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Science Fiction Book Club
Author's Comment on Wake
by Robert J. Sawyer
Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1979, I entered Toronto's Ryerson University to study Radio and Television Arts. As someone who had been brought into science fiction through television and movies (the original Star Trek premiered when I was six, and my dad took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in first-run when I was eight), I thought that writing for either the big or small screen was going to be the way in which I would tell my science-fiction stories.
I learned a lot doing that degree but the most valuable lesson turned out to be one that wasn't on the curriculum: I learned that, despite my love of TV and film, the printed word was actually the storytelling medium I found most compelling.
See, no matter how wonderful the actor, no matter how skilled the director, watching a movie or TV show is like watching a table-tennis game. First you look here, then you look there, then here again, then back to there ping, pong, ping, pong. You are always part of the audience, observing things happening to other people.
But in print you become the viewpoint character, seeing everything he or she sees, smelling and feeling and tasting what he or she does, and even being privy to his or her thoughts. We identify with viewpoint characters in books (when TV or movies try to put us inside a character's head, as with Harrison Ford's voice-over narration in the original cut of Blade Runner, it almost never works).
Ever since my first novel, Golden Fleece (which the SFBC offered in 1991), I've tried to challenge myself with my point-of-view choices. Most of that book was told from the perspective of an artificial intelligence controlling a starship. It was exciting to try to capture what it might actually be like to be a computer (and, indeed, it was wondering what HAL had really been thinking in 2001 that compelled me to write my book).
My second novel was Far-Seer (an SFBC selection in 1992), and I tried something even more challenging: a viewpoint character who was an intelligent dinosaur.
And so it went. With my eighth novel, Frameshift (an SFBC selection in 1997), I tackled something my fellow English Canadians, at least, will recognize the enormity of: I wrote from the point of view of a French Canadian!
But it wasn't until my tenth book that I felt ready to try a real challenge. The main character in Factoring Humanity (still my favorite of my novels) was a woman; for a guy who grew up on a street of almost all boys, and who has only brothers, I was terrified I'd get it wrong.
Then it was on to Hominids, first of a trilogy told from the point of view of a modern-day Neanderthal quantum physicist. And for my most-recent novel, Rollback (a Main Selection of the SFBC in 2007), my challenge was to write from the points of view of a man and a woman who each happened to be 87 years old four decades older than I myself was when I wrote the book.
When I set out to write my new novel, Wake, I found myself really wanting to test my writerly mettle. First, my main character is female but that was a challenge I'd risen to before. Second, my main character is fifteen I've never written from a young-adult point of view before, and it's been longer than I care to think since I was that age. Third, my main character is a math genius, something I myself most assuredly am not. And, oh, yeah, fourth she's blind. Caitlin Decter turned out to be an endlessly fascinating character to write about, and I totally fell in love with her which is a good thing, because Wake is the first volume of a trilogy; the remaining two volumes will be called Watch and Wonder, making this, appropriately enough, the WWW series.
What's my next challenge going to be, you ask? Well, funnily enough, it comes full circle. ABC is making a TV series based on my novel FlashForward (with David S. Goyer, who wrote Batman Begins, as the showrunner), and I'm writing one of the episodes. So, after all these years, I'm going back to scriptwriting, at least for a time. Yes, it'll be fun to see my characters on the screen but you know what? I'd still rather just get inside their heads ...
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