Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Robert J. Sawyer
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Rob Sawyer has been described as the hardest working SF writer in Canada, but that title
doesn't begin to cover it. If there's an award, he's won it -- not just the usual Hugo or Nebula,
but also the Prix Aurora, the Seiun, the John W. Campbell Memorial, the Skylark, and the
Heinlein, some of them multiple times -- and that's not even talking about all the other
nominations. Last year he received an appointment to the Order of Canada, the highest civilian
honor bestowed by the Canadian government, recognizing a lifetime of outstanding achievement
Also last year, he appeared at the third Starmus Festival in Tenerife, Canary Islands, sharing
the stage with such luminaries as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nobel Prize winners Adam Riess and
Eric Betzig. His work has landed on the #1 spot on most any bestseller list you can imagine, he's
seen his fiction adapted for the small screen, and he has made hundreds of appearances on
television and radio. Over the years Rob has published twenty-three novels and two short story
collection. He has taught science fiction writing at universities and workshops and is in great
demand as a speaker on everything from consciousness to paleontology. And every year seems to
bring more than the year before.
Schoen: Having singled you out as a Canadian author (though you possess dual citizenship),
it's worth noting that you regularly include Canadian references in your books. Let's begin there,
with a gross generality or two. What do you think is the big difference between Canadian SF --
by which I mean speculative fiction composed by Canadian authors -- and current American SF
(i.e., authors in the United States)? And in your assessment is it more or less like contemporary
Sawyer: Canadian readers are way more open to unhappy or ambiguous endings than are
American readers, and Canadian writers are more predisposed to provide them. Fellow Toronto
author Terence M. Green and I used to argue with our mutual Tor editor, the late, great David G.
Hartwell, in order to retain the downbeat in our books. Now, I'm an optimistic writer, and I think
ultimately my books are uplifting, but I also try for bittersweet poignancy, and that was a little
difficult to get past New York editors.
Canadian SF tends more toward hard SF than does current American SF. Besides me, there's
Robert Charles Wilson, Julie E. Czerneda, Alison Sinclair, Madeline Ashby, Hayden Trenholm,
Karl Schroeder, Gerald Brandt, Donald Kingsbury, Peter Watts, Derek Künsken, Paddy Forde,
Susan Forest, Andrew Barton, Rich Larson, and Eric Choi. Steven Erikson, best known as an
epic fantasist, has a fabulous SF novel called Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart coming out soon. My
university buddy Tanya Huff is an aberration, writing pure-quill space opera in her Valor series,
although it is, of course, excellent.
Ultimately, we Canadians are informed by our national identity, just as Americans are. And
the reality is that Canada, at best, is a middle power. We can't make anyone do anything -- we
have to persuade by moral example and accept compromise solutions rather than aiming for total
I'd say Canadian SF is somewhat more like British SF than American, but you can see the
longing for lost empire -- something Canada never had -- in much British space opera; there's
nothing comparable in Canadian SF.
Schoen: Back in 2004 you began an affiliation with Red Deer Press, lending your name to
their science fiction imprint which published a handful of books each year. You personally
selected the titles to publish, which suggests that -- even with slush readers -- you spent a lot of
time reviewing manuscripts. This isn't the sort of thing we tend to see from bestselling authors
like yourself, and it had to have sucked up a lot of your time. Obviously you saw this as a good
thing to do, so I'm hoping you'll take a moment to speak to the value of creating your own brand
of authors as you've done. What does the reading community get out of it, and what do you take
away from the experience?
Sawyer: Well, my little line wrapped up in 2009, with what's still the best Canadian SF
anthology ever published, Distant Early Warnings. I loved editing the line and did all the
editorial work myself -- I never used slush readers. My guidelines were very specific --
philosophically oriented hard-SF standalone novels -- and there just aren't that many of those
being written these days, so although there was a steady stream of submissions, it was rarely
overwhelming. But I published fabulous first novels by Alberta's Danita Maslan and New York's
Nick DiChario; in fact, I did two by DiChario, and both went on to be finalists for the John W.
Campbell Memorial Award, the top juried SF award.
I also had the privilege of publishing the final novel by the now-deceased Phyllis Gotlieb, the
mother of Canadian SF, our first author who stayed in Canada while still selling to major US
I absolutely wanted to give back to a community that had been very good to me, but it was
indeed a lot of work; as I once quipped to the publisher, you are 10% of my income, 50% of my
labor, and 90% of my headaches. But, by and large, it was a joy, and if the right editing
opportunity came along again, I'd be happy to take it on.
Schoen: About a decade ago you shared some hard truths about publishing SF (and they're
still up there on your website), including such grim statistics as fewer than 1% of wannabe SF
writers will ever see even a single story published and that only 10% of even those precious few
who are lucky enough to sell a novel will ever sell anything else. And yet, since that time we've
seen a surge of both ebook sales and indie authors. Care to revisit your earlier numbers? Are
these more recent trends game changers or is it still business as usual and just another case for
the whole signal-to-noise ratio?
Sawyer: Well, we now have to add the mandatory adjective "professionally" in front of
"published" -- or "traditionally," I suppose. Of course, today, anyone can publish anything; it's
no achievement whatsoever to hit the upload button. But publishing in this magazine, or its
quality competitors? Having a book from one of the big-five New York houses? Absolutely the
1% figure still holds.
There's a reason romance and erotica are the top-selling categories in self-publishing: that
model rewards the prolific releasing of shorter works that are consumed rapidly and then
discarded, never to be thought about again. And the bulk of the SF coming out as self-published
work is novella or short-novel-length fungible space opera or military SF produced by people
cranking out three, four, five, or more titles each year. It's not where you'll typically find
something as ambitious as a Kim Stanley Robinson novel, or, say, David Brin's Existence or
Robert Charles Wilson's The Affinities, or, if I may be so bold, my own work; it's not the
distribution channel for most serious, thoughtful writing.
Schoen: Your most recent novel, Quantum Night, takes on the issue of the immutability of
human nature. To simplify this for the readers here, let's reduce this to a question I used to ask
my students back in my days as a psychology professor: At the end of Dickens's A Christmas
Carol, Scrooge appears changed by his spiritual visitations. It's a joyous Christmas for all. But,
do you believe this transformation is permanent, or will the impact of his phantasmagoric
experiences fade with time, leaving him to revert to the patterns of a lifetime of behavior? Is it
enough to state that human nature is changeable, or will you go further and talk about what
efforts or circumstances are needed to move beyond those old patterns and embrace new ways?
Sawyer: I absolutely believe human nature can change, both individually and on the species
level, and that the changes can stick. Take my own generation, the tail end of the World War II
baby boom. We in much of North America were brought up by stern, aloof fathers who served
mainly as breadwinner and disciplinarian. Well, I look at my male contemporaries who have
become fathers themselves, and it's night and day: they're active, affectionate, loving, supportive
participants in their children's lives; it's a complete one-eighty in one generation.
In my lifetime, the advancement in civil rights across the board has been astonishing: from
segregation in the U.S. to a black president as just one example. Sure, not everyone has made the
same amount of moral progress, but most have, and, like scientific progress, moral progress is
cumulative; each generation sees further because it stands on the shoulders of those who went
before. I don't know if most of us will ever become half-machine cyborgs or get genetically
engineered gills, but I'm confident that most of us have become better people over our own
lifetimes, and that the human species will continue its moral ascent.
Schoen: As an author whose known for his work in hard SF, do you see your books as a
platform for reaching readers who enjoy your work but also are climate-change deniers and/or
evolution-bashers, or have such readers already self-selected out of your audience? Or, to allude
back to the previous question, can you use your novels to change their nature? And if so, do you
feel any obligation to do so and does that in turn influence what you write?
Sawyer: I write science fiction; anti-science types -- climate-change deniers, young-Earth
creationists, and so on haven't just self-selected out of my readership, they've self-selected out of
the mainstream; indeed, they've abjured reality. I used to ask my late agent, Ralph Vicinanza,
who was, after all, one of Stephen King's agents, why he didn't get me the same sort of deals
Michael Crichton used to get. Ralph said, quite rightly, that Crichton is an anti-science writer,
and, of course, I could never bring myself to be that, no matter how much money it might earn.
I have no doubt I've taught a lot of people about a lot of things, but a basic appreciation for
truth? That's something that's beyond my powers. I do think I've helped people find their own
ways to tolerance and to understanding just how wonderfully vast our scientific knowledge is
these days, though, and I do take great pride in that.
Schoen: You've already had one impressive television series (FlashForward) based on your
work. And you've mentioned that you have a development deal with a major Canadian
broadcaster for a new series. Are you at liberty to say anything more about that yet, even if it's
just a little teaser to keep us hungry?
Sawyer: Well, sadly, that deal fell apart, as these things almost always do; it's just the nature
of the industry. But I have lots of other irons in the fire. Right now, Red Planet Blues is in
development for a Hollywood feature; I'm working with a different major Hollywood name on
an adaptation of my Hugo Award-nominated novel Rollback; and there's been a resurgence of
interest in my novel Hominids and its sequels. And I'm also talking with a major player about
developing an original project for TV. My goal is to bring some thoughtful SF, on a par with
FlashForward, onto the small screen that doesn't look like SF; that is, something present day or
near future, filled with ideas and compelling characters rather than explosions and special effects.
Schoen: Over the course of nearly two dozen novels you've taken on some impressive
themes, giving us your spin on topics such as paleontology, artificial intelligence, human
consciousness, evolution, and time travel. While no parent wants to be asked to pick a favorite
among their children, I'm hoping you'll set that metaphor aside and reveal which of these holds
the most appeal to you, or the most promise, or excites you more than the others. Similarly,
which (if any) do you think you've said all you want to say about and have no plans to revisit?
Sawyer: Writers have favorites for different reasons: FlashForward, because it made me the
most money, thanks to the TV series; Hominids, because it won the Hugo, the top international
award in my field; Illegal Alien, because it was the most fun to write; Quantum Night, because I
think it's the best thing I've ever written.
I think writing about the science of consciousness is the most fertile ground for modern SF:
it's wonderfully interdisciplinary, combining neuroscience, artificial intelligence, childhood-developmental studies, psychology, evolutionary biology, and philosophy. That field was formed
the background for The Terminal Experiment, Mindscan, my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and
Wonder, Triggers, and Quantum Night, and I'm sure I'll have more to write in that area.
However, although paleontology is my favorite of all sciences -- I'd originally planned to
pursue it professionally -- I've probably exhausted what I want to do with it fictively. Still, the
thing about paleontology is we literally never know what we're going to find -- one fortuitous
discovery can change everything. Physics is far more about confirming what we already believe
we know, and therefore, in a way, is less likely to generate an intriguing storyline.
Schoen: You've received two honorary doctorates, one of letters back in 2007 and one of law
in 2014 (no pressure, but 2021 is coming up fast). Your fiction shows an obvious commitment to
scholarship and science, dating back before these awards. Has either of these honorary degrees
had an impact on your writing?
Sawyer: Well, it's funny you should suggest I should get a third on schedule. The second one
was, believe it or not, originally intended to be a divinity degree: that one was from the
University of Winnipeg, and the proposal to bestow it was jointly made to the university's
president by the dean of science and the emeritus dean of theology, in recognition of the
thoughtful treatment of the science-and-religion dialog on my books.
My first honorary doctorate, by the way, was from Laurentian, the largest university in
northern Ontario. It was proposed by a professor of psychology, and by two professors whose
specialty was game theory, a branch of economics I often invoke in my fiction. The fact that
academics in such diverse disciplines have championed my work means the world to me.
I don't think the honorary degrees, per se, have changed my writing, but, up until last year,
when I was named to the Order of Canada, nothing impressed my father more than those
honorary doctorates. He's Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Toronto, and he
knows how rare and special an honorary doctorate is.
Schoen: Last question: As someone who regularly writes about the future, what do you see
when you look forward into the next decade or two for yourself? Are there new areas of human
endeavor and/or science that you're already planning to delve into in the next book or three? Do
you envision spending more time bringing stories to television and film? Or as your personal star
continues to rise ever higher will you spend more time in public speaking and teaching, inspiring
countless other authors and scientists? Or do you see yourself just continuing on as you've been
doing, with the exception of also now and then swearing in new citizens using your new powers
as a recipient of the Order of Canada?
Sawyer: I'm really torn; my constant refrain for the last couple of years has been that I don't
know what I want to do when I grow up, and so I'm casting bottles in the ocean. For a guy who
completely and very deliberately directed his own career to date, I'm surprising myself by really
leaving it up to happenstance what I do next. I recently had to turn down, because of scheduling
conflicts, the opportunity to be writer-in-residence at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human
Imagination at the University of California, San Diego (where I would have succeeded David
Brin in that position); I've applied for a teaching fellowship at a Canadian university; I'm
continuing to pitch properties in Hollywood and Toronto; I'm poking at my twenty-fourth novel;
and, frankly, I'm looking with envy at a number of my friends from high school who are now
retiring to a life of leisure while still in their healthy 50s; I'm lucky enough that I could indeed
afford to do that now, too. But I also feel called to do more public service, to continue to teach
and mentor, and to find new creative challenges. I can choose to write another novel, and, at this
stage, be confident that it will sell, but all the other possibilities depend on someone else saying
yes… and only time will tell if someone will.