[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


SFWRITER.COM > About Rob > Oxford Bookshop Interview

Interview with

Robert J. Sawyer

Conducted in February 1998
by Pete Vanderlugt
of Oxford Bookshop,
London, Ontario


Good afternoon, Mr. Sawyer. I've heard that you bill yourself as "Canada's only full-time native-born science-fiction writer." That's quite a title. Is it all right if I just call you Rob?

[Sci-Fi Buzz logo] Well, it was actually The Sci-Fi Channel that dubbed me that, during a profile of me that aired on Sci-Fi Buzz — but it's true — and it is a significant combination of attributes. Canada has produced very few SF writers — lots of fantasy writers, but not many who actually write SF. And, of those who do, most of the others were born elsewhere, and utterly ignore Canada in their work — I defy you to find Canadian content in William Gibson's books, for instance. And any writer who can make a full-time living at it, well, excuse me, but that is a significant achievement. But, sure, you can call me Rob — although a lot of people in the SF field call me R.J., a nickname that fantasy writer Tanya Huff gave me almost twenty years ago.


You have two books published recently with your name attached. The first is your novel Illegal Alien. It is a highly detailed courtroom drama that, besides the fact that the defendant is an alien, is reminiscent of a Grisham novel (I say that in a good way). What, if anything, inspired you to write it?

Oh, Grisham is not a dirty word with me. I quite admire what he does. Like the best SF, his courtroom dramas are usually issue-oriented. The Runaway Jury dealt with the evils of the tobacco industry; The Rainmaker with corruption in the insurance industry; The Chamber with the debate over capital punishment; and his latest, The Street Lawyer, with the plight of the homeless. As an issues-oriented writer myself — The Terminal Experiment deals with the abortion issue, Frameshift deals with the crisis in U.S. health insurance, Factoring Humanity deals with false-memory syndrome — I have to admire a guy who tells a really entertaining story while at the same time making people think. He deserves every bit of success he's had.

Anyway, Illegal Alien is my response to the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. To me, the single most interesting thing to come out of that was the pretty cut-and-dried distinction between the way white America and black America viewed the outcome. White America almost unanimously felt that O.J. had gotten away with murder, while black America, again almost unanimously, felt that this was a classic example of the authorities being out to persecute an innocent black man. One of my personal heroes is Martin Luther King, Jr. — I use an epigram from him as the opening of my novel Starplex, quote his "I have a dream" speech at length in Frameshift, and of course mention him in Illegal Alien. I think the civil-rights struggle — not just in the U.S., but in South Africa and elsewhere — has been the defining experience of the 20th century, even more so than World War II. And yet it was clear in the Simpson trial that race still permeates everything in the U.S. Well, I wanted to explore that in science-fictional terms, and putting a real alien — an extraterrestrial — on trial let me do just that.


Your second recent book, edited by you and your wife, Carolyn Clink, is Tesseract 6, the 7th in a series of Canadian SF&F anthologies (one was entitled Tesseracts Q to honour Quebec writers). It is an honour to be chosen to edit such an excellent anthology. I am surprised they waited so long to ask you. As an editor for a Canadian SF anthology, what qualities were you looking for in the stories submitted?

[T6] When we were asked to edit Tesseracts 6, we were told that the publisher looks for a "balanced" anthology: male and female writers, new and established writers, eastern and western Canadian writers, etc. etc. etc. And my wife and I thought, basically, that those were well-intentioned instructions, but we decided to simply ignore them and to pick the best stories, period. And you know what? We are the only volume in the Tesseract series to end up publishing work by visible minorities — Eric Choi, who is Chinese-Canadian, and Nalo Hopkinson, who is Jamaican-Canadian. We never did bother to tally up in how many women vs. men we had, or where they came from in Canada. I actually do believe in affirmative action in the business and academic worlds, but there was no need for that here. We were simply looking for creative stories, well told. A lot of people expected the anthology to have a strong SF bent, given that I was one of the editors, but we actually ended up with far more fantasy. In terms of quality, the fantasy submissions were better than the SF ones, and, in the end, what matters is not what the demographics of the contributors are, but simply whether the book is a good read — which, we think, Tesseracts 6 unquestionably is.


How does Canadian Science Fiction stack up to, say, American writing? What is the difference (in a nut-shell; I know there are volumes of things to be said on the topic).

Oh, that's easy: Canadian SF good; American SF bad. No, seriously, despite the efforts of countless academics to try to find a difference between the two, there isn't any that is meaningful; for every supposed rule you can come up with, there are numerous exceptions. Canadian SF writers are a very diverse lot, and Canada has always prided itself on being a cultural mosaic instead of a melting pot, like the States. There is no kind of SF that Canadian writers don't write well. Space opera? Phyllis Gotlieb. Cyberpunk? William Gibson. Alternate history? S. M. Stirling. Feminist SF? Candas Jane Dorsey. Funny SF? James Alan Gardner. So I leave it for others to try to figure out what we've all got in common.


Your next novel, Factoring Humanity, is due out in June. Could you tell us a little (or a lot) about it?

I'm rarely enthused about my novels while I'm writing them; I think a healthy degree of self-loathing is important if a writer is ever going to grow as an artist. But Factoring Humanity is the first novel I've ever actually been pleased with when I finished it; I really think that it, rather than my Nebula Winner The Terminal Experiment, is the one I'll be remembered for after I'm dead.

As usual, I'm trying to combine the very human with the grandly cosmic. Kyle Graves is a computer-science professor at the University of Toronto in the year 2017. He's working towards a breakthrough in quantum computing; the pseudo-AI he's created, a computer named Cheetah, is one of my absolute favorites of all the characters I've ever written.

Meanwhile, Kyle's wife, psychologist Heather Davis, is trying to decipher a series of radio messages received from inhabitants of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. But before either of them makes a breakthrough, their lives are shattered when their nineteen-year-old daughter Rebecca accuses her father, Kyle, of having molested her as a child. An alien technology gleaned from the Alpha Centauri messages holds the key to determining the absolute truth about what happened all those years ago. The book is really Heather's story, and what she learns will not only transform her family, but the entire human race, as well.


Your novels touch on a variety of issues that are not necessarily SF-themed. They discuss immortality, life-after death, the soul, sanctity of life, etc. Is SF, for you, just a tool to discuss philosophical and metaphysical issues such as these?

SF isn't "just" a tool for this — it's the best possible tool, for several reasons. First, you simply can't discuss religion or politics or morality at their fundamental levels in most venues; indeed, people are advised to avoid those topics in polite conversation. But in SF, the audience is wide open to them — and, because you can use the metaphoric disguises of alien beings or alternate histories, SF allows you to get past the readers' preconceptions. As for metaphysics, serious SF — as opposed to silly X-Files stuff, for which the slogan seems to be "trust no one and believe in everything" — is just about the only venue for discussing these topics with an appropriately intelligent but fundamentally skeptical and rational audience. If you say to most people that you're interested in telepathy, they think you're a flake. But SF readers understand that you can be genuinely curious about telepathy, or the existence of souls, or whatever, without being a gullible, credulous fringe character. When you've got an appreciative, intelligent audience like that, why wouldn't you tackle the big issues with them?


Your newest novel, Factoring Humanity, has been awarded Spain's UPC prize, the largest cash award in SF. Congratulations. You've won quite a few awards over the years (Aurora, Nebula, Arthur Ellis, etc.). Besides the cash prize, what do they mean for you as a writer?

I've won nineteen national and international awards to date, including, to my surprise and delight, the top SF awards in the United States (the Nebula), Japan (the Seiun), France (Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire), Spain (Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción), and Canada (the Aurora).

And they've had an enormous impact on my career, in several ways: first, they've helped my advances. Winning the Nebula more than doubled what I was making in the U.S., more than doubled what I was making in the U.K., and sent my Japanese advances soaring 500%. Second, they provide an assurance to potential readers that, hey, maybe this will be a good book after all. Most readers are skeptical of quotes from reviews that appear on the cover of a book, because the know that artful editing can make even a pan appear as praise, but there's no way to take "Nebula Award winner" out of context — if you won that, it means, in the eyes of the field's own writers, that you wrote the best work of the entire year. It's a sterling credential to be able to place on a book. Third, awards are great way of getting respectability outside of the field. I've lectured at lots of universities, spoken at mainstream writers' festivals, and get interviewed on TV a lot — the people booking me for those things often know nothing about SF, but they understand the significance of winning awards. Finally, I think awards are good for the field as a whole: to a lot of people, the idea that SF can be quality work is still a foreign concept; the fact that SF does produce award-caliber work is something worth trumpeting.


You said once that you don't believe in genres. All your stories can generally be classified as Science Fiction or Fantasy, yet for "Just Like Old Times," you won the Arthur Ellis Award, which is a Mystery award. You've also done courtroom drama in Illegal Alien. Have you lost a large readership by being classified as a genre (SF) writer?

Well, there's no doubt that if I could pull in Michael Crichton's audience, I'd sell a lot more books. But the world is littered with failed Crichton wannabes. Sure, there are lots of readers who, I'm sure, would enjoy my books, but never venture into the SF section of the bookstore. But I've become convinced that it's folly to try to go after the largest possible audience; rather, every writer should target his or her most-appreciative audience — the core readers who will most enjoy what you're writing. If I really wanted to go after a mainstream audience, I'd have to dumb down a lot of what I do; the SF readership is enormously well-educated, after all, and actually enjoys the odd five-page excursion into pure physics or pure philosophy. I'm not a rich man, but I make a comfortable living . . . and, in SF, it looks like I'll be able to continue to make that living for decades to come. Sure, if I could get my books shelved in SF and mystery and mainstream, that would be great, but the reality is that booksellers are only going to put a given title in one section, and since I have to choose just one, SF is the one I pick. It's where I would go if I were looking for books like those I write; it's the natural water hole for my natural audience.


Canadians are known to "eat their young," so to speak. How difficult has it been to make a name for yourself in Canada?

Well, I've been lucky; you remarked earlier on the fact that I'm Canada's only native-born full-time science-fiction writer. That makes it pretty easy to get press attention in Canada. And, unlike some Canadian writers, my work revels in its Canadian content, and also has a hopeful view of Canada's future. That seems to appeal enormously to Canadians. It's not pandering; it's what I sincerely believe. I'm extraordinarily proud of Canada; Americans, you know, keep asserting that theirs is the best country in the world, but each year the UN does a survey to actually determine what's the best place to live, and Canada often comes out number one in the world and always beats the US.

Still, the biggest boost in making my name in Canada was winning the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award. That "of America" carries enormous weight in my country; Canadians have never trusted their own tastes, and have always looked south of the border for validation. I'm lucky enough to have been given the USA seal of approval.


In terms of self-promotion, you seem to do quite well on the Internet. Your web-site (www.sfwriter.com) is enormous! Everything you ever wanted to know about Robert J. Sawyer, and more! Is it worth taking the time off of writing to keep it updated?

Oh, sure. The web site has been more effective than all the SF conventions I've attended and all the bookstore signings I've done combined in reaching people who might be interested in my books. I can't believe other writers are failing to take advantage of this medium — you'd particularly expect SF writers to be savvy about new technologies, but so many of them are blissfully ignorant of what's going on in cyberspace. They hole up on Genie — the lungfish of online services, without graphical web access or home-page hosting, or binary Internet e-mail — and kvetch about why their advances are shrinking and their books aren't selling.

I'll give you one concrete example of the benefit of having such an extensive web site. I'm going to be USA Today Online's "Author of the Month" for July 1998. USA Today Online is one of the most popular web sites in the entire world, with millions of hits each day; the promotional value of being associated with that for an entire month is beyond calculating. Neither I nor my publisher could ever afford to buy such advertising. And how did I get this? Simple. The books editor for USA Today Online was surfing the net, looking for author sites that impressed her . . . and she found mine.


Your web site has a number of short stories in their entirety, as well as preview chapters for your novels. How soon do you feel you might publish a full length novel on-line? Similarly, do you feel the Internet holds promise or problem for writers in general (i.e., publishing, promotion, "hack" writing)?

I think it's going to be a good long time before we see new novels from established writers appearing first online; I rather suspect that print-on-demand will be the next revolution in publishing, instead (that is, booksellers will print and bind novels in the stores when the customer orders them). The problems with posting novels on the net are several: first, how do readers distinguish the wheat from the chaff? There already are lots of amateur novels available online, and they almost all stink; what makes a published novel stand out is that someone other than the author put tens of thousands of dollars into bringing the book to market — that's a vote of confidence, and a sign that some trained experts thought the work had real merit.

Second, how does the author control copying? You pay $20 to download my latest opus . . . which is great, until you email it to five hundred friends. It's going to be very difficult to control that. Also, all the pundits who predict the imminent death of the book are the same pundits who predicted New Coke would work: they're people who don't understand emotional attachment to the way things are, nostalgia, and sensual pleasure. People like reading paper books; they like the feel, the heft, the portability. The public is not clamoring for paperless novels; until they are — and, as I say, I doubt they will be for many years to come — there's no demand waiting to be met.

There certainly are lots of promotional opportunities on the web, though. I suspect one of the biggest boons to SF publishing may be the advent of online bookstores. For a typical SF hardcover, only five or ten thousand copies are printed. But, of course, there are far more than ten thousand bookstores in the English-speaking world, so you're not going to get even one copy into most stores. Which means most media promotion related to hardcover SF is pointless: if you hear me on the radio, and I'm talking about my new book, and you say, gee, that sounds interesting, and you remember to look for it next time you're in a bookstore, and the bookstore doesn't have it, you just forget about it and the sale is lost. But if you hear me say in an interview, "Check out my web site at sfwriter.com" — I chose that name because once you've heard it you'll never forget it — and you can directly order the book from there via a link to an online bookseller, well, then a sale is made. Web sites make it possible to read sample chapters, and online ordering makes it possible to have the book delivered to you anywhere in the world, even if no regular bookshop within a hundred kilometres has a copy. What we need now is for the SF specialty stores to get aggressively into this. Future Fantasy in Palo Alto, California, has made a good start — but whoever produces the first online SF specialty store that really builds a sense of community, with author real-time chats and reading groups and more will really have something.


[2020 Vision logo] Where do you find time to write fiction? You are involved in everything from doing a column entitled "On Writing" in On Spec magazine, to teaching SF at Ryerson Polytechnic University and the University of Toronto, a bi-weekly spot on @discovery.ca, and various essays, articles and book reviews!

Actually, I think I managed to get bit over-committed there in the eighteen months following my Nebula Award win. I've given up teaching the course at Ryerson — my buddy Edo van Belkom has taken over the course, just as I had taken it over from Judith Merril, who asked me to pick it up when she wanted to retire from it. I'm not teaching again at U of T; I've stopped doing the On Spec column; and I'm turning down almost all non-fiction requests. I'm keeping the bi-weekly "2020 Vision" spot on The Discovery Channel, though, because it's lucrative, fun, and enormously good publicity.

Still, I wasn't getting as much actual writing done as I liked. I've taken a couple of steps to help with that. First, in June 1997, my wife quit her job in the printing industry to come work for me full-time; I was losing about two days a week to correspondence, proofreading, promotional stuff, accounting, and so on. My wife now takes care of that. And, now that we're not tied down to her schedule, we're spending much more time away from the hustle and bustle — and ringing phones! — of Toronto. Mostly, we retreat down to Canandaigua Lake in Upstate New York, where I do nothing but write my fiction without interruptions. I've done about half of my current novel, FlashForward, down there.


Due to the accessibility of computer-graphic technology, SF movies are becoming easier and cheaper to make. We see this in the quantity of SF movies being made. Which of your books do you feel could be adapted to movies, and which would you most want to be made?

First, I want to address one of my pet peeves. I'm a novelist; my art is writing books — and the expression of what I wish to accomplish is compete when the book is published. No one ever asks a painter if he's hoping someone will make an animated cartoon out of one of his paintings. No one says to a sculptor, gee, bet you're hoping someone will make an action-figure toy out of your statue. But somehow, quite recently, writing books has begun to be perceived as merely a step on the way to the silver screen. I actually have a degree in Radio and Television Arts; I studied scriptwriting at university — and I decided it was not what I wanted to do. The printed page is my medium of choice.

That said, if someone wanted to make a movie of one of my books, that would be great — for one reason and one reason only: the money. Even a low-budget direct-to-video film puts a hundred thousand dollars in a novelist's pocket; a feature would look after my wife and my retirement very nicely. But I certainly don't think a scriptwriter is going to improve on my storytelling, nor that any computer-generated imagery is going to be better than what you, the reader, could come up with in your head.

Do I think my books would make good movies? Sure. Do I think there's an audience for them? That's hard to say. I write intelligent science fiction, for educated adults who have an appreciation for real science and who enjoy the intellectual process. Are there hundreds of thousands of people out there who appreciate that sort of thing? God, I hope so. Are there the millions that Hollywood needs to make a feature film viable? I'm dubious — although we've had dozens of inquiries about film rights to The Terminal Experiment, including from some very major Hollywood players, and the book is constantly under option, so perhaps I'm being too cynical.

Still, I suppose the Quintaglio trilogy would be visually stunning, either as computer-generated imagery or traditional cel animation, but I'd hate to see the stories dumbed down. Of all my books, I guess Illegal Alien — which has a simple, linear plotline — might be the most eminently filmmable.


[Rob on Prisoners of Gravity] A few years ago, you were involved in a highly acclaimed television series titled Prisoners of Gravity, which was canceled for some reason. What was that reason, and would you be interested in doing something similar again (besides @discovery.ca)?

[Space Guys] Prisoners of Gravity was produced by TVOntario, which is the provincial public-broadcasting service in Ontario, Canada. It ran for five seasons, which, by the standards of any country's broadcasting, is a great success. But, yes, it was canceled — and for purely political reasons. TVO was always somewhat embarrassed by the success of PoG, which they saw as low-brow compared to their "serious" books program, Imprint — which PoG slaughtered week after week in the ratings. And they got it in their heads that they should be doing a nightly current-affairs program, even though Canada was already knee-deep in such things. Anyway, to free up funds for this new series, they had to cancel some things. It was the perfect excuse to ax PoG, even though it cost a minuscule $26,000 an episode.

Fortunately, Mark Askwith [in photo, holding microphone], co-creator of PoG, is now a producer at Space: The Imagination Station, Canada's SF specialty channel, and he's making a lot of use of me; indeed I was the very first person to appear on Space when it debuted back in October 1997. I enjoy doing TV appearances, and, of course, they're great promotion for my novels, but I really don't want to get much more involved in television than I am now; I'm doing about one TV appearance every other week, and that's plenty. The most important thing is writing the books — and I don't want anything to get in the way of that.


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