Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

FlashForward flashback

by Rob - December 15th, 2014

Long before the 2009-2010 ABC television adaptation of my novel FlashForward, the book was doing quite all right. It got a starred review (denoting a work of exceptional merit) from Publishers Weekly; it won Canada’s Aurora Award for best SF/F novel of the year; it won (in blind judging) the world’s top annual cash prize for science-fiction writing, Spain’s 6,000 euro Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción — and fifteen years ago today, Monday, December 15, 1999, Barnes and Noble put FlashForward as third on its list of the best science fiction and fantasy books of 1999.

Here’s that list:

  1. Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
  2. Neil Gaiman, Stardust
  3. Robert J. Sawyer, Flashforward
  4. Michael Crichton, Timeline
  5. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Shadow
  6. Elizabeth Haydon, Rhapsody
  7. Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson, Dune: House Atreides
  8. Brian Jacques, Marlfox: A Tale from Redwall
  9. L.E. Modesitt Jr., Gravity Dreams
  10. Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium
  11. George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings
  12. Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky
  13. Richard Bowes, Minions of the Moon
  14. Elizabeth Hand, Black Light
  15. Frank M. Robinson, Waiting
  16. Terry Goodkind, Soul of the Fire
  17. Ken MacLeod, The Cassini Division
  18. Brendan DuBois, Resurrection Day
  19. Ben Bova, Return to Mars
  20. Sean McMullen, Souls in the Great Machine
  21. Thomas Harlan, The Shadow of Ararat

Said Barnes & Noble:

Robert J. Sawyer consistently makes intelligent, mind-blowing science fiction accessible to the mainstream reader with his efficient, easy-flowing prose, his exciting ideas, and his superior character development. Over the past several years, Sawyer’s stunning thrillers have produced multiple Hugo and Nebula nominations, enough for most to recognize him as the leader of SF’s next-generation pack. His newest novel, the near-future Flashforward, is every bit as good, if not better, than his previously recognized high-tech whirlwinds.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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My students and the Auroras

by Rob - December 14th, 2014

I am thrilled and amazed to note that every single winner of Canada’s Aurora Award for Best Short Story of the Year between 2003 and 2014 (twelve years) was either (cough, cough) me or one of my writing students — with only one exception, and that exception was in a writing critique group with me:

2003: Robert J. Sawyer

2004: Douglas Smith (my student at Ryerson)

2005: Isaac Szpindel (Ryerson)

2006: Derwin Mak (Ryerson)

2007: Robert J. Sawyer

2008: Hayden Trenholm (IFWA)

2009: Randy McCharles (Banff)

2010: Eileen Bell (Banff)

2011: Hayden Trenholm (IFWA)

2012: Suzanne Church (in my critique group)

2013: Douglas Smith (Ryerson)

2014: Ryan McFadden (Banff)

See this comprehensive guide to Award-Winning Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy for publication details.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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The Blue Planet

by Rob - December 12th, 2014


On December 3, 1999, the Mars Polar Lander disappeared as it descended toward the red planet. Five days later, an editor with a wonderfully appropriate surname — Catherine Bradbury — at The Globe and Mail: Canada’s National Newspaper called to ask me if I could write a science-fiction story explaining the probe’s disappearance. The only catch: they needed the finished story in just twenty-four hours. I said I couldn’t contemplate such a tight deadline for less than a dollar a word, the editor said fine (much to my surprise), and — voilà! — a story was born.

Newspapers are notorious for changing writers’ words, but the only thing The Globe changed was my title, from “The Blue Planet” to the rather histrionic “Mars Reacts!” The story appeared on the front page of section “R” of the Saturday, December 11, 1999, edition — 15 years ago this week.

David G. Hartwell took this story for his fifth-annual Year’s Best SF anthology, but he preferred my original title, and so the story was republished there — and now also on my website — as “The Blue Planet.”

Read the full short story

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35th anniversary of Star Trek: The Motion Picture

by Rob - December 7th, 2014


Today, December 7, 2014, is the 35th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In tribute, I offer this excerpt from Watch, the Hal Clement Award-winning second volume of my WWW trilogy, published by in April 2010 by Ace (US), Penguin (Canada), and Gollancz (UK).

In this scene, sixteen-year-old Caitlin (who was blind until a short time ago), her physicist father, and Webmind watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture. If you haven’t read Wake, the first novel in the trilogy yet, note that this contains some spoilers for that book.

“Another movie?” suggested her dad.

“Sure,” said Caitlin.

Perhaps another one about AI, Webmind sent to her post-retinal implant.

“Webmind wants to see something else about artificial intelligence,” Caitlin said.

They stood by the thin cabinets containing his DVD collection. Her father’s mouth curved downward; a frown. “Most of them are negative portrayals,” he said. “Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Matrix, The Terminator, 2001. I’ll definitely show you 2001 at some point, only because it was so influential in the history of artificial intelligence — a whole generation of people went into that field because of it. But it’s almost all visuals, without much dialog; we should wait until you can process imagery better before having you try to make sense out of that, and …”

The frown flipped; a smile. “… and they don’t call it Star Trek: The Motionless Picture for nothing,” he said. “Let’s watch it instead. It’s got a lot of talking heads — but it’s also one of the most ambitious and interesting films ever made about AI.”

And so they settled on the couch to give the Star Trek movie a look. This was, her father explained, the “Director’s Edition,” which he said was much improved over the tedious cut first shown in theaters when he was twelve.

Caitlin had read that the average length of a shot in a movie was three seconds, which was the amount of time it took to see all the important details; after that, apparently, the eye got bored. This film had shots that went on far longer than that — but the three-second figure was based on people who’d had vision their whole lives. It took Caitlin much more time to extract meaning from a normal scene, and even longer when seeing things she’d never touched in real life — such as starship control consoles, tricorders, and so on. For her, the film seemed to zip by at … well, at warp speed.

Even though Webmind was listening in, her dad turned on the closed-captioning again so Caitlin could practice her reading.

The film did indeed make some interesting points about artificial intelligence, Caitlin thought, including that consciousness was an emergent property of complexity. The AI in the film, like Webmind, had “gained consciousness itself” without anyone having planned for it to do so.

Fascinating, Webmind sent to her eye. The parallels are not lost on me, and …

And Webmind went on and on, and suddenly Caitlin had sympathy for her dad not liking people talking during movies.

Very interesting, Webmind observed when the film suggested that after a certain threshold was reached, an AI couldn’t continue to evolve without adding “a human quality,” which Admiral Kirk had identified as “our capacity to leap beyond logic.” But what does that mean, precisely?

Caitlin had to keep the dates in mind: although the film was set in the twenty-third century, it had been made in 1979, long before Deep Blue had defeated grand master Garry Kasparov at chess. But Kirk was right: even though Deep Blue, by calculating many moves ahead in the game, ultimately did prove to be better at that one narrow activity than was Kasparov, the computer didn’t even know it was playing chess. Kasparov’s intuitive grasp of the board, the pieces, and the goal was indeed leaping beyond logic, and it was a greater feat than any mechanical number crunching.

But it was the subplot about Spock, the half-human half-Vulcan character, that really aroused Caitlin’s attention — and apparently Webmind’s, too, because he actually shut up during it.

To her astonishment, her dad had paused the DVD to say the most important scene in the whole film was not in the original theatrical release, but had been restored in this director’s cut. It took place, as almost the whole movie did, on the bridge of the Enterprise. Kirk asked Spock’s opinion of something. Spock’s back was to him, and he made no reply, so Kirk got up and gently swung Spock’s chair around, and — it was so subtle, Caitlin at first didn’t recognize what was happening, but after a few seconds the image popped into clarity for her, and there was no mistaking it: the cool, aloof, emotionless, almost robotic Spock, who in this movie had been even grimmer than Caitlin remembered him from listening to the TV shows with her father over the years, was crying.

And, although they were facing almost certain destruction at the hands of V’Ger, a vast artificial intelligence, Kirk knew his friend well enough to say, in reference to the tears, “Not for us?”

Spock replied, with infinite sadness. “No, Captain, not for us. For V’Ger. I weep for V’Ger as I would for a brother. As I was when I came aboard, so is V’Ger now.” When Spock had come aboard, he’d been trying to purge all remaining emotion — the legacy of his human mother — to become, like V’Ger, like Deep Blue, a creature of pure logic, the Vulcan ideal. Two heritages, two paths. A choice to be made.

And, by the end of the film, he’d made his choice, embracing his human, emotional half, so that in the final scene, when Scotty announced to him, in that wonderful accent of his, that, “We can have you back on Vulcan in four days, Mr. Spock,” Spock had replied, “Unnecessary, Engineer. My business on Vulcan is concluded.”

“What did you think?” Caitlin asked into the air as the ending credits played overtop of the stirring music.

Characters flashed across her vision: I’m a doctor, not a film critic. She laughed, and Webmind went on. It was interesting when Spock said, “Each of us, at some time in our lives, turns to someone — a father, a brother, a god — and asks, ‘Why am I here? What was I meant to be?’” Most uncharacteristically, Webmind paused, then added: He was right. We all must find our place in the world.


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My Star Trek novel, 30 years on

by Rob - November 27th, 2014

Thirty years ago today, I submitted 20,000 words of sample chapters and an outline to Pocket Books for a Star Trek novel. Here they are:

sfwriter.com/armada.htm

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Michael Lennick memorial gathering

by Rob - November 15th, 2014

Please join us Saturday, November 29, 2014, from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. at Bakka-Phoenix Books, 84 Harbord Street, Toronto, to celebrate the life and memory of special-effects producer and science documentarian Michael Lennick, who passed away November 7. Everyone is welcome. We’ll be downstairs in the function room. Many thanks to Bakka-Phoenix for making the space available.

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Michael Lennick, R.I.P.

by Rob - November 8th, 2014

DETAILS OF MEMORIAL GATHERING

My great friend Michael Lennick passed away yesterday. He’d been admitted to hospital a month ago, and was diagnosed with a very aggressive brain tumor. His wife and business partner Shirley Guilliford made the decision to have him taken off life support yesterday afternoon, and he was gone within minutes. Michael was 61.

Michael and I had known each other for 19 years. He was one of Canada’s leading science documentary makers, and he interviewed me often for segments he produced for Discovery Channel Canada’s nightly science news program. He also used me in the special features he produced for the Criterion Blu-ray of Robinson Crusoe on Mars, in his documentary 2001 in 2001, his documentary series Rocket Science, and more. Michael and I co-wrote the original CBC Radio drama “Birth,” which aired in 2005.

Michael had my novel Illegal Alien under option for much of the last 18 years, and had come close several times to getting it made.

As a special-effects producer, Michael worked on the films of David Cronenberg, on the TV version of War of the Worlds, and on many other projects.

Michael’s mother, Sylvia Lennick, was known to generations of Canadians as a member of Wayne & Shuster’s repertory company; she most famously played Julius Caesar’s wife, with the immortal line, “I told him, Julie, don’t go!”

Michael attended the 30th-anniversary party for Hydra, Canada’s first association of science-fiction professionals, at my place on May 31 of this year; that’s where the accompanying picture was taken.

Michael always signed his emails, “With the love.” And I loved that gentle giant, and will miss him until the end of my own days.

Chris Darling wrote the IMDb bio of Michael; there it is:

Michael Lennick was born in Toronto, Canada, the son of Canadian actors Sylvia Lennick and Ben Lennick. He and his siblings, David and Julie, were raised in the wings of numerous Canadian stages and film sets following their peripatetic parents’ careers. Michael read a ridiculous amount of classic science fiction and hard science books during this period, an infusion that informed (if not triggered) most of his eventual careers.

Michael co-created, co-wrote and directed the Canadian cult TV classic The All-Night Show (1980), one of several television series he was a part of during that period. (The original ANS team recently re-grouped for a feature-length anniversary special.)

After a two-decade run creating visual effects for such films as Videodrome (1983) and TV series like War of the Worlds (1988), as well as writing and directing episodes of numerous Canadian kids’ shows (including the multi-season PBS/CBC series OWL/TV, where he created and performed the role of the talking skeleton Boneparte) Michael gradually shifted full-time to the parallel career he’d begun in 1976: producing, writing and directing science and history documentaries.

In the early days each of his documentaries was shot and completed on film — a long, arduous process (especially the money-raising part.) The mid-90s revolution in high-quality, inexpensive video production and non-linear editing facilities, coupled with the explosion of specialty cable channels, changed everything, making documentary production a viable full-time trade.

Michael is currently president and CEO of Foolish Earthling Productions, which produces space and technology-based documentary series and specials for The Discovery Channel, PBS and others. Their productions have won top prizes at numerous film festivals worldwide.

Michael and Shirley split their time between Canada, Los Angeles and Alamogordo, New Mexico, their adopted home-away-from-home and production hub of many of their recent documentary projects. The rest of the time they live with a couple of rambunctious dogs in deep-woodsy splendor about two hours north of Toronto, where they also churn out books, articles and special projects for DVD companies such as Criterion (Robinson Crusoe on Mars, First Men Into Space), as well as space and science museums around the world.

Rest in peace, my friend. Rest in peace.


Added later:

Just some of the online coverage of Michael’s passing:

The Hollywood Reporter
Variety
The Toronto Sun
Video Watchdog
The Criterion Collection
The Globe and Mail

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Following Ghomeshigate

by Rob - October 31st, 2014

Why am I so interested in the Jian Ghomeshi case? It has nothing to do with Jian personally, whom I liked those times I’ve encountered him; as everybody, even his alleged victims, has noted, he’s charming and charismatic. When he interviewed me on Q, he did a good, insightful job, and I enjoyed the experience.

And, honestly, I’d completely forgotten the following fact, which I uncovered only a couple of days ago when searching for when I’d been on Q:

On March 13, 2007, I received an email from a producer at the CBC that said, “I know you’re really busy these days but I figure there’s no harm in asking. I’m working on a new national arts and culture show, as yet unnamed, hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. We’re currently checking out possible regular contributors and we’re keen on having someone do a regular ‘Tomorrow in History’ segment. Of course, your name was at the top of my list and the Executive Producer Mark O’Neill is a fan of your work.”

I had an interview about the job, but nothing came of it — which happens all the time; I do lots of interviews, pitch sessions, and so on.

But I am fascinated by the CBC. Going back to my initial association with them, when they very kindly commissioned me to write and narrate three one-hour radio documentaries about the history of science fiction for CBC Radio One’s Ideas series (I was commissioned in 1983, when I was just 23, and did the work in 1985), through to the present day, the CBC has been enormously supportive of my work.

I’ve been interviewed by most of the greats there, including the legendary Peter Gzowski at Morningside, Brent Bambury, Andy Barrie, Ralph Benmergui, Mary Ito, Peter Kavanagh, Sook-Yin Lee, Bob McDonald, Alan Neal, Carol Off, Anne Petrie, Valerie Pringle, Shelagh Rogers, Tina Srebotnjak, Pamela Wallin, and, yes, Jian Ghomeshi.

I owe a great deal of the fact that I’m a national mainstream bestselling author in Canada to the constant, unflagging support of the CBC. In addition to all the interviews, I’ve sold them radio drama, my novel Rollback was serialized on their Between the Covers program, they’ve read short fiction by me on air, and so on.

More: as my fellow Ryerson Radio and Television Arts grad Tanya Huff will tell you, she and I graduated in 1982, just after the CBC had its first-ever round of massive layoffs. We’d both had our eyes set on working for the Corporation, and, had there actually been jobs to be had, we might have ended up there, instead of going off to write novels. And many of our classmates and friends did eventually end up there.

Also, I worked very hard over a period of years with producers Joe Mahoney and Fergus Heywood to sell the CBC a radio and/or new-media series about science fiction; we produced four different pilots. None of them sold, which is fine — I’ve no ax to grind; my professional life has been full and rewarding.

But I am fascinated by the notion of parallel universes (a mainstay of science fiction and recently much in the press because of some discoveries that suggest they might actually exist).

In addition to exploring that notion on the grand scale in my Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, I’ve been making notes for years for a novel on this theme for a more intimate one-life look (expanding on the theme of my short story “Lost in the Mail”); the novel has the working title The Many Lives of Toby Willis (a play on the 1959-1963 TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), although that will surely change if I ever write it.

Besides being a frequent visitor to the CBC’s headquarters at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre (where Jian Ghomeshi’s Q is produced), and besides working on various CBC projects, there are many plausible alternative realities in which my own life would have involved an even bigger connection with the CBC.

And so just as I follow the machinations, drama, and politics of the Royal Ontario Museum (which is where I had my heart set on working up until I turned 18 and abandoned my plans to become a vertebrate paleontologist), I’m likewise fascinated by what goes on at the Corporation.

Non-Canadians may never quite get the Canadian affection/obsession/love-hate relationship with the CBC, and even those Canadians who live in big cities might not really appreciate how much the CBC is the glue that holds this country together (a fact driven vividly home to me when I lived in Dawson City in the Yukon), but it’s an important part of our national life — and of my life, and might have been an even bigger part.

So, in addition to the very important contribution the Ghomeshi affair has made to our ongoing and crucial conversation about the treatment of women, the insights into the inner workings of the CBC revealed this past week have, to me, been absolutely gripping.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Running WordStar under Windows

by Rob - October 30th, 2014

My favorite word-processing program is the versatlie, customizable, and powerful WordStar for DOS, last updated in 1992. Running it under Microsoft Windows can be difficult, particularly with 64-bit versions of Windows, and especially with recent versions (Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 8.1).

But a free new MS-DOS emulator called vDos makes it easy to run WordStar for DOS (and many other MS-DOS programs) under all versions of Windows from XP through to 8.1, whether 32-bit or 64-bit, with excellent printer and clipboard support. WordStar’s graphical Advanced Page Preview and InSet work under vDos, too, although only at standard VGA resolution (640×480 pixels).

I’ve written up instructions for using WordStar (versions 4.0, 5.0, 5.5, 6.0, and 7.0) under Windows via vDos. You’ll find them here.

Oh, and if you’re curious why I (and other professional writers, including George R.R. Martin) prefer WordStar to Word or any other program, see my essay here.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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I finished writing Golden Fleece 25 years ago today

by Rob - September 26th, 2014

Twenty-five years ago today, on 26 September 1989, when I was 29 years old, I finished the manuscript for what would turn out to be my first published novel, Golden Fleece, and sent it off by courier to my then-agent, Richard Curtis.

(The first novel I actually wrote was End of an Era, but that was published later.)

Golden Fleece was published in December 1990 by Warner Books under the Questar Science Fiction imprint. Orson Scott Card, in his year-end summation in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, later named it the best SF novel of 1990, and it won me my first two awards:

  • The CompuServe Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Forum’s Homer Award for Best First Novel of 1990

  • The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Aurora Award for Best Long-Form Work of 1990-1991

(And it made the Preliminary Nebula Award Ballot and, in its Japanese translation, was a finalist for Japan’s top SF award, the Seiun.)

I won’t say it seems like only yesterday; in fact, it seems like a lifetime ago. But I’m still very proud of that book.

Here are some reviews of the novel.

Alien SETI radio message received in Golden Fleece.

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My film and TV work

by Rob - September 23rd, 2014

It’s high time my website had a page devoted to my film and TV work. Here it is.

Screen capture from “Course Correction,” the episode of FlashForward I wrote for ABC.

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Free science-fiction festival in Greater Toronto

by Rob - September 9th, 2014

Science Fiction Spectacular!

Mississauga Central Library
in the Noel Ryan Auditorium
301 Burnhamthorpe Rd. West, adjacent to City Hall
Mississauga, Ontario
Saturday, October 18, 2014, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Free — but space is limited. Please register in advance with the Central Library’s “Readers’ Den” Department: Phone 905-615-3200, extension 3544.

In honour of Mississauga resident ROBERT J. SAWYER‘s receipt of the Lifetime Achievement Aurora Award from the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association, the Mississauga Public Library is pleased to present a FREE one-day science-fiction festival.

Rob asked us to get his “dream team” to join him at this event, and we did. Speaking and reading will be:

• Marie Bilodeau, Aurora Award-nominated author of Destiny’s Blood
• Tanya Huff, Aurora Award-winning author of The Silvered
• Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Hominids
• Robert Charles Wilson, Hugo Award-winning author of Spin

10:00 a.m.: Keynote address by Robert J. Sawyer on “The Canadian Science-Fiction Experience”

11:00 a.m.: “Differences Between Writing Science Fiction and Writing Fantasy” — Marie Bilodeau and Tanya Huff in conversation

Noon: Lunch break

1:00 p.m.: Author Readings #1: Marie Bilodeau and Robert Charles Wilson

2:00 p.m.: “Science Fiction and the Science of the Mind” — Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson in conversation

3:00 p.m.: Author Readings #2: Tanya Huff and Robert J. Sawyer

4:00 p.m.: “The Future of Science Fiction Publishing” — Marie Bilodeau, Tanya Huff, Robert J. Sawyer, and Robert Charles Wilson

Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson with their Hugo Award trophies

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The dark side of Little Miss Sunshine

by Rob - September 3rd, 2014

Attending Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt‘s talk “Endings: The Good, The Bad, and The Insanely Great” at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference earlier this year was a transformative experience for me; it was one of the best talks on the craft of writing I’d ever heard.

Arndt won the Oscar for best original screenplay for the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine. On the day after the conference, I read the screenplay; the next day, I watched the movie.

It’s a good film, with particularly great performances by Steve Carrell (in a very subdued role), Alan Arkin, and ten-year-old Abigail Breslin (who was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress). The finished film didn’t use the originally scripted final scene; the actual final scene in the film is much less effective (the coda after the climax).

But the film disturbed me, especially since it was made so recently (a decade after the JonBenet Ramsey murder). In it, we have a heroin-addicted grandfather (brilliantly portrayed by Arkin) who is into “nasty” porn (as he calls it) living with his son’s family. The grandfather is repeatedly cautioned that his speech is inappropriate around children, but he is incapable of controlling himself in this regard, and he’d been kicked out of his retirement home for unspecified unacceptable acts.

To his fifteen-year-old grandson, in front of the boy’s parents, he exhorts (per the screenplay; the lines as delivered by Arkin are slightly different in wording but have the exact same content):

Jesus! You’re what? Fifteen? You should be gettin’ that young stuff! There’s nothing in the world better than the young stuff. Look: right now you’re jailbait, they’re jailbait. So it’s fine. The minute you turn eighteen — Bam! You’re lookin’ at three to five.
And despite this, grandpa spends inordinate amounts of time down in the basement alone with his granddaughter (Abigail’s character is seven in the film), and shares a hotel room with her.

The hotel-room scene is sweet (one of the most famous from the film), but it’s not until the end that we find out what grandpa has been doing down in the basement all this time with his seven-year-old granddaughter: he’s been teaching her to do stripper dance moves to the song “Super Freak” so she can shock everyone at an upcoming child beauty pageant.

It’s supposed to be funny; it’s supposed to be moving; it’s supposed to be an “insanely great ending” … but, holy cow, I can see why Arndt had to kill grandpa before this revelation: because once you know what he’s been doing with the little girl, the notion that he and she are going to go back to spending private time together would be completely unpalatable.

Structurally, it’s an interesting film, the dialog is tight, the characters are quirky, and the screenplay action descriptions are a model of how it should be done. But, wow, really?

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My Star Trek computer-graphics article — 30 years later

by Rob - June 30th, 2014

Thirty years ago today, on June 30, 1984, when I was 24, the following article by me appeared in The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper. As a young freelance writer just beginning my career, selling to The Star was a huge accomplishment (although this was actually my second piece for them). The article came about because I noticed the name “Omnibus” in the closing credits of the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and wondered if it referred to the Omnibus here in Toronto.



“Canadian Computers Search for Spock”
(Published as “Local graphics company beams over success on Spock mission” in The Toronto Star on Monday, June 30, 1984)

by Robert J. Sawyer

Tension reigns on the bridge. Admiral Kirk’s son stands over the shoulder of Saavik, a young Vulcan woman. They’re surveying Genesis, the volatile planet where Mr. Spock was laid to rest. On the computer monitor, colourful graphics indicate the various types of terrain on the planet spinning below. A black rectangle — Spock’s coffin — appears on the display and the word “life-form” flashes on the screen. The Search for Spock has begun.

In Star Trek III, William Shatner and the rest of the gallant Enterprise crew spend much of their time reacting to computer displays on the dozens of viewscreens scattered about the starship’s bridge. Many of these images — as well as those for the enemy Klingon bridge — were created here in Toronto by Omnibus Computer Graphics.

“Omnibus has really changed in the last year,” says Prof. Alain Fournier, University of Toronto’s expert on computer graphics. “Last year they went public, expanded their facilities, and hired some well-known programmers. Soon they will be on a par with the very best computer graphics firms in the States.”

Omnibus is a successful company in Canada: producing computer images for CTV and CBC station-identifications and for Carling, Avco, and Texaco commercials.

The Star Trek III contract was Omnibus’s first foray into the world of Hollywood motion pictures, according to Ron Rimer, account director. They were one of three companies hired to produce displays for the hundreds of computer screens and monitors seen in the film. All told, they did between thirty and forty clips for the film over an intensive six weeks, amounting to an hour’s worth of high-tech imagery.

Why a Canadian firm? Just like everyone else trying to break into Hollywood, Omnibus had a demo tape. “Ralph Winter (associate producer of Trek III) was very highly impressed” with Omnibus’s graphics, says Joe Martin, Vice President of Sales.

“They sent us tapes of the other two Star Trek films, cassettes of the type of thing done previously,” says technical director Dan Krech. “Personally, I didn’t think the things were done as well as we could do.” Omnibus, he felt, was capable of “higher quality, more easily understandable” graphics.

They created the orbital views of the Genesis planet showing that Spock’s coffin had landed safely. And they animated the sinister Klingon bird-of-prey ship becoming visible just before attacking the Enterprise.

They also did graphics of spaceships approaching the orbiting space dock and of the space dock’s doors closing to try to halt the escape of Admiral Kirk and the stolen Enterprise.

Surprisingly, only one person I spoke to at Omnibus had gone to see the finished film. “We can’t even be sure which stuff is ours,” says Rimer. “They might have had all three companies working on exactly the same things, then picked the versions they liked best.”

To make a computer graphic, you have to tell the computer what the object looks like, according to Krech. This process is called digitizing: feeding the co-ordinates of every point of the object into the machine. “It took a week to digitize the Klingon bird-of-prey,” says Krech. Once that’s done, “we can build form, adding texture, colour, and movement,” says Rimer.

The work for Star Trek III was done under a Klingon cloaking device of secrecy. “They supplied us with original numbered scripts, which we had to sign for,” says animator Dan Philips. “Everything was under tight security because they didn’t want the story to be given away.” There’s still an aura of hush-hush about the project at Omnibus. All blueprints and scripts were promptly shipped back to Hollywood at the conclusion of their work. Not even slides of the graphics were kept.

But did they know in advance whether Spock lived in Trek III? The official answer from Joe Martin, still security-conscious, is no. But Krech said that they did, though “we never did get a final script.”

“The storyboards essentially contained our keyframes,” says Krech. “We had a first and a last frame, and words describing the motion. As long as we started the way they wanted and ended up where they wanted us to be, we were working at our own discretion.”

Test frames were couriered to the Paramount studios for approval. “They loved everything we did,” says Krech. “Paramount would then give feedback, though. Usually it was a matter of individual taste. ‘The Klingon was too red’ or ‘we’ve already got too much blue in the scene. Can you make the graphic another colour?’”

Despite all the back and forth checking, some mistakes slipped by. Carolyn Clink, past secretary of the Ontario Science Fiction Club, noticed two gaffes, which the Omnibus people say must have been made by the other firms involved. One was a set of temperature readouts that spelt “Celsius” Celcius. The other was a graphic of the Enterprise, showing an intruder in Spock’s cabin. “That was a diagram of the old TV Enterprise, with tubular engines,” says Clink, “not the sleek movie version. I can’t believe somebody didn’t notice that in advance.”

Other things were intentional. “If you look at the Klingon writing on the monitors long enough, you’ll be able to read English words in it,” says Dan Philips. “I won’t tell you what it says, though; that’d spoil the fun.”

Do computer graphics add anything to the film? “Oh, yes,” says Tanya Huff, a staff member of Bakka, Toronto’s science fiction specialty shop. “They looked like they belonged on the bridge of a starship. They’re certainly an important part of the atmosphere.”

The project was a lot of fun for Omnibus, says Krech. A science fiction film is a particularly satisfying showcase for computer graphics. As Dan Philips says, “Everyone who works with computers has a sci-fi streak.”

As with the Star Trek characters, the adventure continues for Omnibus. The company is negotiating to provide graphics for five Hollywood films with $8-to-$10 million budgets. As for Star Trek IV, Martin says, “We did a good job” on Trek III. “It would follow suit to be considered for future films.”


Sadly, that was not to be: Omnibus went out of business three years later, in October 1987; its fate is detailed here.



Robert J. Sawyer online:
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University of Winnipeg convocation address

by Rob - June 21st, 2014

On Thursday, June 12, 2014, the University of Winniepg presented me with an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree at its Spring Convocation. I was asked to say a few words to the graduating students in Business, Economics, and Science:


I’ve often said the job of a science-fiction writer is not to predict the future. Rather, it’s to outline possible futures, giving humanity a smorgasbord of tomorrows to choose from.

Still, ten years ago the Canadian office-automation magazine Backbone asked me to make specific predictions about what life a decade down the road would actually be like. And so, in the summer of 2004, when most of you graduating today were about to enter your teenage years, I painted a picture of the year 2014.

And how did I do? Well, my first prediction was this:

Forget the old-fashioned alarm-clock buzzer. Tomorrow’s bedside clock will be a sophisticated brainwave monitor. It’ll keep track of your sleep cycle, gently bringing up the room lights at precisely the right time so that you’ll feel rested, not cardiac arrested, as you awake.
Okay: home EEGs aren’t yet for sale at Future Shop. But we do have smartphone apps that do pretty much the same thing, using their accelerometers to track your tossing and turning. I’ll score that as a partial win.

My next prediction was this:

You’ll have an electronic newspaper, with stories geared to your particular interests culled from sources worldwide, with foreign-language news automatically translated into English.
We do indeed rely on tailor-made personal newsfeeds, and Google Translate does a remarkable job. So, I’ll count that as a win, too.

I also wrote:

Perhaps half of all white-collar workers will telecommute in 2014.
Ah, well — there goes my winning streak. As a guy who works at home himself, I clearly overestimated how quickly others would adopt that lifestyle — but it is coming, no doubt, and those of you who stay here in Winnipeg will come to appreciate it … particularly in winter.

My next prediction:

Your electric car will drive itself. No more traffic accidents; no more gridlock.
Google has indeed built prototypes of self-driving cars; I had them in common use a bit too quickly, but when they do come, well, Confusion Corner here in Winnipeg might have to change its name — robocars won’t be baffled by it at all.

Let’s test me again. Back in 2004, I wrote:

Throughout the day, your wristband — a combination cell phone, personal digital assistant, camera, and ebook display, all controlled by spoken commands — will be your lifeline.
Well, that technology is here now, in our smartphones — and some of us are indeed strapping them on to our wrists, now that the Pebble and other smart watches are on the market. Give me points for that one, too.

I also predicted Google Glass — actually, an even better version than what’s come out so far. Here’s what I wrote:

We’ll have contact lenses that overlay textual information on your vision. You’ll never be in the embarrassing situation of not remembering the name of an acquaintance you happen to run into; facial-recognition technology will identify the person, and provide you with all pertinent details instantaneously.
Not mainstream here in June of 2014 — but definitely coming down the pike; give me half-points.

And I also got right the transition away from broadcast media. A decade ago, I wrote:

You’ll have your pick of any TV show or movie ever made, available instantly on your wall-screen TV.
All in all, my crystal ball turned out to be not too cloudy. So let me venture some guesses about what things will be like a decade from now, in what will doubtless be the very hot summer of the year 2024.

Ten years hence, most of you will be in your thirties, meaning your lives will be just a quarter — or even less! — over. You will be well into the first of likely several careers you will succeed at in your long, healthy, prosperous lives.

Those of you graduating with business degrees will be tackling a whole new definition of economics — the field once known as “the dismal science” because it was the science of scarcity. But in an information economy, in an age of ubiquitous 3D printing and with almost boundless alternative sources of energy, economics will become the science of abundance, the art of nonzero-sum games, of win-win scenarios, of cooperation and mutual success. If corporations are people too, then you — their future leaders — will make them people with hearts and compassion, altruistic rather than merely capitalistic — in other words, people just like yourselves.

And those of you graduating with bachelor’s or master’s degrees in science — you face a tough challenge: for the first time since the Enlightenment, science literacy has taken a giant step backward. Science deniers not only lurk at the crepuscular fringes, as they always have, but they now win public office, and the masses heed the ramblings of Playboy Playmates and corporate shills instead of the overwhelming consensus of doctors and scientists. You new science graduates will be the bulwark of rational civilization, the front guard in the war on ignorance, the shapers of tomorrow — and the saviors of our world.

Oh, and one final prediction, and this one I’m absolutely sure of: ten years from now, the University of Winnipeg will be hitting up you, me, and everyone else receiving a degree today for alumni donations — and let us all remember then and always to honour this wonderful institution that we shall forevermore call with pride our alma mater.

Onward, all of us, into the future.

Thank you very much.


My Honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) from Laurentian University (awarded 2007) and my Honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) from the University of Winnipeg (awarded 2014) on my office wall (click image for much larger version):

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Honorary doctorate

by Rob - June 13th, 2014

On June 12, 2014, the University of Winnipeg — the oldest university in the province of Manitoba, Canada — gave bestselling science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree; former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien also received the same degree that day.

Sawyer was nominated for the honorary doctorate jointly by the Dean of Science, Dr. James Currie, and the former Dean of Theology, Rev. Dr. James Christie, in part in recognition of the thoughtful treatment of the science-and-religion dialogue in Sawyer’s work.

This was Sawyer’s second honorary doctorate; he also holds an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, awarded in 2007.

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Calculating God #1 Audible bestseller

by Rob - June 1st, 2014

I’m thrilled that my Hugo Award-nominated Calculating God was the #1 Science Fiction Bestseller at Audible.com for April 2014, as reported in the June issue of Locus, the U.S. trade journal of the science fiction and fantasy fields.

(And in 2009, Calculating God won the Audio Publishers Association’s Audie Award for Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Audiobook of the Year.)

You can get the audiobook here or read more about the novel here.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Will self-published authors be Amazon’s next hardball target?

by Rob - May 23rd, 2014

Amazon.com is playing hardball with Hachette, one of the big-5 traditional publishers; it’s previously done such things with Macmillan (the big-5 publisher of which science-fiction giant Tor is part).

Note the template, folks: when Amazon feels it’s got a de facto monopoly, it goes after its suppliers, big and small (what Bill Gates, at Microsoft, used to call “cutting off their air supply”).

Right now, Amazon is luring tens of thousands of independent authors with 70% of gross royalties (and Amazon’s competitors, such as they are, have been forced to match that rate). But when Amazon decides to turn its attention to self-published and independently published authors, I doubt the 70% royalty will stand. Once independent authors are entrenched in that business model, and once their customers are overwhelmingly reading via Kindle devices and apps, the squeeze will begin there, too. Why offer 70%, when you can offer 60%, or 50%, or less? Why only charge big publishers for featured listings (co-op advertising), when you can start asking for money up front from indie authors, too?

Right now is the time that authors’ representatives and writers’ groups should be pushing hard, hard, hard for higher ebook royalties from traditional publishers, who are standing pat at 25% of net (effectively, a 17.5% royalty), because right now may be the only time in history in which we can say we DO have a better-paying alternative, and you HAVE to negotiate if you want to keep us.

Because if we don’t, the traditional publishers know they just have to wait it out until Amazon starts lowering their self-published ebook royalty. Remember, 30% — the current cut Amazon takes on an ebook sale — is way less than the cut they, the chains, or independent bookstores take on non-discounted physical-book sales, and no company in any aspect of publishing has ever said, “Oh, you know those economies that come from electronic distribution and new production methods? Let’s pass those saving on to the author, so that they’ll make more.” The current Amazon epublishing model, like everything else that company or any other publicly traded company does, is a part of a long-term strategy with a single goal: maximizing shareholder profit; generosity or fairness doesn’t figure into the equation.

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30th anniversary of Hydra North

by Rob - April 29th, 2014

Thirty years ago today, on April 29, 1984, the first meeting of Hydra North, Canada’s first association of science-fiction professionals, was held at Toronto’s Free Times Café. Founded by Judith Merril, and administered from that first meeting for the next eight years by me, the organization provided wonderful networking and fostered many friendships.

Carolyn and I are hosting a 30th-anniversary reunion party on Saturday, May 31, 2014. I’ve tried to track down as many past members as possible, but if you’re reading this and haven’t yet heard about the reunion from me, send me an email (rob@sfwriter.com) and I’ll give you the details.

A history of Hydra North (later Toronto Hydra; later still Ontario Hydra).

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Paperback of Red Planet Blues

by Rob - March 31st, 2014

The US and Canadian paperback editions of Red Planet Blues are now out (the British paperback comes out next week on Thursday, April 10).

“A cause for celebration; a tour de force.” —Analog
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Skylark Award

by Rob - March 3rd, 2014

I’m absolutely thrilled to be the 2014 winner of the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award for Imaginative Fiction (the Skylark), presented annually since 1966 by the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA).

The award is given to a person who “has contributed significantly to science fiction, both through work in the field and by exemplifying the personal qualities which made the late ‘Doc’ Smith well-loved by those who knew him.” The gorgeous trophy includes a very powerful magnifying glass, in honor of Doc Smith’s famed Lensman series of novels.

The award was presented Saturday, February 15, 2014, at Boskone 51 in Boston.

Past winners include authors Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey, George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, and my Tor editor David G. Hartwell and my Ace editor Ginjer Buchanan.

Complete List of Winners:

  • 2014 Robert J. Sawyer
  • 2013 Ginjer Buchanan
  • 2012 Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
  • 2011 Lois McMaster Bujold
  • 2010 Omar Rayyan
  • 2009 Terry Pratchett
  • 2008 Charles Stross
  • 2007 Beth Meacham
  • 2006 David G. Hartwell
  • 2005 Tamora Pierce
  • 2004 George R.R. Martin
  • 2003 Patrick Nielsen Hayden & Teresa Nielsen Hayden
  • 2002 Dave Langford
  • 2001 Ellen Asher
  • 2000 Bruce Coville
  • 1999 Bob Eggleton
  • 1998 James White
  • 1997 Hal Clement
  • 1996 Joe Haldeman & Gay Haldeman
  • 1995 Mike Resnick
  • 1994 Esther M. Friesner
  • 1993 Tom Doherty
  • 1992 Orson Scott Card
  • 1991 David A. Cherry
  • 1990 Jane Yolen
  • 1989 Gene Wolfe
  • 1988 C.J. Cherryh
  • 1987 Vincent Di Fate
  • 1986 Wilson (Bob) Tucker
  • 1985 Jack Williamson
  • 1984 Robert Silverberg
  • 1983 Andre Norton
  • 1982 Poul Anderson
  • 1981 Frank Kelly Freas
  • 1980 Jack L. Chalker
  • 1979 David Gerrold
  • 1978 Spider Robinson
  • 1977 Jack Gaughan
  • 1976 Anne McCaffrey
  • 1975 Gordon R. Dickson
  • 1974 Ben Bova
  • 1973 Larry Niven
  • 1972 Lester del Rey
  • 1970 Judy-Lynn del Rey
  • 1969 Hal Clement
  • 1968 John W. Campbell
  • 1967 Isaac Asimov
  • 1966 Frederik Pohl

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Iterations ebook!

by Rob - February 11th, 2014

For the next 17 days, until February 28, for the first time ever, my first short-story collection Iterations and Other Stories is available as an ebook, along with five other great books by the likes of Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch — all six books for just $2.99 from BookBale.com.

Iterations features an overall introduction by James Alan Gardner and notes on each story by me. For all titles, the bundle includes both ePub (Kobo, Nook, Sony, iBooks) and Mobi (Kindle) formats.

Here’s the table of contents for Iterations (which contains 22 short stories):

  • “Introduction” copyright 2002 by James Alan Gardner.

  • “The Hand You’re Dealt” copyright 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Free Space, edited by Brad Linaweaver and Edward E. Kramer, Tor Books, New York, July 1997.

    • Finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story of the Year
    • Winner of the Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award for Best Short Story of the Year

  • “Peking Man” copyright 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published as the lead story in Dark Destiny III: Children of Dracula, edited by Edward E. Kramer, White Wolf, Atlanta, October 1996.

    • Winner of the Aurora Award for Best Short Story of the Year

  • “Iterations” copyright 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published as the lead story in TransVersions: An Anthology of New Fantastic Literature, Paper Orchid Press, November 2000.

  • “Gator” copyright 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published as the lead story in Urban Nightmares, edited by Josepha Sherman and Keith R. A. DeCandido, Baen Books, New York, November 1997.

    • Honorable Mention, Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror

  • “The Blue Planet” copyright 1999 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published as “Mars Reacts!” in The Globe and Mail: Canada’s National Newspaper, Saturday, December 11, 1999.

    • Included in David G. Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 5

  • “Wiping Out” copyright 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Guardsmen of Tomorrow, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff, DAW Books, New York, November 2000.

  • “Uphill Climb” copyright 1987 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Amazing Stories, March 1987.

  • “Last But Not Least” copyright 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Be Afraid!: Tales of Horror, edited by Edo van Belkom, Tundra Books, Toronto, September 2000.

    • Selected for reading on CBC Radio’s “Between the Covers”

  • “If I’m Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage” copyright 1981 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in The Village Voice: The Weekly Newspaper of New York, 14-20 January 1981; reprinted by Story Cards, Washington, D.C., in 1987.

    • Prize Winner, The Village Voice‘s “Sci-Fi Scenes” Contest

  • “Where the Heart Is” copyright 1992 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Ark of Ice: Canadian Futurefiction, edited by Lesley Choyce, Pottersfield Press, Nova Scotia, 1992.

  • “Lost in the Mail” copyright 1995 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in TransVersions 3, October 1995.

    • Finalist for the Aurora Award for Best Short Story of the Year

  • “Just Like Old Times” copyright 1993 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of Speculative Writing, Summer 1993; commissioned for and also published as the lead story in Dinosaur Fantastic, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg, DAW Books, New York, July 1993.

    • Winner of the Aurora Award for Best Short Story of the Year
    • Winner of the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story of the Year
    • Finalist for Japan’s Seiun Award for Best Foreign Short Story of the Year

  • “The Contest” copyright 1980 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in White Wall Review 1980, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Toronto; reprinted in 100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Terry Carr, and Martin Harry Greenberg, Doubleday, New York, 1984.

  • “Stream of Consciousness” copyright 1999 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in No Limits: Developing Scientific Literacy Using Science Fiction and Packing Fraction and Other Tales of Science and Imagination, both edited by Julie E. Czerneda, Trifolium Books, Toronto, 1999.

    • Winner of the Aurora Award for Best Short Story of the Year

  • “Forever” copyright 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Return of the Dinosaurs, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg, DAW Books, New York, May 1997.

    • Honorable Mention, Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction

  • “The Abdication of Pope Mary III” copyright 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, July 6, 2000.

    • Called “gobsmacking” by Publishers Weekly

  • “Star Light, Star Bright” copyright 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Far Frontiers, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff, DAW Books, New York, September 2000.

    • “Robert J. Sawyer, quiety intelligent as ever” says Booklist of this story

  • “Above It All” copyright 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Dante’s Disciples, edited by Peter Crowther and Edward E. Kramer, White Wolf, Atlanta, February 1996.

    • Winner of the CompuServe SF&F Forum’s HOMer Award for Best Short Story of the Year

  • “Ours to Discover” copyright 1982 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in LeisureWays, November 1982.

  • “You See But You Do Not Observe” copyright 1995 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg, DAW Books, New York, February 1995. Authorized by Dame Jean Conan Doyle.

    • Winner of France’s Le Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for Best Foreign Short Story of 1996
    • Winner of the CompuServe SF&F Forum’s HOMer Award for Best Short Story of the Year

  • “Fallen Angel” copyright 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published in Strange Attraction, edited by Edward E. Kramer, ShadowLands Press, Centreville, Virginia, June 2000.

    • Finalist for the Bram Stoker Award for Best Short Story of the Year

  • “The Shoulders of Giants” copyright 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer. First published as the lead story in Star Colonies edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers, DAW Books, New York, June 2000.

GET THE EBOOK HERE

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Star Trek’s black guest stars, 1966-1967

by Rob - February 9th, 2014

Apropos of yesterday’s discussion of mentioning race in fiction, I have a complete set of the first season scripts of the original Star Trek, and decided to have a look to see if the major speaking parts played by black guest performers in the filmed episodes were specified in the scripts as to be played by black actors.

Here are the four such episodes from the first season, in the order in which they were produced (my thanks to Trek Core for the wonderful screen captures; click them for larger versions):


Of course, the role identified in the script for “The Man Trap” as “Uhura’s Crewman” had to be played by a black actor (who could manage a line in Swahili!); the actor chosen was Vince Howard. The script says (speaking of the creature’s previous guise as crewman Green):

“GREEN – Green changing to Negro crewman”

And a quarter-page later, of Uhura:

“HER POV – At the closed Botany Section doorways is a tall, magnetically handsome man. He is dressed in ship’s uniform. He is Negro.”

What’s a tad surprising is that those words — “He is Negro” — constitute the act-ending cliffhanger, and are immediately followed by “FADE OUT. / END OF ACT TWO”. Since all acts but the last end with jeopardy, the script is allowing the viewer to connect the dots here: Uhura’s been targeted and is in trouble because of the appearance of the salt-vampire creature in the guise of a “handsome Negro.”


In “The Galileo Seven,” Boma (played by Don Marshall in the part that won him his subsequent starring role on Land of the Giants) is described in the script as “BOMA, a strong Negro.”


For “Court Martial” (the very next episode produced after “The Galileo Seven”), in which Kirk’s superior is played by the wonderful black Canadian actor Percy Rodriguez, the script clearly says “STONE – A NEGRO, whose bearing marks him as a man accustomed to command”.

(In the initial Captain’s log as scripted, Kirk calls him “portmaster” and “Senior Captain,” not “Commodore,” the term actually used on air; the ending credit for Rodriguez retains the term “Portmaster Stone” never heard on air. Oh, and the odd title for his office chart, “Star Ship Status” (rather than “Starship Status”) is verbatim from the script.)

As I wrote on my blog when Rodriguez passed away in 2007, “It’s hard to overstate the impact in 1967 of having Captain Kirk’s superior officer be a black man, and the absolute authority and dignity Rodriguez brought to the part was perfect.”


The most problematic is the role of Charlene Masters in “The Alternative Factor.” In that episode a black woman stands in for Scotty in engineering — and she’s clearly a scientist, not an engineer (blue uniform not red).

Much has been written about the fact that the part was originally to be larger and to be a love interest for Lazarus, and it has been repeatedly suggested (and also repeatedly denied) that the part was trimmed so much (leaving the end product with a guest star doing lines Jimmy Doohan could have done in his sleep) because Joe D’Agosta, the casting director, had cast a black woman (Janet MacLachien) in the love-interest role and the studio or network got antsy about a romance between a black (human) woman and a white (alien) man.

In any event, the script simply introduces her as “LIEUTENANT CHARLENE MASTERS, an attractive chemoscientist” (why she’s called “chemoscientist” rather than “chemist” is the least of this script’s problems); nothing in the script specifies her ethnicity (she’s also been demoted by the time the episode goes to air; she’s wearing an ensign’s uniform, with no sleeve braid, not a lieutenant’s, as specified in the script).


Aside: I don’t have the second-season scripts, so can’t comment on how the part of Nobel Prize-winning cyberneticist Richard Daystrom was described in “The Ultimate Computer” (brilliantly portrayed by William Marshall).

But it’s interesting to note that the character of Leah Brahms in Star Trek: The Next Generation was originally written as Navid Daystrom, and was to be the granddaughter or great-granddaughter of Richard Daystrom: a black woman as the love interest for the (blind) black man, Geordi La Forge.

But the script didn’t say she was black, and the NextGen casting people didn’t recognize the import of the name Daystrom, and so cast a white woman (Susan Gibney), giving Geordi an interracial romance — but doing an African-American actress out of what turned out to be a recurring role.

(On the other hand, if her last name is Brahms, I suppose that means she could be the great-to-the-nth granddaughter of Flint!)

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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More on mentioning race in fiction

by Rob - February 8th, 2014

I’ve written before about whether authors should feel nervous about specifying the race or skin colour of characters. My position is simple: you either do it for all characters or none; neither position is racist. What’s racist is only specifying it when deviates from some assumed norm — for instance, when books tell you if a character is black, but leave unstated that other characters are white, because, y’know, normal folk are white, so you only have to mention it when someone isn’t normal.

A fascinating example is the description of the character of Vince in Dexter. In the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter (an excellent book) by Jeff Lindsay, Vince Masuoka (as his last name is spelled in the book) is introduced as “half Japanese” — what the other half is is left unsaid, because, of course, it apparently goes without saying:

Sitting on an overturned plastic milk carton on the far end of the Dumpster, poking through a handful of waste matter, was Vince Masuoka. He was half Japanese and liked to joke that he got the short half. He called it a joke, anyway.
(In fairness to Lindsay, Darkly Dreaming Dexter is a first-person narrative from the point of view of the character Dexter Morgan, so the description of Vince is illuminative of Dexter’s character, not necessarily the author’s.)

In the pilot script for the TV series based on the book, though, scriptwriter James Manos, Jr., introduced Vince in a way I find more acceptable (slightly altering the spelling of his last name):

VINCE MASUKA (30′s), slight, half Japanese, half white, sporting a slicked-back “Don Ho” haircut, meticulously brushing for fingerprints around the exterior of a large green dumpster …

(C.S. Lee, pictured, the actor who plays Vince so memorably in the TV series, is actually Korean — born in Cheongju, South Korea, in 1971.)

Ah, well, even Starfleet Command is guilty of lapses in this area, as you can see in this screen capture from the Star Trek episode “The Menagerie,” in which Spock is referred to not once but twice as “Half-Vulcan” — the other half, of course, it goes without saying, is human. ;)

(There’s more from Robert J. Sawyer on this topic in the “Comments” section, below the following picture.)

Click image for larger view

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10th anniversary of seminal academic Canadian science-fiction conference

by Rob - February 6th, 2014

There’s no doubt the best-ever academic conference on Canadian science fiction was Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre, held in September 2013 in honour of the donation of my archives to McMaster University.

But the second-best Canadian academic science-fiction conference began ten years ago today, on Feburary 6, 2004, at what was then Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta (and is now Mount Royal University).

Called Science Fiction and Social Change, chaired by Randy Schroeder and featuring authors Robert J. Sawyer, Candas Jane Dorsey, and Timothy Anderson, it was an amazing gathering, with events over three days.

The wonderful Kirstin Morrell reported in depth on the conference for The Guantlet, the University of Calgary’s newspaper. Here’s what she had to say back in 2004 (reprinted with her kind permission):


Can Sci-Fi Change Society?
by Kirstin Morrell

It was a culture of worship, where fiction writers were gods. As a writer, how could I argue?

Mount Royal College hosted the “Symposium on SF and Social Change” Feb. 6-7, mixing scholars, writers and enthusiastic readers.

Many journalists posed the question of whether or not speculative fiction can change the world. This is a disservice to the real questions posed by some of Canada’s greatest thinkers on the subject. The hows and whys were the real meat of this gathering.

Thursday

The unofficial first night of the symposium was a free reading, hosted by the Calgary Public Library from three Canadian literary greats: Robert J. Sawyer, Candas J. Dorsey and Timothy J. Anderson.

I recognized few faces in the lobby, a sad testament to the fragmentation of Calgary’s science fiction and fantasy community.

Only some of those I spoke to even realized Calgary has had an annual SF/F convention for the past 20 years.

I got into the theatre just in time to catch the symposium’s organizer, Dr. Randy Schroeder, introduce the guests and start the reading.

Sawyer was the first to pose the question that would drive this weekend: is science fiction meaningful or merely escapist? He didn’t answer with a sentence, but rather a story.

He wrote “Immortality” for an anthology launched at last year’s 61st World Science Fiction Convention. “Immortality” did not preach the message of equality, instead it showed the pain past injustice still causes.

Anderson, ever the flawless performer, poked fun at a future version of the Nigerian chain mail message in his story, while Dorsey read a tale of an old religion living underground in a new religion’s society.

Sadly, I could not understand why the local SF/F writers’ group was conspicuously absent from the reading, except that their monthly meeting coincided with this event. Sometimes one can look too far inward, to the exclusion of a world of possibility.

Friday

Friday was devoted to the reading of academic papers analyzing speculative fiction. Neophytic acolytes threw around terms of the secret language of English literature scholars, to the sad exclusion of ordinary people in the crowd. “Semiotics,” “agency,” even “icon” all used in ways I could not understand. I needed a glossary.

Many in the audience complained that, unlike their home fields of study in the sciences, people simply read from their papers and no one really presented.

However, the occasional brilliant thought did erupt from certain papers.

University of Northern British Columbia’s Jacqueline Plante postulated the nature of desire is not the presence of wanting, but an absence deeply felt.

By the end of the first day, I felt extremely discouraged in my field of study. Is this what English majors do? Is this how we contribute?

If anything, Friday had the opposite of the intended effect. Certainly these people all take science fiction very seriously. I was now having a harder time with that belief.

English literature, as a field of study, was always so full of passion and meaning for me. As we studied the poetry of Larkin or the prose of Lawrence, we were dissecting the horrors and common, everyday desires of our shared existence. At its root is the belief we can build on the knowledge discovered and recorded in the past, formulate new knowledges and pass them on in our writings.

In the final session, Dorsey and Anderson battled with the question of whether predictions effect change, or if they are merely predictive. In their vast insight, they turned the discussion to ask a far more important question. If SF can effect change, is this necessarily a good thing?

In any case, the participants had to dine. So at the end of the day, many adjourned downtown to a restaurant to continue arguments and intellectual navel gazing in a more social fashion.

Saturday

Saturday’s schedule dove directly into the reading of several papers, and I did not regret sleeping in. Lunch was where those like Sawyer, Ph.D. student Kaye Mason and others debated everything from the subjective nature of time to the future of the publishing industry.

Every seat was full for the final session, a plenary featuring Sawyer, Dorsey and Anderson struggling to answer the questions posed over the weekend. Their combined insights included warnings: every writer is a product of his or her age, current SF is bound to the realities of modern economics, and maybe the process of writing happens on too long a timeline to capture the pace of change.

The planned events were now over. That evening saw the die-hards follow the troika of writers to a Chinese restaurant where they packed the back room to overflowing.

I managed to interview Dorsey and Dr. Schroeder together. Between them, thoughts on the nature of speculative fiction and the creative process flowed and combined to divine insights I could not begin to understand. These writers live and think on a plane most of us in the audience can only observe from a distance.

After eating, the truly keen went with Sawyer to soak up more caffeine in a downtown coffeehouse until after midnight. A few didn’t want to say good night at the end.

I found it fascinating to watch a man so many people are drawn to, who still communicates with them as an equal. Sawyer was the one bridge between the truly esoteric levels of thought and those like me, who live on a plane with the majority.

However, I did not realize his true contribution until I heard a recording of his keynote address, days later. He did not lord over us with lofty concepts or browbeat us with his intellect. Instead, he guided us and showed us how to think of a future beyond anyone’s prognostications.

Thinking back on the weekend, I realize the conference was sadly not meant for people like me. It was wonderful to be privy to the secret underground, where silent smiles are exchanged between peers who found each other in the crowd.

Networking was the real bustling underground city of these days. Intellect was drawn to intellect and I’d like to believe some ideas were exchanged, some fires stoked.

When you bring minds like Dorsey, Anderson and Sawyer together, the resulting conflagration is a spectacle to watch. However, the real symposium took place in the restaurants and coffee shops and even in the hallways between sessions.

Many voices doubted SF was anything other than a shout in the dark. I disagree. If nothing else, these blazing exchanges of ideas inspired me.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Search me

by Rob - February 4th, 2014

Today, Warner Archive released the complete 1972-73 NBC TV series Search on DVD (manufactured on demand) for US$49.95 (23 hour-long episodes on six discs). I loved this series (and loved its pilot movie, Probe, even more). In honour of today’s release, some reminiscences of watching the show in first run. Lockwood, do you copy?

Today, with almost all Canadians getting their TV via cable, the cable operators simply delete the US signal and simultaneously substitute the Canadian one — meaning we see the same episode of the same series, but with Canadian, instead of American, commercials.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, things were different. Canadian stations had to entice us to watch their broadcasts of the program (with the ads they’d sold), rather than the American ones. To do that, they showed the American-made programs earlier in Canada (yes, Star Trek‘s world television debut was not September 8, 1966, as usually claimed; rather it was September 7, 1966, in Canada).

When I was 12, in 1972, my favorite new series was called Search, starring Hugh O’Brian and Burgess Meredith (best known as the Penguin from the 1966 Batman TV series). It was an intricately plotted caper series, with high-tech agents, linked by miniature cameras and radios to a mission-control center, working to recover missing objects. In Toronto, we got the Canadian broadcast of the latest episode on Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. on local channel 9 (CFTO, the Toronto CTV affiliate), and then, the next night, at 10:00 p.m., we got the American broadcast, spilling over on channel 2 from the NBC station in Buffalo, New York.

I never missed an episode on Tuesday nights, but I wanted more. Every Wednesday night I had a fight with my mom, because I wanted to stay up to watch Search again — the exact same episode I’d seen the day before. It was an hour-long series, meaning it wasn’t over until 11:00 p.m. — way too late, my mom felt, for a 12-year-old on a school night. But I whined and wheedled, and she would usually give in.

Back then, I couldn’t articulate why it was so important to me to watch the same episode a second time — but I understand it perfectly now. I was learning how to write. On Tuesday nights, I’d be surprised by the twists and turns the plots took — and on Wednesday nights, knowing how the story turned out, I was able to see how the writer had developed the plot.

Now, television drama may not be the greatest form of literature — but the structure it uses is wonderful for learning plotting. There was always something else on and, at every commercial break, there was an opportunity for you to switch to another program, so TV writers had to end every act — indeed, just about every scene except the last — with a little cliffhanger, to keep you in suspense, to keep you from turning away.

Today, of course, no one has to go through the difficulties I did to see the same program twice in rapid succession. Still, I think watching a program twice — or reading a book twice — is a great way to see exactly how the writer accomplished what he or she had set out to do.

For the uninitiated, here’s what was so cool about Search:

First, remember, this was the Great Drought for television science fiction. Star Trek had gone off the air in 1969; Next Generation was still 15 years away. So, we were starving.

And we got this gift: a stylish super-good-looking show. The set for PROBE Control, especially as depicted in the pilot, was the second-best science-fiction TV set ever done for TV (the best was the bridge of the original Enterprise). They only kept that set for the first half of the season, but it was gorgeous.

Speaking of gorgeous, this was a show of amazingly good looking people. Besides the three handsome male leads, there were stunningly beautiful women working in PROBE Control (at various times, Angel Tompkins, Ginny Golden, Stefanie Powers, Cheryl Ladd, and Deanna Lund). Add to that beautiful guest stars that included Jo Ann Pflug — oh my!

Then there was Burgess Meredith, who is absolutely riveting in everything he does (and gives one of the very best performances of his entire career in the one episode that really focuses on him, “Moment of Madness,” in which he’s captured and tortured by a deranged man who served under him during the Korean War).

Also, just like 2001: A Space Odyssey, these guys were doing computer graphics before there was any such thing as computer graphics (beyond the very, very primitive). The visual futurism was stunning and prophetic.

And then there was the PROBE Scanner — coolest device ever: tricorder, iPhone, etc., all small enough to fit on a ring or tie-tack, envisioned — again, very prophetically — in 1972.

And, finally, of course, the writing, with Leslie Stevens of Outer Limits fame penning many of the scripts, which were fast-paced, clever, witty (with lots of risque double entendres, mostly from Burgess Meredith’s character and his shapely assistants back in PROBE Control).

It was escapism, pure and simple, but stylish as hell, and a whole lot of fun.

Warner Archive‘s description of the series:

Hugh O’Brian, Doug McClure and Tony Franciosa rotate leads as elite high tech espionage operatives for Probe Division of World Securities Corporation in this spy-sensational SF-flavored actioner from Leslie Stevens (creator, The Outer Limits) and Robert Justman (Producer and one of the guiding lights of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation).

Each agent, dubbed a “Probe,” is wired for worldwide surveillance thanks to a Scanner (miniature video camera) and dental/ear implant. Tracking their telemetry and giving real-time mission advice is a team of specialists at Probe Control directed by the brilliant, irascible V.C.R. Cameron (Burgess Meredith).

O’Brian plays Lockwood, Probe One, an ex-astronaut. McClure plays CR Grover, Standby Probe, brilliant beachcomber goofball. Franciosa plays Nick Bianco, Omega Probe, a street savvy ex-NYC cop tasked with organized-crime capers.

The Probes hunt stolen moonrocks, missing agents, a deadly Probe defector, and more alongside special guest luminaries like Stefanie Powers, Bill Bixby, Mary Ann Mobley, Sebastian Cabot, Barbara Feldon, Mel Ferrer, and Joanna Cameron.

Three very different agents, one very out-of-this-world show.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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For your consideration: Red Planet Blues

by Rob - January 15th, 2014

Award-nominating season is upon us, and so allow me to share some of the praise for my 2013 novel Red Planet Blues (published Ace Science Fiction in the US and Viking in Canada):


Red Planet Blues is a perfectly executed gem of a book. Sawyer sets a classic work of noir against a Buck Rogers backdrop without ever hitting a sour note. A gorgeous and engaging read.” —Mystery writer Linda L. Richards, bestselling author of Death was the Other Woman


“A cause for celebration; a tour de force.

“This is Robert J. Sawyer, so you know it’s a well-written, intelligent story with some unexpected twists. Red Planet Blues isn’t just a mystery story with science fiction trappings, it’s a fusion of the two genres in which the mystery depends on the SF elements. Definitely worth reading.” —Don Sakers in Analog Science Fiction and Fact


“A Robert J. Sawyer novel guarantees a provocative scenario bursting with questions in every direction. Red Planet Blues delivers a mother lode of them.

“To science-fiction fans, it’s obvious that Sawyer’s work is SF. Its attention to scientific detail and plausibility allows it to benefit from the Vonnegut gambit: major book sales to non-SF or SF-hostile readers by hiding its SF-ness in plain sight. This krypto-SF approach has helped Sawyer to become one of Canada’s most successful authors in terms of sales, reader acclaim, awards and reach.” —Minister Faust in VUE Weekly (Edmonton, Alberta)


“Sawyer had done his homework about Mars … an interesting take on what a colony based on a `Great Fossil Rush’ to Mars could be like.

“The novel is chock full of references based on science fiction stories and old movies, and I am sure I did not catch all of them. Perhaps my favorite was that the local watering establishment, where water ice is more expensive than dry ice, is aptly called Bar Soom as a nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ name for Mars.

“I found Red Planet Blues a great merger of science fiction with the old style detective genre, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
National Space Society


“My praise is about to get effusive, so settle in peoples. Two of my favourite cinematic genres are film noir and science-fiction, combine them in a novel and you can understand my enthusiasm. Referencing classic films like Casablanca, the gumshoe protagonist gives out a world weary Humphrey Bogart feel and the human transfers are reminiscent of the neo-noir Blade Runner. While Sawyer draws on these popular references, he also elevates them, transforming them into a compelling and original story with his `unputdownable’ touch.

“5 out of 5 — get me on a shuttle to Mars along with requisite hot new transfer body!” —Kristine Upton in Fictional Fix


Red Planet Blues resurrects the noir mystery, the gold-rush western, and the science-fiction adventure and the result is a unique, fun story that keeps you guessing, keeps the pages turning, and manages to put a smile on your face every few pages, in spite of the pulse-pumping action and adventure.” —Jamie Todd Rubin in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show


“There’s always been an exuberance to Robert J. Sawyer’s writing, and reading Red Planet Blues one can’t miss the feeling that he’s having a lot of fun with a story featuring whiplash plot twists, lethal babes, superhuman `transfers’ who have had their minds uploaded to robotic bodies, greedy prospectors, and even a writer-in-residence who doubles as a femme fatale. Red Planet Blues delivers a pulp buffet of strange things done ‘neath the Martian sun.” —Alex Good in The Toronto Star


“Sawyer has an absolute ball playing with the mystery form. The result is a lively love poem to the mystery genre that is terrific fun.” Adam-Troy Castro in Sci Fi Magazine (Syfy Channel)


“How interesting it is to see how well the mystery genre blends with science fiction and builds successfully on the differences. Mars comes to rich life in Sawyer’s hands. This is a complex, imaginative story firmly based on Earth’s red neighbour and its unique circumstances — and its own brand of murder.” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix


“Lomax is more layered than your standard-issue private eye, and whether you read it as a science fiction story with a good mystery inside or as a pulp mystery with a science fiction setting, Red Planet Blues is a rollicking read, at turns funny, exciting and full of twists and turns.” C.A. Bridges in The Daytona Beach News-Journal


Red Planet Blues rocks! This is the best book I’ve read for months! Maybe years! What’s not to love? The mystery involved so many reversals and plot twists which I totally didn’t see coming that it kept me guessing throughout.” Ann Wilkes in Science Fiction and other ODDysseys


Red Planet Blues combines all the twists and turns of a classic noir adventure with all the hard science goodness of Sawyer’s previous work.” —Science Fiction writer James Alan Gardner, finalist for the Hugo and Nebula Awards


“The type of book codified perfectly by Isaac Asimov in his The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun is rare indeed, hard to bring off since the writer must obey and honor two sets of genre expectations at once. Robert Sawyer’s newest novel — incorporating and expanding his well-received novella `Identity Theft’ — joins these ranks with zest and enthusiasm, providing a ride both criminal and stefnal.

Red Planet Blues should sit on the shelf right next to David Brin’s thematically and topically allied Kiln People, as an example of how to hit two targets with one shot.” —Paul Di Filippo in Locus Online


“In Red Planet Blues Sawyer has imagined, and written, his best book yet.” —Mystery writer Eric Wright, four-time winner of Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel of the Year


“A wonderful Raymond Chandler-meets-Ray Bradbury vibe permeates Red Planet Blues. Sawyer’s Mars is as realistically realized as his settings always are; no one creates a plausible near-future quite like he does. There’s a richness of detail — particularly in the descriptions of New Klondike — that is particularly engaging. From the shady dive bars to the spaceships to the sweeping Martian plains, Sawyer paints a vivid picture.

“But it’s his creation of Alex Lomax where Sawyer really shines: a hard-boiled noir detective on Mars — the sort of character a guy like Sawyer was born to write.

Red Planet Blues is an excellent detective novel that just happens to take place on another planet. It’s a genre mash-up that might have felt gimmicky in less capable hands; however, with Sawyer at the helm, it succeeds beautifully. A ripping good read.” —Allen Adams in The Maine Edge (Bangor, Maine)


“I flew through the book, unable to put it down, and completely hooked. Red Planet Blues is equal parts Philip Marlowe as played by Bogart, the film Blade Runner, and The Martian Chronicles. All the traditional trappings one would expect to find in a film-noir are present, but twisted ever so slightly to the lessened gravity and the thin and dangerous atmosphere.” —TD Ridout on The Mind Reels


“Sawyer’s new book is more gripping than a pair of pliers.” —SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak


“In Red Planet Blues Sawyer has found a highly original and fun way to pay homage to the great hard boiled detectives of the past. Mars, like the sun-kissed streets of Los Angeles Philip Marlow once patrolled, may sound like it’s an exotic location, but underneath the glamor of being on another planet there’s just as many dark and dangerous secrets as anywhere else. You’ll have a lot of fun wandering the mean streets of New Klondike and over the surface of the Red Planet with P.I. Lomax, and he might even give you a few things to think about.” —Richard Marcus in Seattle Post-Intelligencer


“Combining hardboiled noir detective, the Wild West, and classic Martian pulp into a singularly potent cocktail, then spiking it with the big ideas that made the WWW Trilogy, Triggers and FlashForward unmissable landmarks of contemporary SF, Robert J. Sawyer serves up frontier justice in Red Planet Blues. It’s a two-fisted tale of greed, murder and alien paleontology — straight, no chaser!” Science Fiction Book Club


Red Planet Blues: Take equal parts Raymond Chandler’s noir detective novels, Robert Service’s poetry of the Yukon gold rush, and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, add a generous splash of The Road to Utopia, shake it all up in Rob Sawyer’s noggin and chill in the Yukon for a few months. Decant onto pulp paper, and knock the concoction back like cold Sarsaparilla in a dirty glass.” —Ernest Lilley in SFRevu


“Riveting reading. Sawyer has done a great job in creating a concrete, believable world and some strong characters. Science fiction readers will not be disappointed; noir crime readers will not be disappointed; and where the twain shall meet shall be one very satisfied reader.”Bookbanter


“SciFi noir at its best! A superb romp on the red planet. Sawyer’s delightful combination of action and humor make this suspenseful tale of crime on Mars one of my top reads this year.” The Qwillery


“Mystery and science fiction fans alike will enjoy this fast-paced adventure. Gritty and a bit dark, this thriller is a fun read with plenty of surprises along the way.” SciFi Chick


“Robert J. Sawyer is an absolute master of science fiction, and Red Planet Blues just adds more luster to his already towering reputation.” —Science Fiction writer Mike Resnick, Hugo Award-winning author of The Buntline Special


Red Planet Blues is science fiction. But it’s also a fun mystery novel, one that’s replete with all the action readers would expect to find in a book from the crime fiction genre — the sexy women, the weapons, the greed, the chases, the friendly and surly cops. It’s got them all.

“In Red Planet Blues, Sawyer has successfully used his wealth of science-fiction lore to create an intriguing mystery novel, one that is bound to have readers hoping for more.” —Eugene McCarthy in Waterloo Record


Red Planet Blues is a total hoot. It’s funny more than once in a while, it’s a terrific page-turner, it moves faster than a rocket heading to Jupiter’s moons. Red Planet Blues is a humdinger of a read.” —Nick Martin in Winnipeg Free Press


Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Luther Terry anniversary

by Rob - January 11th, 2014

Fifty years ago today, United States Surgeon General Luther Terry released the landmark report Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States, demonstrating the causal link between smoking and lung cancer.

That’s right, smokers: you’ve had a half-century of warnings; it really is high time you quit.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a modern-day political appointee taking on big business in the way Dr. Terry did — he truly epitomized government for the people (and not the modern “corporations are people, too” approach).

My 2012 novel Triggers is set at a fictional Washington, D.C., health-care center named Luther Terry Memorial Hospital. A germane excerpt, from the point of view of Seth Jerrison, the president of the United States, being treated there:

He knew he was in good hands here — and not just because the hospital was named for the man who had saved more American lives than anyone else in history, even though a recent survey had shown that less than one percent of Americans knew who he was. In fact, Jerrison had to admit, he himself hadn’t — the only holder of the same office that he could name prior to becoming president was the one immortalized by the B-Sharps, Homer Simpson’s barbershop quartet: “For all the latest medical poop, call Surgeon General C. Everett Koop — koop koop a koop.”

But Luther Terry was responsible for more people knowing of the office of Surgeon General than anyone else, for he was the one who in 1964 had released the report linking smoking to cancer, and in 1965 had instigated the “Surgeon General’s Warning” on cigarette packs.

Seth had recently reviewed proposed new warnings, designed to prevent teenagers who see themselves as invincible from picking up the habit. “Smokers become slaves to Big Tobacco.” “The maker of this product intends to addict you to it.” “Smokers are pawns of heartless corporations.” And his favorite, short and sweet: “You are being used.”

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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2013 in review

by Rob - December 23rd, 2013

Of course, I’ll always remember 2013 as the year I lost my younger brother Alan Sawyer to lung cancer. But it was also a good year in a lot of ways, including:

  • Marking my 30th anniversary as a full-time self-employed writer

  • Having my 22nd novel Red Planet Blues published in hardcover (bringing to two million my total number of published science-fiction words) and my 21st novel Triggers reissued in paperback

  • Having Penguin Canada send me on the largest book tour they did for any author in 2013, hitting eleven cities

  • Hitting #3 on the fiction bestsellers list in Maclean’s: Canada’s National Newsmagazine with the Red Planet Blues hardcover and hitting #1 on the paperback bestsellers list in Locus: The Magainze of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field with the Triggers paperback

  • Getting commissioned by Copperheart Entertainment to adapt my novel Triggers into a feature-film screenplay

  • Having my short story “Flashes” adapted as a stage play at the Vancouver Fringe Festival

  • McMaster University holding the conference Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre in my honour

  • Giving one of the annual Darwin Lectures at Cambridge University

  • Giving keynote addresses at the Lockheed Martin Center for Leadership Excellence in Bethesda, the Association of Professional Engineers & Geoscientists of Saskatchewan annual general meeting in Regina, and the Mensa Education & Research Foundation colloquium in Dallas, plus being the closing speaker at IdeaCity 2013 in Toronto

  • Being brought to China for the launch of the Chinese editions of Triggers and Factoring Humanity

  • Being Guest of Honour at Celsius 232 in Spain and Can-Con (the 2013 Canadian National Science Fiction Convention) in Ottawa

  • Reading for the International Festival of Authors in Thunder Bay; headlining Word on the Water in Kenora; being Featured Author at Word on the Street Saskatoon; being Featured Author at ImagiNation Writers Festival in Quebec City; and being a Guest Author at Book Lover’s Ball in Toronto

  • Receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Governor-General’s office

  • Receiving the first Lifetime Achievement Aurora Award from the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association given to an author in 30 years, and becoming only the fourth author ever to receive this honour

  • Receiving the “Most Popular Past Guest” award at Keycon 30 in Winnipeg

  • Being a finalist for the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award for Most Popular Book by a Canadian Writer, for Triggers

  • Being the cover boy on the Shanghai Review of Books

  • Teaching Master Classes for the Manitoba Writers’ Guild and Lakehead University

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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30 years of using WordStar; Canadian SF 30 years ago

by Rob - December 16th, 2013

Thirty years ago today, on Friday, December 16, 1983, I started learning the word-processing program WordStar.

I’d bought my first computer, an Osborne 1 CP/M luggable (24 pounds, the most portable computer in the world back then — see picture below), for the princely sum of Canadian$1,495, in large measure because it came bundled with WordStar, which was then the reigning champ of word-processing programs.

Three decades on, I still use WordStar. I started with WordStar for CP/M 2.26, and today use the final release, WordStar for DOS 7.0 Rev. D (the datestamp on the files for that version is 21 December 1992, twenty-one years ago now).

WordStar is still, in my humble opinion, the best program ever written for the efficient and creative manipulation of text, for all the reasons I outline here, and I’m not going to switch.

For my very first writing project involving WordStar, I decided to write an article about Canadian achievements in Science Fiction over the past year.

I choose this project in part because I had become aware that a lot of stuff was starting to happen in Canadian SF, and also because, with all the boldfacing and underlining/italics, it would be a good exercise for learning how to format with WordStar.

The previous year (1982), I’d worked at Bakka, Toronto’s SF specialty bookstore, and, back then, they did an occasional newsletter called The Bakka Bookie Sheet. My article was published in The Bakka Bookie Sheet — and here it is, a thirty years after it was written, an intriguing snapshot of what the field was like here all those years ago …


1983 in Review: Canadian Achievements in SF&F

by Robert J. Sawyer

In September 1983, Bakka Books published an amusing chapbook entitled Toronto’s Fantastic Street Names by John Robert Colombo.

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