Interview: Robert J. Sawyer
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Interview ISBN/ITEM#: 0704RSI
Date: April 1, 2007
Canadian science fiction author Rob Sawyer isn't shy about his passion or talent in writing science fiction, and he's got the awards (Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, and more) to back him up. But in a field where most authors are modest, quiet and nerdy, Rob stands out as only one out of the three at best. And wait a minute...he's Canadian as well. Isn't there some rule that Canadians have to be polite and soft spoken? OK, he is actually pretty polite, and it's not like he shouts, but he's not about to keep quiet when it comes to any of the things he's interested in.
So, really, we've got to ask. Who does Robert J. Sawyer think he is, anyway?
Note: In the finest tradition of these things, I really didn't come to bury Rob, but to praise him. Publishers don't want to spend any more effort on promotion than they have to, and with rare exception, if an author wants their work in front of readers long enough to make an impression they've got to push themselves out of reticent and retiring and come to grips with the marketing monster. Rob was one of the folks who realized this early on, and writers that started after him have taken that lesson and run with it, even some Canadians like Cory Doctorow and Peter Watts who have embraced working the web with unholy vigor.SFRevu: Rob, I like your stuff, and I've already said (and the review that goes with this will attest) that your latest novel, Rollback, is (to steal a phrase from the book) "skytop," but in a crowd of socially challenged science fiction writers you stand out like a sore thumb. And your website: www.sfwriter.com? Shouldn't you be like, more meek? Or if not meek, how about edgy? Outgoing and likable...what's with that?
Robert Sawyer: I was the very first SF author to have a website; mine's been online since June 29, 1995. I registered sfwriter.com as the domain for it in January 1998 -- and was frankly surprised that no one else had taken it; this was the era when names like accountant.com and barbershop.com were in hot demand. I wish I'd thought to register scifi.com -- that one sold for a fortune to the SciFi Channel, as I understand it. Sure, I'm not the only SF site -- but then neither is SFsite.com, and your site, old boy, is hardly the only SF review site. But I choose it not out of megalomania, but the exact opposite; back then, I thought domain names that were a person's name were pompous, and you'll see that most of us early adopters of the web -- Kevin J. Anderson with WordFire.com, John E. Stith with Neverend.com -- felt it was unseemly and self-aggrandizing to use our own names.
As you mention, I stand out a bit -- mostly because I do a lot of radio and TV interviews. And I wanted a website that I could name on the air that people would remember. "Now, who was that SF writer I heard interviewed today? Oh, yeah -- he's at sfwriter.com." I honestly don't do very much promotion for my work -- far less than lots of other writers I know -- but what I do is effective. I've got a degree in radio and television arts and spent a lot of the 1980s writing promotional materials for corporations, so I know how to do it. But, hey, if anyone wants the sfwriter.com domain name -- first $100,000 takes it!
SFRevu: Long ago I interviewed you and we talked about character creation. You proclaimed that your characters did what you told them to, and there was no monkey business about telling their story involved. Moreover, anyone who thought their characters were speaking to them and begging to get their stories out seriously needed to get help. As I was dating a fantasy writer of exactly that ilk at the time, proudly playing said interview did not have the desired result. Have you softened over the intervening years?
Rob: Not in the least. Reviewers often say I write realistic characters -- and they often express surprise at finding such things in hard science-fiction books. But what that means is that I've got a decent enough grasp of psychology (which is what I studied as a sideline while I was doing my broadcasting degree). Actually, when I was studying psych, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were just coming off the B.F. Skinner era, in which the human brain was treated as an unknowable black box, governed by inputs and outputs; I don't think the word "consciousness" was ever mentioned once in the psych courses I took. But I knew that was the wrong approach then -- and it's probably why so many of my novels, including Fossil Hunter, Factoring Humanity, and Mindscan, are about how the mind does work. If you think, as I do, that the human mind is comprehensible and mostly predictable, you understand what you're setting your characters up to do. When a writer is surprised by what a character does, it means the writer has been sloppy in designing the character.
SFRevu: Lots of your countrymen write really serious SF about how the world order will be changed by science and stuff like that. Big important stories with important philosophical points to them. But not you. No, you write first contact novels where everybody goes on about their business, even though we're growing alien clones in a corporate lab, or popping over to the next universe for sex with Neanderthals or whatever. Couldn't you be a little more...I don't know...apocalyptic?
Rob: Well, I disagree on the philosophical stuff; I think my novels are steeped in philosophy -- and, indeed, they're often enough taught in philosophy classes. But, yeah, I do part company with a lot of modern science fiction, including some by other Canadians. At heart, I believe in the adaptability of the human organism: come what may, we'll deal with it in stride. Many of my colleagues seem to feel we're at the end of history, the beginning of Clarke's era of things being indistinguishable from magic, and on the cusp of some transcendence to a higher level of being. I think being warm and wet and human is wonderful, and am looking for paradigms in which we survive as discrete individuals in conjunction with other forms of life or advanced AI. In other words, I, for one don't welcome our new alien/computer overlords, and despite the Borg mantra, I don't think resistance is futile. We've got oodles of things still to do as humans.
SFRevu: Doesn't it seem like the world is falling apart at the seams? Shouldn't your characters be filled with angst, driven to overturn society and free the proletariat from their corporate masters? Sure they've got their problems, but they're all problems on a human scale.
Rob: I guess I'm an optimist at heart. For one thing, I think in a lot of ways the world is a better place than it was when I was a kid. Look at the enormous strides in civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights; look at the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the European Union; look at the modern environmental movement. Sure, there's lots that's still screwed up, but we are making progress.
As for my characters and their problems, I believe science fiction should combine the intimately human and the grandly cosmic; it's a fractal genre that should be emotionally moving no matter what level of magnification you bring to the story. I know an editor who quips that mainstream fiction is about the inner lives of ordinary people and science fiction is about the outer lives of extraordinary people. I reject that. The only way to give the wide awe and wonder of the night -- if I may quote the Canadian poet Archibald Lampman -- a human context is to juxtapose it with real human concerns.
SFRevu: William Gibson (look...I'm comparing you to Gibson now...it's contagious) was asked at one point why he didn't write stories like Neuromancer anymore. The sense of it was, as I recall, that he said he be happy to, if he could, but it wasn't really up to him. How has your writing changed since my favorite Sawyer...Far-Seer?
Rob: I made a deliberate course correction in my career. I did six science-fiction novels that were all spaceships-and-aliens or off-Earth: Golden Fleece, Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, Foreigner, End of an Era, and Starplex. Now, I'm very much in the H.G. Wells mold as a writer: I believe in SF as social comment. And I was making what I thought were important comments in these books, albeit disguised in SF clothing. Golden Fleece was about the folly of Reagan's Star Wars missile-defense program; Far-Seer was about the Catholic Church's clashes with science; Far-Seer was about evolution vs. creationism, and so on. But although I was getting favorably noticed by SF readers, I was finding it impossible to get non-SF readers to read books that had starships or intelligent dinosaurs on the cover.
I had things I wanted to say to a wider audience, and I thought I could still do that without abandoning the tools of science fiction. The Terminal Experiment was my breakout book -- it won the Nebula Award for 1995 -- and it was set on Earth, in the near future, but was still absolutely science fiction; indeed, it was my first of four novels serialized in Analog, and you can't find a more pure-quill SF publication than that.
I found I didn't lose any SF readers by bringing the setting closer to home, but that suddenly I was getting a big non-SF-reading audience as well. My career ever since has been a tightrope walk, balancing between appealing to the core SF readership and to intelligent readers who don't normally go into the SF section. That Calculating God could hit #1 on the Locus bestsellers' list -- which is based on a survey of SF specialty bookstores -- and also be a top-ten national mainstream bestseller in Canada was a sign that I was successfully doing what I'd set out to do; that Hominids could win the Hugo voted on by hardcore SF fans and also be adopted for a giant, general community-wide reading program -- the "One Book, One Community" program in Waterloo Region, Ontario -- was another sign that I was accomplishing my dual goal.
Now, yes, I do sometimes like to jump in the playpen and have fun with spaceships and killer robots and all that -- I did conceptual work for Harmony Gold on the recent revival movie for Robotech, for instance, and that was a blast -- but in general I think I've made the right choice for me creatively in concentrating on this side of the singularity rather than the far side of it.
SFRevu: Well, while we're on the subject, when will we get a sequel to the Quintaglio Ascension, or have I asked that already? Or did I miss it?
Rob: I'm really happy that people still enjoy Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner; it's been fifteen years since the first of them was originally published. Tor recently reissued all three in trade paperback editions, and they're doing well. I keep trying to convince Tor to also do editions of them in their Starscape young-adult line, because I think they'd do really well there. I might indeed go back and write more about the Quintaglios at some point -- I've got a notion about doing a parable about the U.S. civil-rights struggle on the Quintaglio world, which I think would be fascinating.
SFRevu: How does Canadian SF differ from the US or even the UK variety, and who do you look to for the best new work? (Among Canadians I'm a big fan of Karl Schroeder, and Peter Watt's Blindsight was terrific)
Rob: Karl Schroeder is great; I edit a small-press line of books in Canada, and I got to publish Karl's first short-story collection. I think the other killer Canadian SF writers -- besides, obviously, Spider Robinson and Bill Gibson -- are Robert Charles Wilson, Julie E. Czerneda, Scott Mackay, and Minister Faust.
As for what makes SF different, despite what I said about optimism, I think all those people who have sent me notes over the years saying they cried at the end of one of my books will understand this quip I like to make: American SF has happy endings, Canadian SF has sad endings, and British SF has no endings at all. Americans set out to save the universe; Canadians set out to save their marriage. Canada isn't a superpower, and it's tradition on the world stage is as bridge builders and peacekeeper, and I think that shows up in a lot of Canadian SF. But we're such a diverse group these days. I feel the most kinship with Bob Wilson -- he's one of my very best friends, and although our stuff differs in some ways, we're both very similar in others. Certainly the notion that just having a gosh-wow SF concept isn't enough -- that it has to be connected to real, fallible humans -- is something we share.
SFRevu: What happened to the future? It's a question that's getting overly worn these days, but your writing seems to address it by saying that the whether or not we get flying cars, as soon as the future becomes the present, it's no longer special. Is that how you see it?
Rob: Again, it's that wonderful human adaptability. I mentioned Robert Charles Wilson a moment ago; he recently hit on a nice little definition of SF: "the literature of human contingency." That is to say, SF stories recognize that things could have turned out differently. When I consider how much the world has changed just in my lifetime, it's clear we've got an amazing capacity to absorb and adapt to whatever comes our way. The first human went into space just before I turned one; the first heart transplant was when I was seven; we landed on the moon when I was nine; the World Wide Web came online when I was thirty; we decoded the human genome when I was forty. More: when I was a kid, they still had "coloreds-only" facilities in the American south, women were marginalized, and gays had to live secret lives. Now a Black man is running for president, women outnumber men at universities, and gay marriage is legal in my country. We've made enormous progress -- and we've only just begun.
SFRevu: Do we need a space program, or is that just twentieth century space fetishism?
Rob: Oh, for sure we do. We shouldn't need a genius like Stephen Hawking to tell us that it's folly to keep all our eggs in one basket. Despite my optimism, a natural disaster, or a pandemic, might wipe us out, if terrorism or warfare don't. We owe it to ourselves and our genes to be dispersed. We're a species that walked -- walked! -- out of Africa to spread over the entire world; we walked from Eurasia to North America across the Bering Land Bridge. We have an insatiable wanderlust -- and we've run out of new places to walk to. It's in the very fiber of our beings to want to explore, go farther, look over the horizon -- and we will do it.
SFRevu: Are you still having fun writing?
Rob: Yes -- but I'm having fun doing the other things that my writing has made possible, too. I've got a thriving sideline going as a keynote speaker, giving talks about the future to everyone from Computer Associates to the Federation of State Medical Boards; that's been an absolute blast. And I'm really enjoying teaching and working with new writers. I was writer-in-residence at the Odyssey workshop last year, and have taught SF writing at the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, and the Banff Centre, plus been writer-in-residence at several libraries; I find it exhilarating, and very rewarding in all ways but financial. I think my first decade as a novelist -- the 1990s -- was all about the books; this second decade has been about balancing the writing with other things that keep me fresh and excited. So far, it's going fine!
SFRevu: What haven't you done yet that you'd really like to...and are you working on it?
Rob: For ages, I've been saying I need to get away from it all -- just get the hell and gone away from the hustle and bustle, the convention circuit, doing media, and so on, and just quietly read and write for a good long time. And I'm getting that chance. Pierre Berton, who was one of Canada's most popular nonfiction writers, donated his family homestead in the Klondike -- 400 miles north of Yellowknife, just west of the Alaskan border in the Yukon Territory -- to be a writers' retreat. I applied for a residency there for July, August, and September of this year, and got accepted. My wife -- who is a poet -- and I are going up there with nothing but a couple of laptops and our Palms full of ebooks. It's going to be glorious.
SFRevu: What advice do you give writers just starting out?
Rob: You can't please everyone -- so don't even try. Your job isn't to be blandly acceptable to every reader; rather, you should be the favorite author of a narrow segment of the reading public. Write the kind of books you want to read; don't worry about market, and don't get caught up in the hive mind of a writer's group. And, most of all, persevere; this is an increasingly tough field to break into -- but no one except you can write your books.
SFRevu: And lastly...thank you both for your indulgence and for lots of enjoyable SF.