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Corriere della Fantascienza
Interview with Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2006 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
An interview with Robert J. Sawyer for the Italian e-zine
Corriere della Fantascienza.
Interview conducted Tuesday, June 27, 2006, by Giampietro Stocco.
Giampietro Stocco: Robert, the first thing one notices in your books is the fact
you're the first one enjoying your stories. Is that correct?
Robert J. Sawyer; Yes, it is.
I started writing science-fiction books because I
couldn't find enough ones by other people that appealed to me.
Two of my favourite science fiction writers are
Larry Niven and Mike Resnick. At a panel
they were both on at a convention, Larry once said he writes the
kind of science fiction that got him interested in the field when
he was 16, and Mike said he writes the kind of science fiction
that interests him now as a middle-aged man. I'm trying to do
both: have that sense-of-wonder that made SF irresistible to me
when I was a teenager, while still say things that resonate with
someone who's lived a good chunk of a life. But there's no doubt
that some of the little asides in my books references to
classic Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man, and
Planet of the Apes are in there because those are things I
GS: Science fiction is a genre, but actually it is also a very
large kind of literature. In which direction(s) sf seems to be
going at the moment?
RJS: Honestly? Down the toilet. The field has had a very hard time
surviving the arrival of the 21st century. For many people, the
future is now already here, and the notion of a literature about
spaceships, aliens, and so on seems irrelevant. In the United
States, sales of SF are way, way down, and every month I hear
about another one of my colleagues being dumped by his or her
publisher. Those with blinders on say it's cyclical, but there's
zero evidence over the last quarter-century that there's any sign
of an upward turn.
GS:Speaking of cross-over. It is getting into a kind of fashion,
mixing up the genres and creating fantasy novels with sf elements
or the other way round. It's just marketing or do you find it an
RJS: I'm a purist; I'm only interested in science fiction. As soon as
the author introduces a fantasy element which, by
definition, is something that could never possibly happen, I no
longer care about the story. Although people unfamiliar with the
genre often fail to understand this, science fiction is a
literature of reality, and that's very important to me.
GS: Coming to your novels: which is the one you have loved the
RJS: I think Factoring Humanity is the
one. I try with all my novels to combine the intimately human
with the grandly cosmic, and I think I did the best job of
succeeding at that in that book.
GS: How much do you feel you owe to Frederik Pohl?
RJS: When I was in high school, Fred was publishing the very best work
of his life, including Gateway and Man Plus.
There's no doubt that both were big influences on me. But,
overall in my career, the work of
Arthur C. Clarke was more influential, I
think. Still, I don't think I owe them anything, anymore than
anyone who happens to read my books owes me anything. But there
were writers who were great helps to me early in my career
Terence M. Green,
Hybrids) demand more space. I try
not to be too market-driven; as you observed above, I'm writing
for myself. When I have ideas that demand multiple books, I'll
do happily work on that scale.
GS: Science fiction and counterfactual history. You seem to like
parallel worlds and playing with points of divergences. Could you
imagine yourself writing a true uchronie?
RJS: Maybe. But my interests is mostly Canadian history, not American
or European history. And the market for a book that had
something in Canada's past go differently is probably pretty
GS: What can you suggest to young sf writers?
RJS: Don't quit your day job! I'm lucky enough to make a decent
living writing science fiction, but it's becoming increasingly
difficult for people to do that, as print runs get smaller across
the board and books stay in print for shorter periods of time.
If you love SF, do it but plan on supporting yourself by
some other means.
GS: Your last novel: speak to us about it.
RJS: In 1982, just after I'd graduated with a bachelor's degree in
Radio and Television Arts, I worked at Bakka, Toronto's SF
bookstore. Other people who went on to be science fiction and
fantasy writers have worked there, too, including Tanya Huff,
Michelle West, Cory Doctorow, and Nalo Hopkinson. In honour of
Bakka's 30th anniversary in 2002, owner John Rose decided to
publish an anthology of stories by employees past and present. I
crammed an awful lot of ideas into my story, and as soon as I
finished it, I sent a copy to Dave Hartwell, my editor at Tor,
saying I thought what I'd really written was a novel outline.
Dave agreed, and
Mindscan is the result. The book is
dedicated to John Rose, the best boss I ever had.
The main idea is about uploading human consciousness. I'd
written about scanning human brains before, most significantly in
my Nebula Award-winning 1995 novel
The Terminal Experiment. But I
wanted to revisit the theme, in part, because my thinking has
changed on this topic over the intervening decade, and I'm
certainly taking a different tack here. The Terminal
Experiment was about a biomedical engineer who discovered
scientific proof for the existence of the human soul; if
anything, Mindscan makes the opposite case: that the mind
is fully physical, completely natural, and totally reproducible
in artificial form. Indeed, I try to present a new
quantum-mechanical model of what actually causes consciousness,
and, not to be grandiose about it, but I think I actually add
some new dimensions to this on-going discussion. I won't be
surprised if I end up going back to this theme again in another
ten years; I really do think the most interesting area of science
right now is the study of consciousness-of why there is any such
thing as subjective experience.
(The rest of these questions were for use on the interviewer's own website)
GS: How would you define yourself as a sf writer? Do you follow any
trend in writing a novel, or do you just think of enjoying it
yourself as a first issue?
RJS: Sawyer's Rule: By the time you identify a trend, it's too late
to cash in on it. I pay no attention to the so-called trends in
SF; I just write what interests me. When everyone else was
writing cyberpunk, I wrote intelligent dinosaurs
(Far-Seer and its sequels); when
everyone else was writing about Mars, I wrote about a biomedical
engineer who discovers scientific proof for the existence of the
hman soul (The Terminal Experiment); when everyone else
was writing about nanotechnology, I wrote about whether we have
free will (FlashForward). It's
precisely that I don't jump on bandwagons that makes my work
stand out to whatever extent it does.
GS: The thing I appreciate most in your writing is just the
enthusiasm you put in every new idea you get. Which is the secret
to keep this up?
RJS: I think it's that I'm a kid at heart. I just love learning new
things, and I've never gotten over the childlike wonder I had
when I first saw a dinosaur skeleton, or the Milky Way, or a
shooting star, or a strange insect.
GS: Book market and writers. Do you mean science fiction is
directing itself to some new topics of interest, or the secret is
still to build up a good story?
RJS: You always have to tell a good story that's the most
important thing. You can toss off dozens of big ideas in a book
as I did in Starplex
or explore just one or two in depth, as I do in Mindscan,
but if the story doesn't engage the reader, all is lost.
GS: Which are the sf authors that have set their deepest footprints
in your writing?
RJS: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, James White, Larry Niven,
Hal Clement, Fred Pohl.
Asimov, James White, and Hal are gone
now, but I got to meet them all before they died, and, indeed,
Hal became a good friend.
GS: You have definitely written many books. How is your typical
RJS: Yes, I've done 17
novels to date, plus
short stories, and edited four
anthologies. I actually try not
to have a typical day one of the joys of being
self-employed is not being in a rut! But over the course of each
week, I spend time writing, time reading (both fiction for
inspiration and pleasure, and nonfiction for research), time
surfing the Internet (not nearly as productive as I like to
pretend it is but it's fun), and time getting out and
interacting with people, which is crucial for a writer, if he or
she is going to be able to portray real people. Generally
speaking, I'm a night owl going to bed around 1:00 a.m.
and getting up about 9:00 a.m. And I work seven days a week; I
find it breaks my rhythm too much to take weekends off.
GS: Science fiction and alternate history. Are you also interested
in points of divergence and parallel worlds?
RJS: Absolutely! My Quintaglio Ascension trilogy (beginning with
Far-Seer) came from my wondering what would have happened
if the dinosaurs had not gone extinct. And my Neanderthal
Parallax trilogy (beginning with Hominids has a hinge
point 40,000 years ago, when consciousness was first emerging on
this world. I love that stuff!
GS: Sf writers and sf prizes. You have won your share. Which is the
main way for an author to get a Nebula or a
RJS: Well, I won the
Nebula first, and that's the one that
really changed my life: it changed me from a struggling writer
to someone who makes a very good living; it got me translation
sales all over the world; and so on. But there's not much doubt
that most people consider the Hugo to be more prestigious than
the Nebula. I'm certainly thrilled to have both!
GS: Sf authors, movies and tv-series. Did you succeed in getting
anything of yours on the big or on the little screen?
RJS: I make five figures (in dollars) each year off of film/TV work
and the optioning of rights to my books, and sometimes six
figures, but no, nothing has been made, and, although I'm
enthusiastic each time we do a new deal four new options
so far this year I'm realistic enough to know that the
chances of any of the projects actually getting made are very
slim. Consider how few of the classics of SF have actually come
to screen where is the Neuromancer movie, the film
version of The Forever War, the TV miniseries based on
Childhood's End, the summer blockbuster adapted from
Ender's Game, the weekly series set in Larry Niven's
"Known Space"? If one of my books does get adapted, I'll happily
cash the cheque, just as if I'd won the lottery which is
about as likely.
GS: Speaking of your last work, what are you preparing at this
RJS: I'm just going through the page proofs for
Rollback. It's the story of Dr.
Sarah Halifax, who decoded the first-ever radio transmission
received from aliens. Thirty-eight years later, a second message
is received and Sarah, now 87, may hold the key to
deciphering this one, too ... if she lives long enough.
A wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a
rollback a hugely expensive experimental rejuvenation
procedure. She accepts on condition that Don, her husband of
sixty years, gets a rollback, too. The process works for Don,
making him physically twenty-five again. But in a tragic twist,
the rollback fails for Sarah, leaving her in her eighties.
While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly
huge age gap between him and his wife, Sarah struggles to do
again what she'd done once before: figure out what a signal from
the stars contains. The novel explores morals and ethics on both
human and cosmic scales, and I've got to say I think it's one of
my very best. I hope readers will agree.
More Good Reading
Another Italian e-zine interviews Rob
Other interviews with Rob
More advice for beginning writers
Novels by Robert J. Sawyer
Short Stories by Robert J. Sawyer
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