -- and the rate of technological advancement in this century is going to be much greater than in the last one. Do I believe aliens exist? No. As you say, there's zero credible evidence to support that belief. Do I believe we will add a persuasive amount of evidence one way or the other to form a firm belief on that question in the next ten decades? Yes. Science is racing ahead like a rocket.

Of the various aliens you have created, which would you most like to share a universe with (and why)?
Well, that's a tricky question: the best aliens I've created are, by definition, the most alien -- and, because of that, probably the least enjoyable to spend time with. I think the Wreeds from Calculating God are my best creation, but they'd be no fun to go to a movie with. They're not really aliens, but the Neanderthals from the alternate universe I created for Hominids would probably be the most pleasant, and the most instructive, to really have around. They have such goodness, loyalty, and gentle humor. Of actual aliens, I suppose it would be the Forhilnors from Calculating God; Hollus, the main alien character in that book, was a Forhilnor. I very much like the way they think. But I suppose the best of all to share a universe with would be the Ibs from Starplex. Because their lifespans are all precisely the same length, biologically preordained to end after a known, fixed number of days, they don't waste any time themselves, and consider it criminal to waste other people's time. That would be a refreshing group of beings to have around.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, you are the "dean of Canadian science fiction." What characteristics do you feel separate Canadian science fiction from science fiction written south of the border?
My friend Robert Runté, an academic in Alberta, may have said it most succinctly: American SF has happy endings, Canadian SF has sad endings, and British SF has no endings at all. Certainly, I, and several of my colleagues, have encountered resistance from U.S. editors to the concluding tone of our books. No one ever complains about the overt Canadian content, but they do have some concerns from time to time with the implicit Canadian sensibility, which is that some problems are inherently insoluble, and that triumphant victory isn't the only appropriate way to conclude a story. The U.S. is a superpower that is used to imposing its will on the rest of the world, and has barred its government agencies from using taxpayer funds to even consider defeat or surrender in military scenarios. Canada knows full well that it will never rule the world, and not even a megalomaniac like our current prime minister would ever think of himself as the most powerful man on the planet, the way U.S. presidents routinely seem to think of themselves.

I also think Canadian SF tends to pay more attention to traditional literary values than does American SF. I don't say that makes it one whit better than the Yankee brand, but it's a fact that, in Canada, if your SF does appeal outside of genre boundaries, there are rewards that are denied to American genre authors: mainstream bestsellerdom, readings at literary festivals, government grants, and so forth. To put it perhaps a shade too bluntly: it's not a coincidence that there are no Canadian authors currently writing for Baen.

On various occasions, you've noted that living in Canada where there are fewer authors, you have the benefits of both being a genre author and a mainstream author. What the negatives come along with that?
The only negative is intermittent, and it's jealousy from a few petty U.S. authors that aren't enjoying much success inside or outside the genre. Several years ago, back when the Genie online service still existed, I had a topic devoted to my work, and would, as every other author did, post my little bits of news as they happened. Finally, a friend said to me that I was being too conspicuously successful, posting about this TV show I was on, that radio program that interviewed me for an hour, this grant I'd received, that government kickback, this school adopting my book, that literary festival inviting me to read, this corporate speaking engagement, and so on. It didn't seem any different than the kind of stuff other Canadian authors were enjoying, but it was, I understand in retrospect, irritating for U.S. colleagues who had never once been interviewed on TV or had one of their books taught somewhere.

Is there anything non-Canadian authors could do to help spread enjoyment of science fiction to a more mainstream audience?
My friend Terence M. Green replies to anyone who says they don't like reading science fiction, "Which book did you read that led you to form that opinion?" And the answer is almost always none; it's a completely unfounded prejudice. I firmly believe that the SF genre has something to offer every reader. You like romance? Try Catherine Asaro or Anne McCaffrey. Action-adventure? Here's David Feintuch. Historical fiction? Say hello to Harry Turtledove or S.M. Stirling. Light comedy? Let me introduce you to Tanya Huff. Mystery? Here comes John E. Stith. Medical thrillers? Paging James White...

For myself, I finally got my father, who is a macroeconomist, reading SF by handing him Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. The key is to handpick an SF novel for someone who has never read one, and present it as a gift. I've done that repeatedly, and the response, almost without fail is, "Wow -- I didn't know science fiction could be like that."

In a 1997 interview with A.F. Ruaud, you discussed a nascent schism between Anglophone and Francophone Canadian science fiction. Has the situation improved in the intervening years?
Honestly, no. We still get along very nicely as individuals, but the noble experiment of SF Canada, a bilingual SF authors group containing English and French writers, has failed: Dave Nickle, the president of SF Canada a few years ago, resigned and urged the organization to disband. Most of the big-name English-Canadian SF writers are not members of SF Canada, which amounts to little more than a listserver these days; there just is no regular large-scale contact between those writing English-Canadian SF and those writing French-Canadian SF. English-Canadian SF can be a profession: people like me, Spider Robinson, William Gibson, Karl Schroeder, and Julie Czerneda do it for a living. French-Canadian SF is a hobby; there's just no way you can do it as your principal undertaking in life. It's got more in common with poetry -- a labor of love, often, to be sure, producing exceptionally fine work, but confined to small presses, and read, to be honest, by only a few hundred people.

David Hartwell and Glenn Grant have published two anthologies of Canadian science fiction in the United States (Northern Stars and Northern Suns). Do you feel they've had an actual effect on how Canadian science fiction and Canadian authors are perceived?
Northern Stars was a very important anthology, the equal of John Robert Colombo's 1979 Other Canadas and Judy Merril's original Tesseracts in terms of showing that there was a critical mass of quality Canadian SF writing. By virtue of only publishing authors who had not been in Northern Stars, Northern Suns is a less-significant book: a sampler of authors who might, or might not, eventually have an impact on the genre.

The most important thing Northern Stars did was show publisher Tom Doherty at Tor, and Harold Fenn, the president of H.B. Fenn and Company, Tor's Canadian distributor, that a book that was blatantly Canadian would sell as well as any other book in the U.S. market, but would sell significantly better than an American book in the Canadian market -- in effect, doing better on the North American stage than a comparable U.S.-centered book would do. The fact that Tor, in particular, has a vigorous Canadian-SF initiative, with myself, Phyllis Gotlieb, Terence M. Green, Karl Schroeder, Peter Watts, Robert Charles Wilson, and others, is directly attributable to that anthology. It also helped Nalo Hopkinson, too, even though she wasn't in that book, since Fenn is the Canadian distributor of Warner titles, and the Northern Stars experiment proved to Fenn that a Canadian-SF author published by an American house could be placed in large numbers with Canadian bookstores.

What do you see the role of science fiction being in the modern world?
I've given a lot of thought to that, since our principal role -- to foster informed debate about the consequences of changes in science and technology -- has already been fully achieved: the science fictional worldview has been co-opted, fully and completely, by the real world. What's left for us to do is fight the good fight about the value of rationalism over superstition, of openmindedness but not credulousness over dogma. Certainly, that's what I'm trying to do in my books.

If I had just begun reading science fiction, or come back to reading it after a long hiatus, and found that I liked your novels, what other contemporary authors would you recommend who have a similar feel?
I often see pairing my books in sale bundles with those of Robert Charles Wilson. Bob's one of my best friends, and so I suppose it's not surprising that he and I have similar artistic sensibilities. I also think people who like my work, especially for the big-ideas aspect, will enjoy Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan. That not one of the names I've mentioned is American is probably not a coincidence: Bob (a Canadian), Stephen (a Brit), Greg (an Australian), and I are all Commonwealth writers, and much of what's true about Canadian SF in particular is true about Commonwealth SF in general.

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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