Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview with Robert J. Sawyer
by Darrell Schweitzer
All you have to do to introduce Rob Sawyer and show why he's an important
science fiction writer is to cite his awards. His credits give new meaning to the
phrase "a list as long as your arm." He is one of only seven writers in history to
have won the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best
Novel, and he is the only Canadian to have done so. He won a Hugo for Best
Novel for Hominids (2002) after having had six previous nominations for Best
Novel, one for Best Novella, and two for Best Short Story. He won the Nebula for
The Terminal Experiment (1995) and has had additional nominations for Novel
and Novella. He won the Campbell for Mindscan (2006) and has had two previous
nominations for that award. He is honored in Canada with nine Aurora Award
wins and a record-breaking 28 further nominations.
He has also won top national honors in Japan, China, Spain, and France. He has
even won mystery awards (Best Canadian Mystery novel) for his science fiction
(Illegal Alien, 1997). There's a lot more, a Science Fiction Chronicle Award, an
Mississauga City Arts Council Award for Established Literary Artist of 2002 and
another City of Mississauga Civic Award in 2004 in recognition of his
accomplishments in science fiction. There's also a an honorary doctorate for
"international success in science fiction" from Laurentian University, a Ryerson
University Alumnus of Distinction Award, and so on and so on. It is clear that the
Canadians regard Robert J. Sawyer as a national treasure, as well they should.
Does this guy ever stop? In a word, no. He is a tireless and prolific practitioner of
"hard" science fiction, which might be otherwise called Big Thought SF, the story
of science fiction that is genuinely about something, that extrapolates off valid
science-fiction ideas and tries to actually show us where the world is headed, or
might be headed.
Besides that, he also writes well. His novels are gripping, fun to read, and leave
something behind for your brain to chew on.
He lives in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, with his wife, Carolyn Clink, a
His novels are Golden Fleece, Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, Foreigner, End of an Era,
The Terminal Experiment, Starplex, Frameshift, Flashforward, Illegal Alien,
Factoring Humanity, Calculating God, Hominids, Hybrids, Humans, Relativity,
Mindscan, and, most recently Rollback.
SCHWEITZER: So, what's your background? What brought you to the SF field?
SAWYER: Well, skipping over all that boring stuff between the Big Bang and
April 1960, I was born in Ottawa, Canada's Capital city. My father was an
economist, and shortly after I was born he was offered a teaching appointment at
the University of Toronto, so we moved there, and Toronto, or environs, has been
my home ever since.
I was first introduced to science fiction through kid's TV shows, most notably
Gerry Anderson's Fireball XL5, which started airing in Canada in 1963, when I
was three; I still consider the music played over the closing credits of that series
-- "I Wish I Was a Spaceman" -- to be my personal theme song.
When I was 12, my older brother and my dad noted what I was watching on TV,
and they got me some science-fiction books: Trouble on Titan, a YA novel by
Alan E. Nourse; The Rest of the Robots, Asimov's second robot collection; and
David Gerrold's first novel, Space Skimmer. I'm still enormously fond of all three,
and am thrilled to now be friends with David. In fact, we collaborated on editing
an essay collection entitled Boarding the Enterprise last year in honor of the 40th
anniversary of classic Star Trek, which, as anyone who has read my books knows,
was also a big influence on me.
Indeed, with all due respect to those book authors, I've got to say that it was media
science fiction -- the original Star Trek, the original Planet of the Apes, and, to a
lesser degree, the original Twilight Zone -- that really opened my eyes to SF as a
vehicle for social comment, for looking at the here and now.
Fast-forwarding: I knew from very early on that I wanted to write science fiction,
and I'd been captivated by Gene Roddenberry and Stephen E. Whitfield's book
The Making of Star Trek. So after high school I did a degree in Radio and
Television Arts at Toronto's Ryerson University. Ironically, in doing courses in
English literature there, I discovered that print, not film or TV, was were I really
wanted to be.
I made a living after I graduated in 1982 for the next decade mostly doing
nonfiction writing, plus the odd SF story on the side. I somewhat precipitously
became a full-time SF writer in 1990, when my first novel, Golden Fleece, came
For the record, anyone who says major awards have no financial value is full of
beans -- I made more money off of science fiction in the six months following
winning the Best Novel Nebula Award in 1996 for The Terminal Experiment than
I'd made in the six years preceding that. John Douglas, one of my editors on that
book, put it just right the day after I won the Nebula, I think: "Overnight, you've
gone from being a promising beginner to an established, bankable name." I've
made a comfortable living ever since, and now have 17 novels under my belt.
SCHWEITZER: What difference does it make, in terms of writing SF, that you
are a Canadian? Sure, it probably means you get more local media coverage, but I
note that all those books and TV shows you cite (except for Fireball XL5) were
American. Do you think that a Canadian perspective produces a different kind of
SF? Did you find it necessary to learn to "fake American" in order to sell to
American markets? Did anybody try to pressure you to do this?
SAWYER: Honestly, the difference it makes is principally financial. I make
about double what I'd be making if I lived in the States. First, science fiction
actually is quite popular in Canada, and people aren't such genre snobs here --
plus they like to buy Canadian. That means, even though the population is only
one-tenth as big, I sell as many copies in Canada as I do in the States, and that
makes me a national mainstream bestseller here, and that directly translates into
money in my pocket.
Being a big fish in a small pond has other advantages: I've got a lucrative sideline
going as a keynote speaker at conferences up here, doing about one major gig a
month. And there's a long list of paid library residencies and so forth; as we do
this interview, I'm sitting rent-free in Canada's north, being paid a stipend of
$2,000 a month to write a book that I'm already being paid by the publisher to
write. And although the really big bucks are doubtless in Hollywood movies, the
Canadian film industry is significant, and options tons of properties. Right now,
I've got film rights to ten of my novels under option, nine of which are to
As it happens, I'm a dual US-Canadian citizen -- my mother is an American who
was temporarily in Canada when I was born -- and someone asked me recently if
I'd ever thought of moving to the States. The implication was that, like actors
leaving Toronto to try their luck in L.A., that that should be my next move. But he
had it backwards, and I had to say to him, "Sorry, I couldn't afford the cut in pay."
Now, what about the impact on the words I write? Well, being a Canadian resident
hugely affects my perspective. Canada is a middle power, a nation of
peacekeepers, and a country that looks for compromise. There's no doubt that my
politics are liberal by American standards, and that my heroes are much more
pacifistic than most Americans would write. The most often quoted remark from
all my books is something an alien said in Calculating God: "Honor does not
have to be defended." To a Canadian that seems right: honor is something you
have, it can't be taken away by anyone; to a lot of Americans, though, that line
Anyone familiar with both Canada and the United States is aware that I criticize
both countries -- hell, the Government of Ontario gets ripped a new one in
Calculating God. But some of the commentary on Canada goes unnoticed by
some American readers, because they don't get the references, and so they think
I'm only taking swipes at the US government, and they get testy about that.
But I make no apologies. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980,
and Jimmy Carter reactivated Selective Service, I could have said screw that, I'm
in Canada, but I went and registered for the draft, and to this day I file a tax return
with the IRS. I'm an American citizen and criticizing both the countries I love is
not just my birthright, it is, I honestly believe, my patriotic duty -- God love the
Dixie Chicks! And, yes, just like them, I do love the United States: I don't think
anyone who has read the speech by the American president that appears in
segments at the beginning of each chapter in my Hybrids could think otherwise.
Right after 9/11, we put an American flag on our car in solidarity; it's still there
and it's the only flag on our car.
And, sure, lots of Canadians told me to Americanize my books if I wanted to sell
them to publishers in the Big Apple; they kept saying that Americans wouldn't get
what I was saying. But I refused to believe that Americans were that provincial, if
you'll forgive the pun. I've had books published by Warner, HarperCollins USA,
Ace, and Tor, and never once have any of them ever asked me to tone down the
Canadian content on my books. And why should they? Americans love Canada,
and Canadians, honest to God, love Americans.
SCHWEITZER: So, do you get your ideas from the secret P.O. Box in
Schenectady that American writers use, or another one somewhere in Canada?
But, more seriously, I should think that an important difference between Canadian
and American SF (and writing in general) is that may topics which are
controversial in the USA are not in Canada. I doubt Evolution is a big deal in
Canada, whereas in the US school system it's almost a taboo. I can see two ways
this could affect things. First, it could mean that you have more freedom writing in
Canada. Or it could mean that in order to make satirical or controversial points in
the US, you might seem to the Canadians to be belaboring the obvious. Any sense
of this? I imagine we have more flat-earthers in the US too. Or do I have a
greener-pastures view of Canada?
SAWYER: No, no, there's no doubt that intellectually, these days, the pastures
are greener in Canada. Our prime minister is only a moron; your president is an
idiot ... [laughs]. Seriously, of course there's a reactionary right wing here in
Canada, and religious fundamentalists, too, but they don't hold much political
sway, to which I'll say, advisedly, thank God.
But one very valid reading of my Neanderthal trilogy is that the Neanderthal
culture I portray is emblematic of Canadian ideals: full acceptance of alternative
lifestyles including the whole GLBT gamut and polygamy, plus secularism,
pacifism, and environmentalism, topped off with the willingness to give up
personal liberty for the common good (for the actual common good, not
trumped-up threats). It's significant that many American critics have termed the
portrayed world utopian. It isn't -- it's not no-place; it's that big honking land
you get to if you just keep driving north.
But, you know, I have had troubles with the US market, now that I think about it.
Back in 1994, I submitted The Terminal Experiment, as a finished manuscript, to
my then publisher, who had an option on the book -- and the publisher rejected it,
despite the fact that my previous books for them had been doing well (and, indeed,
they eventually bought five more books from me).
Now, there's no doubt that The Terminal Experiment -- which is about a
biomedical engineer who finds proof for the existence of the human soul -- is in
part about the abortion issue; it's not even subtextual; I say it directly in the book.
And the editor in question said they feared their ability to sell this material in the
Bible Belt. Yes, changes and cuts were suggested, but I refused to make them, and
my agent at the time, the redoubtable Richard Curtis, supported me in that.
So, we moved on to another publisher with a new imprint that I think really was
trying to draw attention to itself, the HarperPrism line, and they published the
book verbatim as the previous house had rejected it ... and, of course, The
Terminal Experiment went on to win the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of
America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year. So, I guess it paid to stick to
my guns ... which, of course, is something we Canadians only do metaphorically!
My great friend Robert Charles Wilson has recently come up with a definition of
what science fiction is (my own, incidentally, is "the mainstream literature of an
alternate reality"). He says that SF is "the literature of contingency" -- and he
very much is intending a Gouldian evolutionary reading of that. And, yes, damn it,
from The Time Machine on, SF has been, at its core, about evolution: how things
could have been different; how things might turn out. That America is turning its
back on the single greatest scientific truth we know -- natural selection resulting
in speciation -- is painful to me. It's no coincidence, I think, that the major SF
novels about evolution of the last several years -- my own Fossil Hunter and
Calculating God, and Stephen Baxter's aptly titled Evolution -- are by
As for getting the ideas, actually, the fount -- and I think this is true for many of
us hard-SF writers, regardless of nationality -- is really in Britain: the weekly
magazine New Scientist. How can you not love a magazine whose subtitle is "The
Week's Best Ideas"?
SCHWEITZER: There's a certain type of American (who probably vote
Republican; which I do not) who might say that the reason Canadians have this
more utopian view is that someone else has always looked out for them. They've
spent their entire history either under the protection of the British Empire or the
Americans. Is there any validity in that, or are Canadians just as good at staring
Hitler, Stalin, or Osama bin Laden in the face as anyone? Or does Canadian SF
look at things through rose-tinted glasses?
SAWYER: I would invite this hypothetical "certain type of American" to actually
read some history, old boy. First, Canada has been an independent country since
1867; we've hardly been relying on the Brits since then. As for the United States
protecting us -- when and from whom, one might ask? The wars the United
States has fought during my lifetime -- Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq --
were not particular threats to Canada, and Canadian peacekeepers are still in
Afghanistan, mopping up the mess made there. NORAD, the North American Air
Defense Command, is a joint US-Canada effort. In fact, a Canadian officer,
Canadian Forces Major General Rick Findley, was in charge of the battle staff at
NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain complex on September 11, 2001.
As for staring down Hitler and Stalin, Canada joined the Allied Powers and sent
our boys off to die in Europe starting September 10, 1939 -- just nine days after
the invasion of Poland. The US, on the other hand, sat on the sidelines until after
the attack on its own facility at Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, over two
Parenthetically, my favorite film is Casablanca, and I recently had someone refer
to it in my presence as "wonderful escapism." It's not: it's a pointed commentary
on the United States's failure to join in the fight against Hitler. The American
Rick Blaine says, "I stick my neck out for no one," and the European Ferrari has to
say to him, "My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today,
isolationism is no longer a practical policy?"
And as for Osama bin Laden, well, politely, he hasn't attacked Canada, although
we share in the outrage over what he's done. But I think its regrettable that all that
can be said is that perhaps he is being stared down, rather than apprehended, and
it's not been particularly effective leadership going after Saddam Hussein instead
of the real threat. But Canada faced its own home-soil terrorism crisis in October
1970, and then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau so effectively and swiftly dealt with
that event that it is no coincidence that there's been no act of terrorism on
Canadian soil in the 37 intervening years.
Canada's foreign-policy record (including our Prime Minister, Lester Pearson,
winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957), its foreign-aid record, its record of
vigorously joining battles in just wars, and its peacekeeping record speaks for
themselves. Canada doesn't have rose-colored glasses on -- but, if I may be so
bold, your hypothetical American of a certain type has on blinkers.
SCHWEITZER: I wonder why the publisher even worried about how
Calculating God or any of your novels would sell in the Bible Belt. Do they really
think that Fundamentalists buy anything more SFish than the Left Behind books?
SAWYER: I never claimed to understand my publisher's decision; I merely
report it -- but the book in question was The Terminal Experiment, not
Calculating God; Tor, who published the latter book, has been nothing but 100%
supportive in letting me tell my stories my way.
But, in fact, having been guest of honor at many SF conventions in the South --
Albuquerque, Houston, Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Orlando, and
Richmond, to name some -- it's clear that there are lots of SF readers down there,
and, yes, some of them do have a sensibility that varies from that in the north.
A fellow from Bethlehem, Georgia, wrote this of my Hybrids on Amazon.com: "I
mentioned in an earlier review that with respect to Sawyer's Liberalism, he let the
nose of the camel come peeking under the tent. Well, in Hybrids the camel is all
the way inside the tent and it has taken a dump in the middle. I'm going to have to
hold my nose if I read any more of his stories. Points include the old Military
Industrial Complex as the boogieman, and universal homosexuality being
Well, first, of course, neither of those things actually happen in Hybrids: the
villain is a sole terrorist acting alone, but I am very proud of the fact that the book
was nominated for the Spectrum Award, which celebrates positive portrayals of
gay, lesbian, or bi characters in SF. More to the point, though, it stuns me that the
quality of my book, or any book, is being judged not on its execution but rather on
its politics -- an astonishing way to review a book, in my view. In fairness to the
reviewer, though, he did give my book four stars -- but I've seen other examples
of people sorting SF into "good" and "bad" based simply on the underlying
politics not on the effectiveness of the storytelling.
SCHWEITZER: We've had a lot of people in our field bemoan the apparent
retreat of science fiction itself, Gregory Benford most notably. Just as the "future"
has arrived, we have space travel, exo-planets are being discovered by the dozen,
we have robots, the internet, etc. -- now so many writers and readers are no longer
interested in the future, and alternate histories and fantasy seem to outsell anything
that resembles real SF. What do you make of this?
SAWYER: Oh, yes, I've been decrying this for years. In 1999, I gave a talk at the
Library of Congress entitled: "The Future is Already Here: Is There a Place for
Science Fiction in the 21st Century?" And I'm just reading William Gibson's
latest, Spook Country, and he's given up totally on writing about the future,
finding, as many others do, wonder enough in the present.
Certainly, for my own career, I've moved my work much closer to the
here-and-now. You can divide my career into two parts: the first phase included
my off-Earth spaceships-and-aliens novels: Golden Fleece, Far-Seer, Fossil
Hunter, Foreigner, End of an Era, and Starplex. Now, I'm very proud of all of
those, and Starplex was the only 1996 novel to be nominated for both the Hugo
and the Nebula, not to mention winning Canada's Aurora and being nominated for
Japan's Seiun. But, as a group, they are my worst sellers. My best sellers are all
the others, starting with The Terminal Experiment: near-future or present day, and
exclusively on Earth.
It's a mode I intend to continue in, because I've found that I can still do all the
things I want to do artistically and philosophically in that milieu. And I use that
term "philosophically" advisedly: if I had my druthers, this field would be called
philosophical fiction, not science fiction -- phi-fi, not sci-fi.
But I am still very much a hard SF author: actual, real science is the backbone of
my work. That it's a field that draws fewer and fewer readers each year saddens
me. I used to say, man, I wished I started selling novels a decade earlier, in the
early 1980s, with the wave of writers that included the last bunch to become really
rich writing SF: Greg Benford himself, William Gibson, David Brin, Greg Bear,
Kim Stanley Robinson.
Now I say I'm so glad I didn't start a decade later: my first book came out in 1990,
and I make a good living, but the guys who are starting out in the first decade of
the 21st century are facing a much smaller audience, with vastly reduced print
runs. The era of any appreciable number of people being full-time SF writers is
coming to a close, and that's bad artistically for the field.
SCHWEITZER: Why NOT continue to write of a spacefaring far future? If we
haven't given up on those Heinleinian vision of out species expanding outward,
isn't NOW more than ever the time for someone to write a really compelling,
intelligent far-future, outer-space story, if only to capture the audience back from
Harry Potter? You may have seen the exchanges I had with Gregory Benford over
this. If hard SF is losing its market share, surely the only possible solution is
BETTER SF to bring those readers back.
SAWYER: Nope, I disagree. It's the disconnect between our here-and-now and
the far-flung outer-space story that's driven people out of SF: no human has left
Earth orbit for 35 years now, and yet we tell people they should give up their
precious reading time to space opera because it's somehow important, relevant,
The reason I'm prospering is that I have managed to bring in large numbers of
readers who don't habitually read SF, while not alienating the core SF audience.
The outsiders care not one whit for magical post-singularitarian or transhumanist
worlds, but find the "what does it mean to be human" theme of my work to be of
It's a tricky balancing act: appealing to the hardcore SF readers and to mainstream
readers alike, but I seem to be managing it. Calculating God was a national
top-ten mainstream bestseller in Canada, meaning it was being widely read and
enjoyed by people who don't read science fiction, and it hit number one on the
bestsellers' list in Locus, which is based on a survey of science-fiction specialty
stores, meaning it was appealing to hardcore SF readers, too. Hominids was used
for a major "if everyone read the same book" program in Canada, and was hugely
popular there with people who had never read an SF novel in their lives -- and it
also won the Hugo, voted on by the absolute hardcore of SF fans, those who are
members of the World Science Fiction Convention. The future of SF isn't
narrowly focusing on distant tomorrows, but broadening the appeal to bring in
readers from outside the shrinking core.
Far-future SF has gotten increasingly esoteric, and increasingly magical rather
than grounded in reasoned extrapolation. Remember Homer Simpson, when he
became an astronaut, looking lovingly at an inanimate carbon rod, and saying, "Is
there anything it can't do?" Substitute "nanotech" or "post-singularity science" or
whatever your favorite synonym for Clarke's "indistinguishable from magic" is,
and you get a lot of so-called science fiction today -- and 99.999% of humanity
has no interest in it, not because they don't believe great advances in technology
may someday be possible but because they're being wielded like magic wands in
these stories, and, frankly, the actual fantasy writers do a better job of combining
magic with rousing plots and compelling characterization. Even if far-future SF
writers rose to the challenge of adding those missing elements, they'd still only be
producing an oddball variant of fantasy, not something unique and special in its
SCHWEITZER: About your new novel ... Describe a little of what it's about and
how you came to write it.
SAWYER: Rollback, my seventeenth novel, out now from Tor, is a good example
of what I've been talking about in terms of trying to appeal in and out of genre.
Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, called it "a novel to be savored
by science-fiction and mainstream readers alike," whereas Publishers Weekly, in
its starred reviews, recognized that the core SF reader should like it, too, saying
"Sawyer, who has won Hugo and Nebula awards, may well win another major SF
award with this superior effort." And, indeed, it is hardcore, hard SF: heck, it was
serialized in Analog prior to book publication: you can't get any more hard-SF
Rollback started with a pure high concept: a man and a woman, both in their 80s,
are offered a chance to be rejuvenated, each becoming physically 25 again. They
accept -- and it works for the man and fails for the woman.
The book just grew organically from exploring the ins and outs of that concept:
all the heartbreak, all the joy, all the wonder. Of course, I had to find a reason why
someone might want to live for a very long time that wasn't petty and self-serving,
and I soon settled on making the woman a SETI researcher who had been
instrumental in decoding messages from aliens, and that the dialog, because of the
light-speed delay, was going to take many decades if not centuries. And then that
made me start thinking about morals and ethics, and how our view of right and
wrong might change if we lived for a very long time, and the novel's philosophical
backbone is exploring what morals might actually be universal, transcending
species boundaries. A novel accretes -- a plot point here, a grace note there, a
flourish, an ironic touch -- but that was its genesis.
It really was a Hollywood-style high-concept pitch, by the way. I was actually
under contract to Tor to write a different novel -- a single, standalone volume to
have been called Webmind about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness.
And I was finding as I was working on it that the idea was too big for one book.
But I had a contract to fulfill, and so I actually had a power lunch -- I felt so
Hollywood! I went out to lunch with Tor publisher Tom Doherty and my editor at
Tor, Dave Hartwell, and said, look, I want to set aside Webmind, and do another
book for you instead: and I gave them the high-concept pitch, and they green-lit
it, as the saying goes.
Rollback was an emotionally draining book to write, I must say: I had to face a lot
of my own thoughts and fears about aging and death; I freely confess that I cried
while writing parts of it. But the response has been wonderfully positive from
readers. Many of them have told me they cried in the right places, too -- and, of
course, laughed a lot, too: I always have lots of humor in my books.
I've now gone back to the conscious-Web idea, and have sold it as a trilogy:
Wake, Watch, and Wonder -- collectively, the WWW series. I'm well into Wake
now, and it's coming along nicely.
SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Rob.