Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

15 years as a keynote speaker

by Rob - May 30th, 2015

I have a nice sideline as a keynote speaker, talking about futurism at all sorts of conferences and meetings. It all started fifteen years ago today, on May 30, 2000, with my first real keynote, given to National Life of Canada‘s Group Insurance Brokers Conference, held at the Hockley Valley Resort.

That talk came about because Pete McGarvey, who was the Director of Communications for National Life then and knew of me from the Toronto science-fiction scene, thought of me for the gig.

That first keynote went quite well. David Kent, vice-president of National Life, sent me this afterwards:

Just a short note to express my thanks to you for your superb presentation at Hockley Valley. You focused precisely on those areas that were of most interest to the audience. Your delivery was exciting and challenging. A number of our insurance-broker guests spoke to me later about your presentation and there were several discussion later at dinner and the next day.
Pete McGarvey was also responsible for getting me my second major (and first US) speaking gig: on September 25, 2001, thanks to Pete, I spoke to the Life Communicators Association, an insurance-industry group, in Reno, Nevada.

Since then, I’ve done over 100 keynotes worldwide (Tokyo, Beijing, Istanbul, Barcelona, etc., plus all over the US and Canada) for organizations including the Canadian Space Agency, the Federation of State Medical Boards, Gartner, Lockheed Martin, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and the New York Library Association.

I love putting on my futurism hat and giving keynotes (next up is one in Aspen, Colorado), and I owe this part of my career, which began fifteen years ago today, to Pete McGarvey. Thanks, Pete!

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Martian War Machine lands in Mississauga

by Rob - May 28th, 2015

My great friend Michael Lennick, who passed away November 7, 2014, was a special-effects supervisor for the 1988 War of the Worlds television series — a direct sequel to the George Pal film. For the series, this Martian War Machine was built, exactly copying the move version.

This original screen-used fiberglass miniature — 45 inches wide — is now in my collection, thanks to Michael’s widow, Shirley Gulliford. It will soon be hanging in my office (just as it used to hang in Michael’s own office, as you can see in the picture), with a plaque honouring Michael on the wall near it.

Below is a screen capture of the miniature being used in the TV series (one miniature, optically composited to represent three Martian War Machines).

I am so, so thrilled, and so very honoured, to have this spectacular piece of TV history in my home as a daily reminder of my dear, dear friend. Below are Michael and Shirley — with the love.

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture and sexism

by Rob - May 28th, 2015

On Facebook, someone asked why there don’t seem to be as many female fans of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as there are male ones. My response:

Well, think about it. In ST:TMP, the female lead is, quite literally, an object: a replicant probe wearing an ultra-mini to show off her legs and hight heels (and, in the scenes prior to that, still a completely sexualized male-fantasy figure who has taken an oath of celibacy). Uhura, Chapel, and Rand have very small parts in TMP.

Now, think about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: the female leads (plural) are the incredibly competent and nuanced Dr. Carol Marcus, played with great range by Bibi Besch, and Saavik, wonderfully portrayed by Kirstie Alley: a female Vulcan (or Vulcan-Romulan hybrid), who is complex and intriguing.

TMP had many strengths, and I prefer it to TWOK, but its portrayal of women was not one of them: all the engineers we linger on are male, except Rand in the transporter room, and she presides over the death of two characters; Commander Branch is, of course, a man, and his subordinate is a woman; and instead of celebrating that Chapel is now an M.D., McCoy decries it, saying that he’s going to need a nurse instead of someone who’ll “argue every little diagnosis with me.”

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Counting words

by Rob - May 28th, 2015

Over on Facebook, I was asked if I keep word counts in mind when writing a novel. The answer is yes — and for several reasons.

First, I find daily word-count targets motivate me. When I’m writing first draft, I do 2,000 words a day. If I’m focused (and not wasting time on Facebook!), I can often get that done in four hours — and that means I can knock off for the rest of the day (although “knocking off” usually means doing something else related to my work, like research reading). I’m constantly checking my word count to see how much more I have to get done until I call it quits.

(I love doing research. I love doing revisions. The only part of the process that feels like work to me is getting that first draft out. As I often say, a sculptor can buy a hunk of clay and immediately get to work shaping a piece; a writer has to create his or her clay out of nothing before he or she can start the fun part of shaping it.)

Second, I have a contractual obligation: my publisher wants 100,000 words (give or take, oh, say, 10%). Much less than that, and they’re afraid readers will think the hardcover isn’t enough bang for the buck. Substantially more than that, and they’ve got to up the price of the hardcover to cover the extra costs — and that can hurt, especially for Canadian authors.

I have a friend in Canada whose first novel — quite a good book — was published some time ago by Tor (a New York house) in hardcover. But it was (I’m guessing looking at it) 150,000 words long, and it came out at a time when (as now) the Canadian dollar was low against the greenback, and that meant Tor had to put a substantially higher price on the book in Canada: it came out at $40 (yes, $40; not $39.95) — and, holy crap, was that a hard sell: first novel by an unknown author, and with a first digit in the price almost never seen on a work of hardcover fiction.

Third, novels are usually divided into chapters. My own style is lots of short chapters (my new novel has 52 chapters). My typical chapter is 1,800 words; I allow a few as short as 1,250 words and some as long as 3,200 (a typeset book has 350 or 400 words per page). Each chapter usually consists of two or three scenes (although most of those 1,250-word chapters are a single scene — as are some of the 3,200-worders). On a structural level, I’m conscious of where the chapter breaks (which require a cliffhanger of some sort) are going to fall.

Indeed, structuring into chapters is a core skill for a novelist. That’s the reason editors will often ask beginning writers for a submission of the first three chapters, rather than a set number of words or pages: among all the other skills they’re looking for, they want to see if you’ve mastered chaptering — the art of structuring a book so that as soon as the reader reaches the end of a chapter he or she will say, “Okay, just one more!” rather than putting the book down and possibly never picking it up again.

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Remembering Pat York ten years on

by Rob - May 21st, 2015

Ten years ago today, on 21 May 2005, Pat York — SF-writing colleague and friend — was killed in a car crash at the age of 57. She was a mainstay of SF conventions in this part of the world, a Nebula Award finalist, and twice a Writers of the Future Award finalist.

The SFWA obituary is here and, back then, in my Yahoo Groups newsgroup, Herb Kauderer​ wrote this tribute:

I got the phone call last night that Pat York died in a car crash. She was 57.

Her science fiction appeared here and there over the last decade, including one of the Full Spectrum anthologies, and Realms of Fantasy Magazine. Two of her stories, “Cool Zone” and “Lustman” barely missed the final ballot for the Nebula Award.

Last Saturday some area professionals were at a gathering at fantasy author Will McDermott’s and Pat was there full of energy. She spoke of enjoying her early retirement last year from her teaching job. She had been doing more critical writing in the last year.

The group had a deep conversation about the nature of love and romantic love, and Pat’s natural curiosity came shining through. She was especially interested in the emotional details of starting over, partly because she had never had her butterflies fluttered by anyone but her husband, and she couldn’t imagine being without him.

And now Pat is gone while her husband remains.

Tonight, after the shock has subsided a little, I will turn down another glass for an absent friend, and make her live in memory again.

-Herb

Continue to R.I.P., Pat. We miss you.
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Simon pegs it

by Rob - May 19th, 2015

If you actually read what Simon Pegg says in this Radio Times article — not just react in a knee-jerk fashion as you might when you think someone’s dissing your favorite things — there’s much truth in it.

In 1968, we had two great science-fiction films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which terrifically captured the sense of wonder and was groundbreaking aesthetically, and Planet of the Apes, which was trenchant satire and social commentary about the two major front-page issues of its day, race relations and the threat of nuclear holocaust.

We didn’t get another truly big box-office smash SF film for eight years, when the first Star Wars film came out — and everything changed.

Yes, you — and I — can point to examples of thoughtful, intelligent, socially relevant SF films and TV shows scattered here and there amongst the spectacles that followed (FlashForward, based on my novel of the same name, included), and try to claim they’re the norm, but what Pegg says is worth reflecting on.

And, the bottom line, when the public says “science fiction,” they don’t mean those outlier examples: they mean mindless spectacle, pretty much with no science or anything in the way of sophisticated — subtle, emotionally truthful — fiction. (Indeed, the ABC press office barred us from referring to FlashForward as science fiction, because that would confuse the public.)

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When Words Collide coming in August

by Rob - May 16th, 2015

NOTE: When Words Collide in Calgary has a membership cap — they sell a finite number of admissions — and they’re 78% full already for the August 2015 convention.

When Words Collide is my favourite convention, bar none; there’s simply no better networking opportunity for professional fiction writers in Canada. Conference chair Randy McCharles — himself an award-winning writer — has taken the best elements of the World Fantasy Convention and Boston’s Readercon, stripped out the stuffiness and pretension, and inserted a healthy does of fun.

The programming is always first rate, but the conference organizers pay a lot of attention to the social aspects, too, making sure that writers and readers have many opportunities to mingle and chat one-on-one.

The actual conference is excellent, but so are the seminars and workshops held just before or after it; the 2014 day-long seminars with Penguin Canada’s Adrienne Kerr and Kobo’s Mark Lefebvre were among the best publishing-related talks I’ve ever attended.

I go to lots of conventions as an invited guest — I was one of the guests of honour at the first When Words Collide — but WWC is the only one I fly back to year after year at my own expense.

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Wrestling with Gods: Tesseracts Eighteen

by Rob - May 12th, 2015

I’m very pleased to have my story “Come All Ye Faithful” reprinted in Wrestling with Gods: Tesseracts Eighteen, edited by Liana Kerzner and Jerome Stueart, just out from EDGE Publications

During an online event for the launch of this book, I observed:

Science fiction is the branch of literature that deals with big questions: where did we come from, where are we going, why are we here, how will it all end, is there a next phase of our existence? Religion — well, my goodness, look at that: the same questions! So, it’s natural for science fiction to explore religion.
And in response to the question “Can people without faith properly write about those with faith?,” I replied:
That’s a specific case of the general appropriation-of-voice discussion that raged long and loud among members of The Writers Union of Canada decades ago. Can a man truly write from a woman’s point of view; can you write characters of another ethnicity/culture/nationality/time period? A different age? A different sexual orientation? A different, or no, disability?

The answer, of course, is yes; hell, much of science fiction would grind to a halt if we said you couldn’t write about nonhumans without actually being one. Goodbye, Wintermute. So long, Spock. Adiós, aliens.

The reason I write about people different from myself is the same reason I read about them: to, in some small measure, become them, so that I can feel what they feel and know what they know; writing is an empathic process, just as reading is.

Of course, as with anything, research is essential: in “Come All Ye Faithful,” I’m writing (as I have before, in other works) about Roman Catholicism; obviously, one has to get the facts straight.

One area I’ve bumped up against with some of my friends who are professional theologians or clergy is that they often view their religion and its tenets with a more sophisticated — and, often, more skeptical — eye than the rank-and-file adherents; the higher-ups will say, “No Catholic is against evolution anymore” — when in fact many of those in the pews emphatically are. So, you can’t just write about Catholicism — or any religion — as if the term meant the same thing to all who supposedly belong to that faith.

One of my favourite moments in the seminal Canadian SF novel Barking Dogs, by Terence M. Green of Toronto, occurs when the first American Pope, Pope Martin, is interviewed on The Phil Donahue Show — and an audience member (the viewpoint character, Toronto cop Mitch Helwig), using an infallible portable lie detector, realizes that the Pope himself is unsure in his faith. Writing about people with faith and those without sometimes amounts to the same thing — writing about people who are asking questions.


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Nominate someone for the Canadian SF&F Hall of Fame

by Rob - May 9th, 2015

One of the greatest honours of my career was being one of the nine initial inductees last year into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

Each year, a jury will add two more inductees. The jury doesn’t propose the names to be considered, though — other people (like you!) do that. I’ve already submitted my nominee for this year, but you can, too! General information is here and the specific procedure for making a nomination is in this PDF.

Among those eligible for nominations are writers, editors, illustrators, fanzine publishers, convention organizers, media personalities, and more. Please don’t just post a “well, what about so-and-so” comment here; that accomplishes nothing. Take the time to submit a nomination for someone you think is truly worthy. Nominating deadline this year is July 1. Thanks!

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Film options: should producers shit or get off the pot?

by Rob - May 8th, 2015

Over on my Facebook wall, in response to me having noted that Toronto’s Divani Films had renewed its film-rights option on my novel The Terminal Experiment for a ninth year, a reader wrote:

I had a discussion recently that a movie studio should have to make a movie within 5 years of buying the rights to the book. I argued that the fans deserved that. My favorite book had the rights bought in 1988 and after two false starts by Pitt, and then Affleck, it’s still in limbo. I would love to hear the thoughts of any published authors, including Robert, if he is willing.
My reply:

You’re conflating some notions here. Optioning a book and buying the rights to a book are two different things. Options are renewable on an annual basis for whatever number of years the owner (the author) and the studio or production company have agreed to; I usually do three-year periods (that is, when the book is optioned, the entity paying for the option has the right to renew the next year and the following year, with the option fee rising each year); since this is Divani’s ninth year, next year, if they want to option again, and I’m willing to option again, we sit down and renegotiate everything.

Most rights purchases — where the production company acquires the rights to actually make a movie, rather than just secures your promise not to sell those rights to somebody else (which is what an option is) — have a reversion clause, however seven years (rather than the five you suggest) is typical; if the film hasn’t been made in seven years, the author gets the rights back.

But, remember, for authors an option is a good thing: it’s a revenue stream; for some older authors, with no new books and little if any backlist generating income, it may be their major revenue stream. So don’t begrudge them that. You’ve got the book; you’ll always have the book. And, gently, that’s all the reader is entitled to.

It’s vanishingly rare for novels to be filmed: it’s not routine, it’s not something that happens to most books — and it takes time. When I won the Nebula for best novel in 1995 for the very book under discussion here, The Terminal Experiment, SFWA had been giving Nebulas for 31 years. How many of the Nebula Award-winning novels had been filmed at that point? Two — and, as it happens, the first two (Dune and Flowers for Algernon, the latter originally as Charly with Cliff Robertson).

It’s twenty years later now — and how many have been filmed since? Just one more, Ender’s Game, for a total of three best-novel Nebula Winners having been made into movies. Fifty years of Nebulas; three Nebula-winning novels filmed — and that’s the success rate for the works considered the very best in the field.

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Working out the title for my 23rd novel

by Rob - May 3rd, 2015

Over on Facebook, re: the title roulette that’s been going on for months now related to my 23rd novel, Jonathan Fine wrote, “Quantum Night is better. Don’t second guess yourself.”

At this point, we’re on fourth- or fifth guesses. ;)

My own working title for the book was Thoughtless, which I still think is ideal: besides psychopaths, the book also deals with what are called in real academia “Philosopher’s Zombies” — beings who appear fully conscious but have no inner life; they’re quite literally thoughtless, and that results in much of the behavior in the world that we metaphorically call thoughtlessness.

And the word Thoughtless has the word ought, as in ethics, embedded in it, and the book is also very much about utilitarian ethics. But that title didn’t pass muster with Ginjer Buchanan, my US editor at the time, who thought it was a little soft, and a better title for a romance novel.

Then Hugo and Nebula finalist Nick DiChario, upon hearing the premise, said, man, you gotta call it The Philosopher’s Zombie, which I loved and Ginjer signed off on.

But Ginjer retired and my new editor at Ace, Jessica Wade — as well as my Canadian editor, Adrienne Kerr — had real misgivings about the “zombie” word, and asked for a rethink.

I came up with Quantum Night, from a line in the then-current draft of the book (“two ships that passed in the quantum night”), and everyone liked that … until the copy chief at Ace raised a red flag, saying, yeah, that’ll work great in the SF section, but it won’t likely bring in mainstream readers unfamiliar with my work. The issue was brought up with publisher Susan Allison, and she agreed with the copy chief. A few titles were suggested internally at Ace, none of which clicked, and I was asked to go back to the drawing board.

I came back with Psychopath State, which had a pleasing double meaning — the state (government) was behaving psychopathically in the novel, and one of my main characters had discovered a quantum-superposition state that correlated with psychopathy.

Marketing departments on both sides of the border like the word “psychopath,” as does my Hollywood agent, Vince Gerardis, but I put the brakes on that title when people on Facebook pointed out that Psychopath State sounds like the worst-ever college in the US state-college system (a thought that hadn’t occurred to my Canadian ear, which is normally quite attuned to potential wordplay).

And then Ronald Schettino and John Gribbin independently suggested a mash-up title of Quantum Psychopath — which is where we are now; I’m sure my US and Canadian editors, and my literary agent, Chris Lotts, will weigh in on it on Monday.

By the way, there’s nothing new about this. For a history of title changes of my books, see here; only two of my twenty-three (End of an Era and Illegal Alien) ever had just one title from conception to bookstore; read the history of my books’ titles here.

Anyway, my 23rd novel — with whatever title we finally decided upon — will be published March 1, 2016.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Birthdays!

by Rob - May 1st, 2015

Twenty years ago today, my novel The Terminal Experiment — which went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year, was a finalist for the Hugo Award and Japan’s Seiun Award, and won Canada’s Aurora Award — was published by HarperPrism (following full-text serialization in Analog).

The novel is still in print, in handsome new editions from Ace in the US and Penguin in Canada (as well as in ebook and audiobook editions).

And happy 10th birthday, Alex Lomax! The hard-boiled Martian private eye who features in my latest novel Red Planet Blues first appeared in my novella “Identity Theft” (which makes up the first ten chapters of the Red Planet Blues novel) in the anthology Down These Dark Spaceways, edited by Mike Resnick for the Science Fiction Book Club; Down These Dark Spaceways was first published ten years ago today.

“Identity Theft” was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, and won (in blind judging) Spain’s €6,000 Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción, the world’s largest annual prize for SF writing.

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Bring “God is an Iron” to Worldcon

by Rob - April 21st, 2015

Two of my favourite people in the world are SF writer Spider Robinson and playwright Liz Cano. Last year, Liz did an amazing adaptation of Spider’s “God Is An Iron” at the Montreal Fringe Festival — I saw it and it blew my socks off. She’s now got an Indiegogo campaign going to bring the play to this year’s Worldcon in Spokane (close enough to his home that Spider might be able to actually see the production!). Please contribute!

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Beyond the Fermi Paradox

by Rob - April 20th, 2015

I had the pleasure, however virtually and metaphorically, to sit down recently with Edward M. Lerner and discuss his latest novel. InterstellarNet: Enigma is the newest addition to Ed’s popular InterstellarNet future history. Here’s a little of what we discussed.

RJS: I’ve read InterstellarNet: Enigma, and it has a lot of moving parts. How do you describe the novel to people?

EML: As one conundrum beyond the Fermi paradox. (Laughs.) Too cryptic?

It’s implausible, or so we’re often told, that we humans could be the only intelligent beings in the vast and ancient universe. And yet, for all we know, human beings are unique. Any civilization with tech just slightly improved from our own could, within a few million years, colonize an entire galaxy — but Earth shows no evidence of having ever been visited. As for eavesdropping upon the radio chatter of our presumed interstellar neighbors, after fifty years SETI researchers can report only a Great Silence. So, as Fermi pointedly asked: where are they?

All the while, for storytelling purposes, we writers love to imagine alien intelligences in the neighborhood. And not only do we want fictional aliens nearby, they and humans should have similar capabilities. That way, in our conflicts — and stories need conflict! — we’re fairly evenly matched. Think Star Trek, for example, or Larry Niven’s Known Space, or the earlier books in my InterstellarNet series. Long story short: I went looking for an explanation beyond authorial convenience for not just intelligent aliens, but peer-level aliens, to cluster in our neighborhood.

RJS: And you came up with a doozie. (Laughs.) And it’s something I can’t comment on, without spoilers. But didn’t I see this in Analog?

EML: Yes and no. Roughly the opening third of the new novel first appeared in Analog, in 2013 as “The Matthews Conundrum” and last year as “Championship B’tok.” Extended a bit, those two stories are the opening episodes of Enigma‘s overall storyline.

RJS: Ah, b’tok, the alien strategy game. As I remember it, b’tok is to chess about as chess is to rock-paper-scissors.

EML: Exactly. B’tok is how the alien Hunters traditionally teach military strategy. And it’s not only military matters at which the Hunters excel. These aliens think Machiavelli was a charmingly amusing naïf. You really don’t want to tick off Hunters, especially when you have even bigger problems.

RJS: Which brings up a new bunch of spoilers. You said something about episodes?

EML: Right! A few weeks ago, my publisher and I agreed that the storyline made a great serial. So InterstellarNet: Enigma is first appearing as an ebook serial. The traditional book format will come later.

If someone finds they didn’t care for part 1, well, they’re only out 99 cnets. We hope and expect folks will want to read to the end.

RJS: I recognize a cue when I hear one. The serialization begins when? And where?

EML: (Laughs.) It began just a few days ago. New episodes will come out about once a week, concluding in mid-May. At Amazon, B&N, Apple iBook store … you name it. The serial will also be available directly from FoxAcre Press, at FoxBytes. And, to be complete, later this spring the publisher will offer omnibus ebook and print editions

For more about InterstellarNet, visit Ed’s website, Edward M. Lerner: Perpetrator of Science Fiction and Technothrillers, and his blog, SF and Nonsense.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Spur interview

by Rob - April 19th, 2015

On this coming Saturday, April 25, 2015, I’m speaking at the Spur Festival in Calgary. They sent me a questionnaire; here are my answers:

1. Tell us about your participation in the 2015 Spur Festival.

I’m thrilled to be speaking about the value of basic scientific research — why it’s so important to do work that asks fundamental questions.

2. What do you hope Spur Festival attendees will take away from your session?

That it’s shortsighted to only do applied research that has an obvious immediate application; the greatest advances in our standard of living ultimately come from scientific work that’s done with no specific application in mind.

3. What are you most looking forward to about the Spur Festival?

Seeing ideas spark off each other in a multidisciplinary way.

4. What is the one item you never leave home without?

My iPhone; it’s become my lifeline — I love having access to the sum total of all human knowledge in the palm of my hand from wherever I happen to be.

5. Which book is currently on your nightstand?

Kim Newman‘s British Film Institute analysis of Quatermass and the Pit, one of the best science-fiction films ever made.

6. In the last year, what is the longest you have gone unplugged? No internet, no cell phone, etc.

Ten hours flying from Toronto to Zurich, so I could debate the President of the American Civil Liberties Union about the notion of privacy; the host university flew me Executive Class, which took some of the pain away from not being able to go online.

7. Who was the last person you texted?

My dear friend Chase Masterson, an actress who appeared frequently on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and recently guest-starred on The Flash — setting up a breakfast date for tomorrow in Los Angeles, where I currently am.

8. The animated show The Jetsons was set in 2062. Is there anything from their futuristic world that wish were a current reality?

I want a robot maid like Rosie!

9. How do you prefer to communicate with colleagues: by phone, email, text or in person? How do you prefer to communicate with friends?

Colleagues via email, because it keeps a record and is easy to search. Friends: long, leisurely face-to-face talks in restaurants.

10. What are you most looking forward to about Calgary?

My favourite pizza place, Greco, is in Calgary. Kirstin Morrell, who is moderating the event I’m part of, is picking me up at YYC and we’re going straight to Greco without even stopping by my hotel.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Ten years since the Rob & Bob tour of 2005

by Rob - April 18th, 2015

On April 18, 2005 — ten years ago today — the second “Rob and Bob” book tour began, with Tor Books and H.B. Fenn & Company sending Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson on a cross-continent book tour together. Bob was promoting his novel Spin (which went on to win the Hugo Award) and I was promoting my novel Mindscan (which went on to win the John W. Campbell Memorial Award). An amazing experience; we had a blast.

Here’s the trip report of the by-plane part of the tour and here’s the subsequent by-car part of the tour.

Robert J. Sawyer (left) and Robert Charles Wilson in 2005.

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Come see me in Calgary

by Rob - April 8th, 2015

Come see science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer and astronomer Phil Langill, in a discussion moderated by Kirstin Morrell, at Spur Festival Calgary, Saturday, April 25, at 4:00 p.m. at National Music Centre — Stage One, 134 11th Ave SE.

Info: http://spurfestival.ca/calgary/events/are-we-alone-together-in-the-universe/

​Tickets: ($15.67): http://www.ticketbreak.com/event_details/8819?skin=spurfestival

We’ll be discussing:

Everywhere from the 27-kilometre-long Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator to Canada’s own Perimeter Institute, researchers continue to push the boundaries of physics. Asking the “big questions” on everything from the origins of the universe to the nature of time and space. As they develop ever-more complex experiments and theories to understand the fundamental nature of reality, we still want to know, is there life beyond Earth?

Did the LHC confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson “god particle” and what does it mean for us, as humans, in the vast cosmic universe? Join science fiction author, Robert J. Sawyer, Dr Phil Langill, Director, Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, University of Calgary and moderator Kirstin Morrell as they compare the practicalities of billion-dollar physics research with our everyday desire to believe in other worldly phenomena.

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All best wishes!

Rob

My next novel comes out one year from today

by Rob - April 5th, 2015

UPDATE: Actually, my next novel is coming out even sooner! In part to take advantage of some promotional opportunties that presented themselves, my US and Canadian publishers have moved the publication date up five weeks. The new official publication date for my next novel is TUESDAY, MARCH 1, 2016.

The official publication date for my next novel — my twenty-third — is Tuesday, April 5, 2016, precisely one year from today.

I’d been pretty reliably a book-a-year writer since my first novel came out in 1990, but my next book will be released three years after my most-recent one, Red Planet Blues.

I took time off leading up to and following the death of my younger brother Alan Sawyer, an Emmy Award-winning multimedia producer, who died from lung cancer in June 2013. My apologies to my readers, and my sincere thanks for your patience.

My American publisher, Ace, is still working on the cover, but when it is done, I’ll reveal the cover, the dust-jacket description, and the final title here.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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I’m presenting two workshops in Orillia in June 2015

by Rob - April 1st, 2015

At the Canadian Authors Association’s CanWrite 2015 conference, June 11-14, 2015:

A Thematic Approach to Science Fiction:
Science fiction is often called “the literature of ideas,” and with good reason: the fresh central idea is often the defining characteristic of a science-fiction novel. Join bestselling author Robert J. Sawyer for a discussion of how to come up with and develop a high concept for your own science-fiction or TV series by finding the theme that will give rise to your plot and characters, and enthrall your audience.

Adaptation: Turning your Novel into a Script and Vice-Versa:
Learn how to transfer your core ideas from one medium to the other — not just expanding and contracting but completely re-imagining a work to best use its strengths in a new form. Rob is past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and a member of the scriptwriting unions Writers Guild of Canada and Writers Guild of America. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his Aurora Award-winning novel of the same name, and he was one of the scriptwriters for that series. He’s currently writing a commissioned screenplay adaptation of his bestselling novel Triggers, and his 23rd novel, coming soon, started as an adaptation of a TV pilot script he wrote.

More info is here.

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A word is worth a thousand pixels

by Rob - March 18th, 2015

An email I sent to the Writers’ Trust of Canada this morning:

Hi! I was going to cut-and-paste news of Joseph Heath’s award win to my Facebook wall — when I discovered I can’t because your email newsletter doesn’t consist of actual text but only graphics — pictures of text. Might I gently suggest this isn’t wise?

It not only makes it hard to share content from it, as I was about to do, but also makes it impossible to search for the content (try to find your own message in your Gmail inbox by searching for any of the words that are supposedly in it; you can’t — because there are no words in it, only pixels). Only spammers trying to avoid getting caught by filtering algorithms routinely use graphics instead of text.

It also denies those with poor eyesight the ability to use screenreaders or to increase the font size while having the text reflow to fit the width of the window; many agencies would consider messages such as the one you just sent to fail to meet internal, as well as governmental, accessibility guidelines.

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Bill Joy, 15 years on

by Rob - March 16th, 2015

Fifteen years ago this week, Bill Joy‘s famous antitechnology manifesto “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us” appeared in Wired magazine. The Globe and Mail asked me for an op-ed in response, which appeared fifteen years ago today, on March 16, 2000. Here it is.

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Did genre fiction really win the war?

by Rob - March 15th, 2015

Apropos of the discussion that’s been going on here and on my Facebook wall for the last several days about genre fiction vs. literary snobbery, this is an interesting piece from Esquire.

But before we get too smug and claim we — the genre-fiction community — have won the war, note that not a single one of the books mentioned in the Esquire article was published by a science fiction or fantasy publisher or promoted as genre fiction; the war was won by those fighting on other fronts.

Yes, Ace/Roc, Baen, DAW, Del Rey/Spectra, Orbit, Tor, and Voyager publish a lot of genre fiction, including my own, but those aren’t where agents or savvy authors submit titles that they actually think are going to be widely read by a general audience, and if the parent company has other imprints, one of them will be used instead for books expected to sell to mainstream readers.

I’ve seen both sides of the fence. In the US, I’ve always been published by genre houses; in Canada, starting with Wake in 2009, I’ve been published under Penguin Canada’s mainstream Viking imprint. It’s a whole different world.

My most recent novel, Red Planet Blues — as genre a book as one could imagine; indeed, a fusion of two genres, namely hard-SF and noir detective — was supported in Canada with the largest book tour Penguin Canada mounted for any author of any nationality in 2013 and an ad that filled the entire back page of the book-review section of The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper. It paid off: Red Planet Blues book peaked at #3 on the Fiction bestsellers’ list in Maclean’s, Canada’s national news magazine, the list covering all fiction by authors of all nationalities.

The book realm the Esquire article is talking about is a universe other than SF&F sections of bookstores; those aren’t the trenches in this battle.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Chicago Manual of Style with less eye strain

by Rob - March 9th, 2015

Having been quite pleased with my style sheet for the web interface for Evernote, I decided to do something about the glaring white background of The Chicago Manual of Style Online. You’ll need to install the free Stylish add-on for your browser, then install my style sheet, which you can get here. If you don’t like the parchment shade I’ve chosen, it’s easy to modify it to any other background color you prefer.

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Pop-culture and obscure references in fiction

by Rob - March 9th, 2015

An interesting article by John McPhee about obscure and pop-culture references in fiction appears in the March 9, 2015, issue of The New Yorker. My thoughts, speaking as a science-fiction writer who takes great joy in including such things in his work:

In his 1953 short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” Arthur C. Clarke includes this bit:

One of his recurring nightmares was that there would be some change of plan, and that the high lama (whom they’d naturally called Sam Jaffe, though he didn’t look a bit like him) would suddenly announce that the project would be extended to approximately A.D. 2060. They were quite capable of it.

That story — one of the most famous and most studied in all of science fiction — endures even though most of its readers today have never even heard of the film Lost Horizon, to which Clarke is alluding.

Likewise, countless kids remember things from The Flintstones with no idea that they’re references to once-famous people or events. They know Hum Along with Herman and Boulder’s Rule without any awareness of Sing Along with Mitch and Burke’s Law. And there’s many a Muppet fan who has no idea that Statler and Waldorf are named for hotels.

For my money, such references don’t detract; they’re Easter eggs for those who recognize them.

(Of course, sometimes the references aren’t actually there. I once congratulated Tom Doherty on the cleverness of naming his publishing company Tor in homage to Pinnacle Books, one of his investors, “tor” being a near-synonym for “pinnacle.” Tom was surprised; that resonance had never occurred to him.)

Although John McPhee quickly discards the notion, the first sentence of the second paragraph of his New Yorker article obviates the need for the rest of the piece. He writes: “Of course, in this advanced age of the handheld vocabulary …”

But that’s the key point: even if you’re reading a paper book, as opposed to an ebook, you almost certainly have easy access most of the time to the World Wide Web. Don’t know a word? As my mother used to say, back when the damn thing was almost as big as I was, “Look it up in the dictionary.”

And of course you can look up more than just words; Google is your friend. If you don’t know who Maynard G. Krebs or Roy Chapman Andrews were, or what “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” means, or what a Rube Golderg device is, or what “the stuff that dreams are made of” refers to, or what “Dewey Defeats Truman” was all about, well, you will within seconds.

The easy access to the whole wide world of information has, in fact, changed the way I write my science fiction. In Frameshift and Factoring Humanity, written in the 1990s, I had to find ways to work into the narrative basic explanations, for those readers who weren’t already familiar with them, of genetics and quantum-physics principles. Now, I trust that readers who come across something they don’t understand can easily look it up, in whatever level of depth they care to pursue it in; it’s not my job to make my book complete unto itself any more than a sports writer would feel the need to explain the rules of baseball or what a bat is.

And, besides, good pop culture endures. Romeo and Juliet was pop culture; so was, at the time they were created, Oliver Twist and Doyle’sSherlock Holmes tales and the Greek myths and the Bible stories.

And so, too, are I Love Lucy and The Flintstones, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Simpson, which have been with us for 64, 54, 49, 38, and 26 years, respectively, and show no signs of fading from our consciousness.

And the biggest movie properties in the world — Spider-Man and Iron Man and Batman and Thor and Superman — are based on pop culture from a half-century or more ago.

Brand-names and real-world references are part of verisimilitude. People don’t say, “I had a cola and a fast-food hamburger.” They do say, “I had a Big Mac and a Coke.” People don’t say, “Look at him! Movie-movie star handsome he is!” They do say, “Check out that guy! Makes Brad Pitt look like a dog’s breakfast!” People don’t say, “I went to the central intersection of the city.” People do say, “I went to Yonge and Bloor.” People don’t say, “I posted that on the leading social-media channel.” People do say, “I put that on my Facebook wall.”

Yes, there are some readers who take pains to insulate themselves from pop culture, who proudly declare they never watch TV, or listen to any music written in the last century and a half, or read anything that would ever be released in mass-market paperback. They also are likely pretty isolated from a lot of reality; one worries about their social and political awareness as they bury themselves in some highfalutin past.

Science fiction has a particular problem with being dismissed as far-out, irrelevant, escapist. My own predilection for pop references in my books is, in large measure, an attempt to ground the stories in the here-and-now, to connect them inextricably with reality, to show that the genre matters.

And what about the fear of dating one’s work? Well, first, we should all be so lucky that our writing is widely read years or decades after its first publication; rarely is that the case. But, even so, it’s easier to date a work of science fiction based on the implicit or explicit scientific assumptions than it is based on any pop-culture reference.

A mention of Spock simply means your work was published in 1966 or later, but how old you say the universe is; how many planets you say the solar system has; whether you use the now-deprecated notion of junk DNA; whether or not you say Neanderthals crossbred with us (and whether or not you consider them part of Homo sapiens); whether you refer to dark matter and/or dark energy; whether you mention the multiverse or brane theory or GMOs or stem cells; whether your phone is wired or wireless or flip or touchscreen — all of those date your work much more precisely. And none of them detract from the underlying essential truths of the story.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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My day with the Jesuit Brothers

by Rob - March 1st, 2015

During the 1980s, I made my living as a freelance nonfiction writer, including writing 200 feature articles. Most of those are of little interest decades on: my specialties were the computer revolution, the broadcasting industry, business, and personal finance, and articles from the 1980s on those topics are pretty much irrelevant today.

But one of my favorite articles to write was “My Day With The Jesuit Brothers,” commissioned by Compass: A Jesuit Journal, published by the Jesuits of Upper Canada — and it came out 30 years ago today, in the March 1985 edition of that magazine. I was 24 years old when I wrote it. Here it is.

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Evernote web with less eyestrain

by Rob - February 28th, 2015

I use various versions of Evernote (Windows, web, iPhone, iPad) for organizing my research materials. The iPhone and iPad versions are very pleasant to use, but both the Windows client and the web version have glaring white backgrounds, which are uncomfortable to read. I haven’t found a solution for the actual Windows client that you install on your own computer, but I have worked out a fix for the web-based version:

I use Firefox with the Stylish add-on (which I believe is available for other browsers, too), but was surprised to find that no one had written a style sheet to override Evernote’s default note and note-snippet background colors so that they weren’t so blaringly white.

I’m no expert on style sheets (I’m a novelist!), but building on one by Kairi KameoI found at user https://userstyles.org, I cobbled together one that has a soft green background for those elements (which you can easily change to whatever background color you yourself might prefer).

My attempt is a first step; I welcome additions / modifications / improvements! You can get my style sheet here.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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My suggestion for FlashForward’s second season

by Rob - February 19th, 2015

Well, we never got to make a second season of FlashForward, the ABC TV series based on my Aurora Award-winning novel of the same name. But here’s the memo I sent to the producers and staff writers five years ago today (February 19, 2010) outlining my suggestion for Season Two:

===

Hi, All.

Since you’re exploring ideas for Season Two, I’d like to make a pitch. For better or worse, FlashForward was initially presented as the “new Lost.” We got good numbers for the pilot, but then people started turning away; our audience shrunk week after week. Why? Because we didn’t live up to that billing; we weren’t the new Lost after all.

So, what does Lost have that we didn’t?

First, Lost depicted a huge disaster — the crash of the Oceanic Airlines flight 815 — and a desperate bid for survival in the aftermath of that crash, a survivalist theme that has lasted for many years now.

But FlashForward didn’t do that. Oh, we depicted a huge disaster, then just sort of pushed it all aside, and went on pretty much as if it had never happened.

By the end of the pilot, “No More Good Days,” Mark and Olivia manage to magically drive home immediately following the flashforwards, despite all of the car wrecks that should have made road travel impossible for many days.

Shortly thereafter, instead of air travel still being grounded, Mark and Janis were jaunting off to Europe. And instead of Olivia dealing with tens of thousands of injuries for weeks on end, she was soon seen devoting her efforts to performing surgery on a Squirrelio doll. And by the time Halloween rolled around, everyone was trick-or-treating as if nothing had happened at all.

We kept telling people that this was the biggest disaster in human history, but showing them that it, in fact, had less impact on day-to-day life for most people than did 9/11.

What else did Lost give us? A small group of characters forced to depend on each other for survival despite their competing agendas.

One of our notions early on was that Lost had only 40 stories to tell, while we had 7 billion. But in fact, we ended up almost never telling stories about the flashforwards of people outside our core group. We did it once with the guy who had Addison’s disease, but that was about it for flashforward-of-the-week episodes, and instead we became fixated on people who didn’t have flashforwards — Demetri, the Blue Hand members, etc., which would be a bit like Lost becoming fixated on people who had planned to be on that Oceanic flight, but had missed boarding it in time for take off.

Lost worked because we understood why we were concentrating on these 40 people — they were isolated from all of humanity.

FlashForward didn’t work because we were concentrating on our ten or so regulars, who, in many cases, had problems the viewers found banal — surely somebody, somewhere, our viewers were thinking, has to have had a more interesting flashforward than an AA guy who saw himself drinking, or a woman who saw herself with a man who wasn’t her husband … but we kept going back to those storylines, without explaining why our focus was so tight even though the whole world had been affected.

And, finally, Lost, while concentrating on its core group, was able to widen the sweep to include other people as needed through flashbacks to earlier events. That kept Lost from ever getting claustrophobic, despite the confined setting and small number of people stranded on the island.

So, is there a way to actually make FlashForward the new Lost in season two? That is:

(1) is there a way to make it about a huge disaster again — and actually about dealing with the aftermath of that disaster and the need for survival;

(2) is there a way to explain why we’re focussing on a small core group, instead of telling the story of a worldwide event affecting 7 billion people; and

(3) is there a way to build a structure that includes intriguing flashbacks that periodically expand our focus?

I think the answer on all three points is yes, and although I didn’t frame it in the above terms (as a way to make FlashForward really deserve the designation of “the new Lost), I did suggest the scenario below to David Goyer in a memo on November 19, 2009, and I’d like to repeat that pitch again, in modified form. Obviously, some story details have changed since then, but you’ll get the gist:

===

Why are the bad guys so desperate to perfect the replicating of flashforwards? Answer: they got too greedy, with disastrous consequences. They’ve been orchestrating miniature isolated flashforwards for years now (since 1991) in hopes, as I said in a previous memo, of gaining financial information from the future.

But they’ve also seen that the next flashforward (the one that will occur at the end of season one) will cause not just a global blackout (that is, not just a shutting down of the conscious part of the brain, leaving the autonomic part — controlling heartbeat, breathing, etc. — operating) but a total global brain-function shutdown: all seven billion people will die; their conscious, unconscious, and autonomic functioning stopping.

That could be our killer end-of-season-one moment: everyone (except for Simon and a few others wearing the QED rings) looking out at the Los Angeles landscape littered with collapsed bodies, and this dialog:

SIMON: “Another blackout. How long till they wake up this time?”

McDOW: “They don’t. They’re not unconscious. They’re dead. All seven billion of them.”

Off Simon to the end credits — and onward to Season Two!

From there, you’ve got a great springboard for what could truly be the new Lost:

* a handful of characters who didn’t die (those wearing the QED rings, plus, if we want, others who were protected some other way);

* disaster on a gigantic scale — the entire world shut down, and no hope of food or electricity production, etc., coming back online, because there just aren’t any people left operate the equipment, forcing our characters to fight to survive.

In other words, it’s a story about a small band of characters struggling to survive without modern comforts — just like Lost.

And it’s now logically a story about a handful of characters (our survivors) instead of the whole (now dead) human race — just like Lost.

And, of course, to tell the backstory (which I outline in the next few paragraphs), we would need flashbacks, and so we could, as needed, expand the cast of characters — just like Lost.

Indeed, we could contrive it that the season-one-ending blackout that killed almost everyone had the effect of causing spontaneous, unpredictable time displacement for those characters who did survive, giving them flashbacks and flashfowards — just like Lost.

Here’s the proposed backstory and ultimate quest: The goal of the “bad guys” we met in season one (Flosso’s employers) was to find a way to jump the consciousness of the human race PAST the total global shutdown, reanimating everyone; they’re out to save humanity (including themselves, as a subset of that humanity — they’re not altruists).

This could be the resonance for Charlie’s “No More Good Days” line — she, and Flosso’s employers, had seen that no matter which one of the many worlds that might exist comes to pass, in all of them humanity is dead; no matter how you slice the future, there are no more good days — unless our people find a way to leapfrog consciousness ahead, resurrecting the human race.

And thus, in our first-season finale, we see that Charlie is in fact quoting something she heard Lloyd say on April 29, 2010: in all the many worlds yet to come that branch off of this now, humanity is dead. Lloyd, in looking at the formula Dylan has written in lipstick on the mirror, realizes that a consequence of it is that a synchronized multi-accelerator event like Flosso’s people are planning will not displace consciousness; it will destroy it.

(Also, this could help rehabilitate Janis as the mole: she knows that helping the bad guys is the only way to ultimately save humanity.)

What we end up with is a Season Two that really is about a disaster, but a much bigger one than Lost ever portrayed, with the stakes — the resurrection of humanity — much higher than any Lost ever dealt with. We end up not just being the new Lost, but Lost to the max — bigger, grander, and even more involving.

All best wishes.

Rob

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I gave up writing short stories ten years ago today

by Rob - February 6th, 2015

Ten years ago today I finished writing my last short story ever (“Biding Time”); I said then that I was giving up short fiction for good, but people refused to believe me. Well, it’s been a decade now, folks, and I’m showing no signs of fictive recidivism.

I had a nice little career as a short-story writer, with 44 stories published, now all collected in two volumesIterations and Other Stories and Identity Theft and Other Stories. The stories first appeared in a mix of classic genre venues such as Analog, Amazing Stories, and On Spec, original anthologies, and places that don’t normally publish fiction, such as The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Leisure Ways, and The Village Voice.

My stories were nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Awards; won Science Fiction Chronicle‘s Reader Award for best short story of the year; won Analog‘s Analytical Library Award for best short story of the year in that magazine; won five Aurora Awards; won France‘s and Spain’s top SF awards; and won an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.

I had a story in the journal Nature; had a story read on CBC Radio; had a story produced as a planetarium starshow; had stories optioned for film; and had work reprinted in Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF and in The Penguin Book of Crime Stories.

My short fiction has been praised as everything from “quietly intelligent” (Booklist) to “gobsmacking” (Publishers Weekly) and “highly entertaining” (Quill & Quire). Of my final collection, Identity Theft and Other Stories, Booklist said:

Sawyer’s collection showcases not only an irresistibly engaging narrative voice but also a gift for confronting thorny philosophical conundrums. At every opportunity, Sawyer forces his readers to think while holding their attention with ingenious premises and superlative craftsmanship.

But I’m a busy guy, and I can’t do everything. In the past 10 years, I’ve turned down numerous short-fiction commissions, including several from glossy magazines at a dollar a word or more. I’m content concentrating on novels and scriptwriting, but I’m still very proud of the work I did at shorter lengths.

Many of those stories are available for free here:

sfwriter.com/stindex.htm

Also, see my thoughts from five years ago, on the fifth anniversary of me giving up short fiction, on why I decided to kick the habit.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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35th anniversary of my first sale

by Rob - January 18th, 2015

Thirty-five years ago today, on January 18, 1980, I made my first professional sale: a science-fiction story about a starship called Starplex, with a crew that included reptilian aliens called Quintaglios, to the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York, which dramatized the story as part their summer 1980 starshow “Futurescapes.”

Read the history of that first sale (a page I wrote in 2010 for the 30th anniversary).

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The Beagle has landed

by Rob - January 16th, 2015

In honor of the discovery of the remains of Beagle 2 on Mars, an excerpt from my novel Red Planet Blues, which mentions it. Martian private-detective Alex Lomax is talking with blackmarket fossil dealer Ernie Gargalian:


Since Berling hadn’t yet shown up, I took the opportunity to ask Ernie a question. “So,” I said, doing my best to sound nonchalant, “do you think anyone will ever rediscover the Alpha Deposit?”

Ernie’s eyes, already mostly lost in his fleshy face, narrowed even further. “Why do you ask?”

“Just idle curiosity.”

“You, Mr. Double-X, are curious about women. You are curious about liquor. You are curious about sports. You are not curious about fossils.”

“But I am intrigued by money.”

“True. And, to answer your question, I doubt it’ll happen anytime soon. In an unguarded moment many years ago, after perhaps one too many glasses of port, Denny O’Reilly said to me that the Alpha was only the size of a football field — an Earth one, that is.”

“But why hasn’t anyone else found it yet? I mean, it has been twenty mears.”

“All we know is that it’s somewhere here in Isidis Planitia — and Isidis Planitia is the flat bottom of the remains of a giant impact crater fifteen hundred kilometers in diameter. It’s as big as Hudson Bay on Earth; you could fit over three hundred million football fields in it. Even with all the stampeders who’ve come here, there are still huge tracts of the plain that no one has ever set foot upon, my boy. Hell, no one’s even found Beagle 2, and that presumably isn’t even buried.”

“Beagle 2?” I said.

“A British Mars probe. It was supposed to touch down on Isidis Planitia in 2003, but no signal was ever picked up from it.”

“Is it worth something?”

“Sure, to a space buff, assuming it’s not smashed to bits. I’d be glad to find a buyer for the wreckage, if someone brought it in.”

“Maybe I should look for it. I was never any good at spotting fossils, but wreckage — that’s something I understand.”

“By Gad, you might make a decent sideline of it, at that,” said Ernie. “There’s even bigger salvage out there …”

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