Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

Bookmark and Share

My Account
Submissions
About IGMS / Staff
E-mail this page
Write to Us

 


Issue 6
Stories
Night of Falling Stars
by Steven Savile
Great Mother, Great Father
by William Saxton
The Price of Love
by Alan Schoolcraft
A Spear Through the Heart
by Cherith Baldry
From the Ender Saga
Ender's Stocking
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Lost and Found
by David Lubar
This is Only a Test
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Writing Fantasy

For complete access to IGMS...

Existing Users - Please Log In

Register
Log in   Password
Register
keep me logged in         Login Help

Register Register
New Users

Create an Account

-   -   -   -   P   r   e   v   i   e   w   -   -   -   -

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 noted poet.

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 out.

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 Canadian producers.

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 seems nonsensical.

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 non-Americans.

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 years later.

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 apparently espoused."

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, and true?

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 interest.

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 own right.

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 than that!

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.

For Complete Access to IGMS Subscribe Now!     or     Log in


Home | My Account / Log Out | Submissions | Index | Contact | About IGMS | Linking to Us | IGMS Store | Forum
        Copyright © 2017 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com