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Robert J. Sawyer's First Sale
Copyright © 2010 by Robert J.
All Rights Reserved.
I'm writing this on January 18, 2010 the 30th anniversary of me
becoming a professional writer. It was on Friday, January 18, 1980,
that I made my first professional sale, when the
Strasenburgh Planetarium [pictured below in 2008], part of the
Rochester Museum & Science Center in Rochester, New York,
bought rights to adapt my unpublished science-fiction short story
"Motive" as one third of a dramatic planetarium star
show. I was nineteen years old.
In 1974, my parents bought a vacation home at Bristol Harbour
Village on Canandaigua Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in upstate
New York. The nearest big city was Rochester, New York, and my
mother promptly became a member of the Rochester Museum &
Science Center (RMSC). And in August 1979, they announced a
contest to be judged by Isaac Asimov
for an original short story to be turned into a dramatic
planetarium starshow. I entered (as did
my friend and fellow Torontonian Do-Ming Lum, who
learned about the contest from me).
I did something I've never done since. I decided to hide the
fact that I was Canadian. I had my father submit the story on
one of his trips to Bristol Harbour Village, with the return
address of the vacation home, and I left off my phone number,
since the 416 area code would give away that I was from Toronto.
I was afraid there might be prejudice against a Canadian entrant.
Late in December 1979, I was sent a letter saying that I was
not one of the contest finalists, but that all entrants
were being invited to a reception to be held at the planetarium
on Friday, January 18, 1980. It was a miracle that I received
the letter at all: normally, no one was down at our vacation
home in the dead of winter, but my dad had gone down to check on
it, and had brought the letter back to Toronto.
On a whim, I decided to go down to Rochester for the reception,
and bring my then-girlfriend Carolyn Clink
(who has been my wife for 25 years now).
We had no car back then, but my mother kindly
drove us the three and a half hours to the event, and lo and
behold as soon as I checked in, the planetarium staff
descended on me saying they'd been trying to reach me for weeks.
The story Asimov had chosen as the winner,
"Exodus" by Joanne Mitchell, Ph.D., would take only
ten minutes to dramatize, and so they'd decided to do a trilogy
starshow, adapting three stories and the third-place finalist
(by James A. Abbot) was not visually suited to a planetarium
show, so they wanted to buy the rights to mine!
I was stunned, and thrilled, and kissed Carolyn, and said yes.
They'd planned to pay $250 for the planetarium rights to the
winning story, but since they were now doing three stories, they
split it three ways, so my first-ever payment for writing was
US$85 (worth almost exactly Cdn$100 at that time). They
handed me a check on the spot.
Lesson learned that night: I never again tried to hide that I'm
Canadian; indeed, being flagrantly Canadian has become one of the
signatures of my work.
This sale was one of the three that got me my status as an Active
Member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (as the
organization was called in those days before "and Fantasy"
was added to its name).
The contest, and the planetarium show that came from it, are lost
to history. But, in a nostalgic mood, Carolyn scanned the
relevant documents yesterday, and we OCR'd them, so that there
would be a record of all this.
The show, entitled FutureScapes, with a script by
Bill Gutsch adapting stories by
Robert J. Sawyer,
Peter Wm. V. Fedorchuk,
and Joanne Mitchell, and produced by Francis C. Biddy,
(who sadly passed away in 2000) ran for 192 performances between
Monday, June 30, and Sunday, October 19, 1980; at that time,
Don Hall was the planetarium's director.
(Bill Gutsch Dr. William A. Gutsch, Jr. went on to become
Chairman of the Hayden Planetarium.)
I saw FutureScapes three or four times, including repeatedly
with Carolyn and once with my friend Ted Bleaney, to whom my
The Terminal Experiment
The short story I sold to the planetarium was called "Motive."
It was just 5,000 words long, but contained many of the elements
that went on to be major parts of my fiction. The story was set
aboard a spaceship called Starplex, which I later used as
the setting of my Hugo and Nebula-Award nominated 1996 novel Starplex.
In "Motive," Starplex was controlled by a master computer,
patterned after Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and like
Hal, that computer committed a murder; my first novel, Golden Fleece, also dealt with a
homicidal computer, and many of my works have continued this
pattern of combining science fiction and mystery.
"Motive" also featured dinosaur-like aliens called Quintaglios,
and I went on to write three novels about them (Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and
"Motive" dealt with the mysterious death of Ambassador Alalalar
of Bedrossian's Planet (named for my great friend Asbed Bedrossian,
to whom my novel
is dedicated) and the efforts to solve the mystery by a man named Simcoe
(a last name I went on to use again in
my novel FlashForward,
basis for the ABC TV series).
On January 18, 1993 by coincidence, the 13th anniversary of
me selling him "Motive" Fran Biddy
sent me a letter that said in part, "I'd love to take credit
for giving you your start, but the credit rightfully belongs
to you you wrote Motive, after all;
we just liked it a lot."
In 2000, the Rochester Museum & Science Center was
soliciting funds for an improvement campaign. Donors who gave a
certain amount of money got to have a brick embedded in a
sidewalk in front of the museum, with an inscription on it. Most
of them say "In memory of ..." and give a person's name. My
mother made the required donation, and her brick says, simply,
"My son's career started here." And it did thirty years ago
The history of that first sale is contained in the following
documents (and PDF scans of the originals are
final page is pasted-up from various components of the HEXAGON
newsletter, so it would all fit on one sheet).
Call for Submissions
From the August 1979 edition of RMSC NEWS published
by the Rochester Museum & Science Center:
Write Your Ticket to Stardom
Author Isaac Asimov will judge the first science-fiction story
contest sponsored by the Strasenburgh Planetarium. Plans are for
the winning entry to be published by the Gannett Rochester
Newspapers and, if suitable, to be made into a star show.
Deadline for all entries is October 12 . Stories should be
science-fiction, not fantasy; in other words, the plot and
characters should stem from a plausible, scientific base.
A private party will be held in the Star Theatre early next year
to honor all winners.
Following are submission guidelines:
1. Stories should be between 3,000 - 6,000 words.
2. Cash prizes of $100 - first place, $50 - second place and $25
- third place will be awarded. An additional $250 purchase prize
will be awarded if a story is chosen to be developed into a star
show; suitability will be determined by the Planetarium staff. If
the purchase prize is awarded, the author must grant exclusive
production rights to the RMSC. If the show is later sold to
another planetarium, the author will receive a residual of $100
for each sale.
3. Entrants under age 18 must include the signature of a parent
or legal guardian with their entry. All entrants should clearly
print their name, mailing address and phone number on their
entry. Send entries to: SCI-FI, Strasenburgh Planetarium,
Rochester Museum & Science Center, Box 1480, Rochester, New York
4. Entries will not be returned, so submit a photocopy rather
than the original of your story.
5. Each entrant will receive two free admission coupons to the
6. Stories should be written for production as a Planetarium
show. A few pointers:
A. A variety of visual scenes, or settings will add interest. The
more scenes, the better.
B. The Planetarium is a visual medium, so writers should "think
visual." The script may almost be seen as a succession of
captions for the visuals.
C. Full-dome environmental scenes are better than small scenes
set in a localized area of the dome. A useful technique is to
imagine the Planetarium audience in the midst of the action, as
participants in the show.
D. Planetariums specialize in producing visuals of astronomical
objects and space hardware. Examples are stars, galaxies, planets
E. Planetariums do not usually show the characters in a story. If
characters are used, they may be heard but almost never seen. An
example is within the visual environment of a spaceship's bridge,
we may hear the ship's officers reacting to a dramatic
occurrence, but we will not see them.
Asimov scripted the popular star show The Last Question in
1972. His own definition of science-fiction is "that branch of
literature which deals with the response of human beings to
advances in science and technology.... it constantly considers
the future .... it dosen't [sic] escape into the 'never was' as
fantasy does, but into the 'just possibly might be.'"
For further information on the science-fiction story contest,
contact Planetarium Producer Fran Biddy.
Rob's Cover Letter
31 Cliffside Drive
Canandaigua NY 14424
24 September 1979
Dear Planetarium Staff:
Enclosed is a photocopy of "Motive", my entry for the science
fiction story contest announced in the August 1979 issue of
Whether I win or not, knowing that Isaac Asimov will read my
words is certainly reward for the effort in writing this story.
Robert J. Sawyer
The Finalists are Announced
December 28, 1979
Mr. Robert J. Sawyer
31 Cliffside Drive, Rte #5
Canandaigua, New York 14424
The response to our first-ever Science Fiction Story Contest has
been gratifying and exciting. We received almost three dozen
entries, and we'd like to thank you for your time, interest and
story. The quality of the work of Rochester's writers, as
reflected by the entries we received, is very high. As a gesture
of our appreciation of your support for the contest, we have
enclosed two guest coupons for your use.
After lengthy and difficult judging, we are pleased to announce
the first, second, and third place winners, as selected by Dr.
1) Exodus, by Joanne Mitchell, Ph.D.
2) Palisades, by Peter Wm. V. Fedorchuck [sic; it's acutally "Fedorchuk"]
3) The Expatriates, by James A. Abbot, M.D.
The purchase prize is still under consideration, and will be
announced in January.
We would like to invite you to a reception for all entrants at
the Strasenburgh Planetarium, 663 East Avenue, at 8 pm on January
18, 1980. At this reception, the awards will be presented,
refreshments will be served, the first-place story will be read,
and everyone will have a chance to see our current show,
Illusions. You are also invited to bring one or two guests
with you. Please let us know whether or not you will be able to
join us, by calling 244-6060, '(Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5
pm) and asking for Josie Estill.
[signature: "Fran Biddy"]
Francis C. Biddy
An Update on the Show
June 16, 1980
Mr. Robert J. Sawyer
31 Cliffside Drive
Route # 5
Canandaigua, New York 14424
Dear Rob :
I'm very pleased with the progress we're making on
Futurescapes, the show based on the three purchase-award
stories. The process of adapting the three stories to a very
exacting visual medium has been long and difficult, but the
planetarium staff is now eagerly anticipating opening night. The
show will open at 8 pm on Monday, June 30.
Please accept our invitation to join us for the opening night
performance. After the show, we'll all (staff, writers and
actors) get together for pizza and beer/wine/soda. Feel free to
bring a guest. Please let me know whether or not you'll be able
to join us (244-6060 - if I'm not available, leave a message with
I've enclosed a copy of the show script for your interest. Visual
cues are noted in the margin.
Announcing the Premiere
From the June 1980 edition of the newsletter HEXAGON: Your
Connection with the Rochester Museum & Science Center:
Adaptations of award-winning short stories from the Strasenburgh
Planetarium's recent science fiction writing contest constitute
its newest feature presentation Futurescapes, opening Monday,
June 30. Each of the show's three segments proposes a different
tale of what the future may hold for us.
The first segment, "Motive," is from a story by Robert J. Sawyer
of Toronto and Canandaigua. This is a murder-mystery set far in
the future when the earth has joined other civilizations in the
exploration of our galaxy. Diplomatic relations are about to be
opened with yet another civilization when a charismatic
ambassador dies under mysterious circumstances. This is a classic
whodunnit with a surprise ending.
"Palisades" is adapted from a story by Peter Wm. V. Fedorchuk of
Wayland. As the story opens, three astronauts are engaged in a
routine mission to service a giant, earth-orbiting satellite.
When their mission is suddenly interrupted by the abrupt arrival
of an alien presence, this futurescape becomes a bizarre struggle
The last story in the trilogy is "Exodus," by Joanne Mitchell of
Rochester. This is the story that Dr. Isaac Asimov selected as
the first prize winner in the Planetarium's contest. The first
space colony is under construction in earth's orbit. It is soon
to be populated by a carefully screened crew. The
well-orchestrated plan goes awry when a group of unwelcome guests
arrives in their home-built rocket. They are refugees from earth,
eager to work, and dedicated to a future in space. Will they be
sent back to earth, or allowed to remain as the first colonists?
"Exodus" is a warm and moving story, with an unexpected double
twist at the end.
Futurescapes premieres at 8 pm Monday, June 30 and
continues through Sunday, October 19, with performances daily.
For showtimes and admissions, consult the HEXAGON
More Good Reading
PDF scans of the original documents referenced above
Rob's first SF publication
Rob's 10,000-word autobiography
Rob's short fiction
Rob's current curriculm vitae
Oodles more about Rob
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