Two of my favourite people in the world are SF writer Spider Robinson and playwright Liz Cano. Last year, Liz did an amazing adaptation of Spider’s “God Is An Iron” at the Montreal Fringe Festival — I saw it and it blew my socks off. She’s now got an Indiegogo campaign going to bring the play to this year’s Worldcon in Spokane (close enough to his home that Spider might be able to actually see the production!). Please contribute!
Two of my favourite people in the world are SF writer Spider Robinson and playwright Liz Cano. Last year, Liz did an amazing adaptation of Spider’s “God Is An Iron” at the Montreal Fringe Festival — I saw it and it blew my socks off. She’s now got an Indiegogo campaign going to bring the play to this year’s Worldcon in Spokane (close enough to his home that Spider might be able to actually see the production!). Please contribute!
RJS: I’ve read InterstellarNet: Enigma, and it has a lot of moving parts. How do you describe the novel to people?
I had the pleasure, however virtually and metaphorically, to sit down recently with Edward M. Lerner and discuss his latest novel. InterstellarNet: Enigma is the newest addition to Ed’s popular InterstellarNet future history. Here’s a little of what we discussed.
EML: As one conundrum beyond the Fermi paradox. (Laughs.) Too cryptic?
It’s implausible, or so we’re often told, that we humans could be the only intelligent beings in the vast and ancient universe. And yet, for all we know, human beings are unique. Any civilization with tech just slightly improved from our own could, within a few million years, colonize an entire galaxy — but Earth shows no evidence of having ever been visited. As for eavesdropping upon the radio chatter of our presumed interstellar neighbors, after fifty years SETI researchers can report only a Great Silence. So, as Fermi pointedly asked: where are they?
All the while, for storytelling purposes, we writers love to imagine alien intelligences in the neighborhood. And not only do we want fictional aliens nearby, they and humans should have similar capabilities. That way, in our conflicts — and stories need conflict! — we’re fairly evenly matched. Think Star Trek, for example, or Larry Niven’s Known Space, or the earlier books in my InterstellarNet series. Long story short: I went looking for an explanation beyond authorial convenience for not just intelligent aliens, but peer-level aliens, to cluster in our neighborhood.
RJS: And you came up with a doozie. (Laughs.) And it’s something I can’t comment on, without spoilers. But didn’t I see this in Analog?
EML: Yes and no. Roughly the opening third of the new novel first appeared in Analog, in 2013 as “The Matthews Conundrum” and last year as “Championship B’tok.” Extended a bit, those two stories are the opening episodes of Enigma‘s overall storyline.
RJS: Ah, b’tok, the alien strategy game. As I remember it, b’tok is to chess about as chess is to rock-paper-scissors.
EML: Exactly. B’tok is how the alien Hunters traditionally teach military strategy. And it’s not only military matters at which the Hunters excel. These aliens think Machiavelli was a charmingly amusing naïf. You really don’t want to tick off Hunters, especially when you have even bigger problems.
RJS: Which brings up a new bunch of spoilers. You said something about episodes?
EML: Right! A few weeks ago, my publisher and I agreed that the storyline made a great serial. So InterstellarNet: Enigma is first appearing as an ebook serial. The traditional book format will come later.
If someone finds they didn’t care for part 1, well, they’re only out 99 cnets. We hope and expect folks will want to read to the end.
RJS: I recognize a cue when I hear one. The serialization begins when? And where?
EML: (Laughs.) It began just a few days ago. New episodes will come out about once a week, concluding in mid-May. At Amazon, B&N, Apple iBook store … you name it. The serial will also be available directly from FoxAcre Press, at FoxBytes. And, to be complete, later this spring the publisher will offer omnibus ebook and print editions
For more about InterstellarNet, visit Ed’s website, Edward M. Lerner: Perpetrator of Science Fiction and Technothrillers, and his blog, SF and Nonsense.
On this coming Saturday, April 25, 2015, I’m speaking at the Spur Festival in Calgary. They sent me a questionnaire; here are my answers:
1. Tell us about your participation in the 2015 Spur Festival.
I’m thrilled to be speaking about the value of basic scientific research — why it’s so important to do work that asks fundamental questions.
2. What do you hope Spur Festival attendees will take away from your session?
That it’s shortsighted to only do applied research that has an obvious immediate application; the greatest advances in our standard of living ultimately come from scientific work that’s done with no specific application in mind.
3. What are you most looking forward to about the Spur Festival?
Seeing ideas spark of each other in a multidisciplinary way.
4. What is the one item you never leave home without?
My iPhone; it’s become my lifeline — I love having access to the sum total of all human knowledge in the palm of my hand from wherever I happen to be.
5. Which book is currently on your nightstand?
Kim Newman‘s British Film Institute analysis of Quatermass and the Pit, one of the best science-fiction films ever made.
6. In the last year, what is the longest you have gone unplugged? No internet, no cell phone, etc.
Ten hours flying from Toronto to Zurich, so I could debate the President of the American Civil Liberties Union about the notion of privacy; the host university flew me Executive Class, which took some of the pain away from not being able to go online.
7. Who was the last person you texted?
My dear friend Chase Masterson, an actress who appeared frequently on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and recently guest-starred on The Flash — setting up a breakfast date for tomorrow in Los Angeles, where I currently am.
8. The animated show The Jetsons was set in 2062. Is there anything from their futuristic world that wish were a current reality?
I want a robot maid like Rosie!
9. How do you prefer to communicate with colleagues: by phone, email, text or in person? How do you prefer to communicate with friends?
Colleagues via email, because it keeps a record and is easy to search. Friends: long, leisurely face-to-face talks in restaurants.
10. What are you most looking forward to about Calgary?
My favourite pizza place, Greco, is in Calgary. Kirstin Morrell, who is moderating the event I’m part of, is picking me up at YYC and we’re going straight to Greco without even stopping by my hotel.
On April 18, 2005 — ten years ago today — the second “Rob and Bob” book tour began, with Tor Books and H.B. Fenn & Company sending Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson on a cross-continent book tour together. Bob was promoting his novel Spin (which went on to win the Hugo Award) and I was promoting my novel Mindscan (which went on to win the John W. Campbell Memorial Award). An amazing experience; we had a blast.
Come see science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer and astronomer Phil Langill, in a discussion moderated by Kirstin Morrell, at Spur Festival Calgary, Saturday, April 25, at 4:00 p.m. at National Music Centre — Stage One, 134 11th Ave SE.
Tickets: ($15.67): http://www.ticketbreak.com/event_details/8819?skin=spurfestival
We’ll be discussing:
Everywhere from the 27-kilometre-long Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator to Canada’s own Perimeter Institute, researchers continue to push the boundaries of physics. Asking the “big questions” on everything from the origins of the universe to the nature of time and space. As they develop ever-more complex experiments and theories to understand the fundamental nature of reality, we still want to know, is there life beyond Earth?
Did the LHC confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson “god particle” and what does it mean for us, as humans, in the vast cosmic universe? Join science fiction author, Robert J. Sawyer, Dr Phil Langill, Director, Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, University of Calgary and moderator Kirstin Morrell as they compare the practicalities of billion-dollar physics research with our everyday desire to believe in other worldly phenomena.
All best wishes!
The official publication date for my next novel — my twenty-third — is Tuesday, April 5, 2016, precisely one year from today.
I’d been pretty reliably a book-a-year writer since my first novel came out in 1990, but my next book will be released three years after my most-recent one, Red Planet Blues.
I took time off leading up to and following the death of my younger brother Alan Sawyer, an Emmy Award-winning multimedia producer, who died from lung cancer in June 2013. My apologies to my readers, and my sincere thanks for your patience.
My American publisher, Ace, is still working on the cover, but when it is done, I’ll reveal the cover, the dust-jacket description, and the final title here.
At the Canadian Authors Association’s CanWrite 2015 conference, June 11-14, 2015:
A Thematic Approach to Science Fiction:
Science fiction is often called “the literature of ideas,” and with good reason: the fresh central idea is often the defining characteristic of a science-fiction novel. Join bestselling author Robert J. Sawyer for a discussion of how to come up with and develop a high concept for your own science-fiction or TV series by finding the theme that will give rise to your plot and characters, and enthrall your audience.
Adaptation: Turning your Novel into a Script and Vice-Versa:
Learn how to transfer your core ideas from one medium to the other — not just expanding and contracting but completely re-imagining a work to best use its strengths in a new form. Rob is past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and a member of the scriptwriting unions Writers Guild of Canada and Writers Guild of America. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his Aurora Award-winning novel of the same name, and he was one of the scriptwriters for that series. He’s currently writing a commissioned screenplay adaptation of his bestselling novel Triggers, and his 23rd novel, coming soon, started as an adaptation of a TV pilot script he wrote.
More info is here.
An email I sent to the Writers’ Trust of Canada this morning:
Hi! I was going to cut-and-paste news of Joseph Heath’s award win to my Facebook wall — when I discovered I can’t because your email newsletter doesn’t consist of actual text but only graphics — pictures of text. Might I gently suggest this isn’t wise?
It not only makes it hard to share content from it, as I was about to do, but also makes it impossible to search for the content (try to find your own message in your Gmail inbox by searching for any of the words that are supposedly in it; you can’t — because there are no words in it, only pixels). Only spammers trying to avoid getting caught by filtering algorithms routinely use graphics instead of text.
It also denies those with poor eyesight the ability to use screenreaders or to increase the font size while having the text reflow to fit the width of the window; many agencies would consider messages such as the one you just sent to fail to meet internal, as well as governmental, accessibility guidelines.
Fifteen years ago this week, Bill Joy‘s famous antitechnology manifesto “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us” appeared in Wired magazine. The Globe and Mail asked me for an op-ed in response, which appeared fifteen years ago today, on March 16, 2000. Here it is.
But before we get too smug and claim we — the genre-fiction community — have won the war, note that not a single one of the books mentioned in the Esquire article was published by a science fiction or fantasy publisher or promoted as genre fiction; the war was won by those fighting on other fronts.
Yes, Ace/Roc, Baen, DAW, Del Rey/Spectra, Orbit, Tor, and Voyager publish a lot of genre fiction, including my own, but those aren’t where agents or savvy authors submit titles that they actually think are going to be widely read by a general audience, and if the parent company has other imprints, one of them will be used instead for books expected to sell to mainstream readers.
I’ve seen both sides of the fence. In the US, I’ve always been published by genre houses; in Canada, starting with Wake in 2009, I’ve been published under Penguin Canada’s mainstream Viking imprint. It’s a whole different world.
My most recent novel, Red Planet Blues — as genre a book as one could imagine; indeed, a fusion of two genres, namely hard-SF and noir detective — was supported in Canada with the largest book tour Penguin Canada mounted for any author of any nationality in 2013 and an ad that filled the entire back page of the book-review section of The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper. It paid off: Red Planet Blues book peaked at #3 on the Fiction bestsellers’ list in Maclean’s, Canada’s national news magazine, the list covering all fiction by authors of all nationalities.
The book realm the Esquire article is talking about is a universe other than SF&F sections of bookstores; those aren’t the trenches in this battle.
Having been quite pleased with my style sheet for the web interface for Evernote, I decided to do something about the glaring white background of The Chicago Manual of Style Online. You’ll need to install the free Stylish add-on for your browser, then install my style sheet, which you can get here. If you don’t like the parchment shade I’ve chosen, it’s easy to modify it to any other background color you prefer.
An interesting article by John McPhee about obscure and pop-culture references in fiction appears in the March 9, 2015, issue of The New Yorker. My thoughts, speaking as a science-fiction writer who takes great joy in including such things in his work:
In his 1953 short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” Arthur C. Clarke includes this bit:
One of his recurring nightmares was that there would be some change of plan, and that the high lama (whom they’d naturally called Sam Jaffe, though he didn’t look a bit like him) would suddenly announce that the project would be extended to approximately A.D. 2060. They were quite capable of it.
That story — one of the most famous and most studied in all of science fiction — endures even though most of its readers today have never even heard of the film Lost Horizon, to which Clarke is alluding.
Likewise, countless kids remember things from The Flintstones with no idea that they’re references to once-famous people or events. They know Hum Along with Herman and Boulder’s Rule without any awareness of Sing Along with Mitch and Burke’s Law. And there’s many a Muppet fan who has no idea that Statler and Waldorf are named for hotels.
For my money, such references don’t detract; they’re Easter eggs for those who recognize them.
(Of course, sometimes the references aren’t actually there. I once congratulated Tom Doherty on the cleverness of naming his publishing company Tor in homage to Pinnacle Books, one of his investors, “tor” being a near-synonym for “pinnacle.” Tom was surprised; that resonance had never occurred to him.)
Although John McPhee quickly discards the notion, the first sentence of the second paragraph of his New Yorker article obviates the need for the rest of the piece. He writes: “Of course, in this advanced age of the handheld vocabulary …”
But that’s the key point: even if you’re reading a paper book, as opposed to an ebook, you almost certainly have easy access most of the time to the World Wide Web. Don’t know a word? As my mother used to say, back when the damn thing was almost as big as I was, “Look it up in the dictionary.”
And of course you can look up more than just words; Google is your friend. If you don’t know who Maynard G. Krebs or Roy Chapman Andrews were, or what “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” means, or what a Rube Golderg device is, or what “the stuff that dreams are made of” refers to, or what “Dewey Defeats Truman” was all about, well, you will within seconds.
The easy access to the whole wide world of information has, in fact, changed the way I write my science fiction. In Frameshift and Factoring Humanity, written in the 1990s, I had to find ways to work into the narrative basic explanations, for those readers who weren’t already familiar with them, of genetics and quantum-physics principles. Now, I trust that readers who come across something they don’t understand can easily look it up, in whatever level of depth they care to pursue it in; it’s not my job to make my book complete unto itself any more than a sports writer would feel the need to explain the rules of baseball or what a bat is.
And, besides, good pop culture endures. Romeo and Juliet was pop culture; so was, at the time they were created, Oliver Twist and Doyle’sSherlock Holmes tales and the Greek myths and the Bible stories.
And so, too, are I Love Lucy and The Flintstones, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Simpson, which have been with us for 64, 54, 49, 38, and 26 years, respectively, and show no signs of fading from our consciousness.
And the biggest movie properties in the world — Spider-Man and Iron Man and Batman and Thor and Superman — are based on pop culture from a half-century or more ago.
Brand-names and real-world references are part of verisimilitude. People don’t say, “I had a cola and a fast-food hamburger.” They do say, “I had a Big Mac and a Coke.” People don’t say, “Look at him! Movie-movie star handsome he is!” They do say, “Check out that guy! Makes Brad Pitt look like a dog’s breakfast!” People don’t say, “I went to the central intersection of the city.” People do say, “I went to Yonge and Bloor.” People don’t say, “I posted that on the leading social-media channel.” People do say, “I put that on my Facebook wall.”
Yes, there are some readers who take pains to insulate themselves from pop culture, who proudly declare they never watch TV, or listen to any music written in the last century and a half, or read anything that would ever be released in mass-market paperback. They also are likely pretty isolated from a lot of reality; one worries about their social and political awareness as they bury themselves in some highfalutin past.
Science fiction has a particular problem with being dismissed as far-out, irrelevant, escapist. My own predilection for pop references in my books is, in large measure, an attempt to ground the stories in the here-and-now, to connect them inextricably with reality, to show that the genre matters.
And what about the fear of dating one’s work? Well, first, we should all be so lucky that our writing is widely read years or decades after its first publication; rarely is that the case. But, even so, it’s easier to date a work of science fiction based on the implicit or explicit scientific assumptions than it is based on any pop-culture reference.
A mention of Spock simply means your work was published in 1966 or later, but how old you say the universe is; how many planets you say the solar system has; whether you use the now-deprecated notion of junk DNA; whether or not you say Neanderthals crossbred with us (and whether or not you consider them part of Homo sapiens); whether you refer to dark matter and/or dark energy; whether you mention the multiverse or brane theory or GMOs or stem cells; whether your phone is wired or wireless or flip or touchscreen — all of those date your work much more precisely. And none of them detract from the underlying essential truths of the story.
During the 1980s, I made my living as a freelance nonfiction writer, including writing 200 feature articles. Most of those are of little interest decades on: my specialties were the computer revolution, the broadcasting industry, business, and personal finance, and articles from the 1980s on those topics are pretty much irrelevant today.
But one of my favorite articles to write was “My Day With The Jesuit Brothers,” commissioned by Compass: A Jesuit Journal, published by the Jesuits of Upper Canada — and it came out 30 years ago today, in the March 1985 edition of that magazine. I was 24 years old when I wrote it. Here it is.
I use various versions of Evernote (Windows, web, iPhone, iPad) for organizing my research materials. The iPhone and iPad versions are very pleasant to use, but both the Windows client and the web version have glaring white backgrounds, which are uncomfortable to read. I haven’t found a solution for the actual Windows client that you install on your own computer, but I have worked out a fix for the web-based version:
I use Firefox with the Stylish add-on (which I believe is available for other browsers, too), but was surprised to find that no one had written a style sheet to override Evernote’s default note and note-snippet background colors so that they weren’t so blaringly white.
I’m no expert on style sheets (I’m a novelist!), but building on one by Kairi KameoI found at user https://userstyles.org, I cobbled together one that has a soft green background for those elements (which you can easily change to whatever background color you yourself might prefer).
My attempt is a first step; I welcome additions / modifications / improvements! You can get my style sheet here.
Well, we never got to make a second season of FlashForward, the ABC TV series based on my Aurora Award-winning novel of the same name. But here’s the memo I sent to the producers and staff writers five years ago today (February 19, 2010) outlining my suggestion for Season Two:
Since you’re exploring ideas for Season Two, I’d like to make a pitch. For better or worse, FlashForward was initially presented as the “new Lost.” We got good numbers for the pilot, but then people started turning away; our audience shrunk week after week. Why? Because we didn’t live up to that billing; we weren’t the new Lost after all.
So, what does Lost have that we didn’t?
First, Lost depicted a huge disaster — the crash of the Oceanic Airlines flight 815 — and a desperate bid for survival in the aftermath of that crash, a survivalist theme that has lasted for many years now.
But FlashForward didn’t do that. Oh, we depicted a huge disaster, then just sort of pushed it all aside, and went on pretty much as if it had never happened.
By the end of the pilot, “No More Good Days,” Mark and Olivia manage to magically drive home immediately following the flashforwards, despite all of the car wrecks that should have made road travel impossible for many days.
Shortly thereafter, instead of air travel still being grounded, Mark and Janis were jaunting off to Europe. And instead of Olivia dealing with tens of thousands of injuries for weeks on end, she was soon seen devoting her efforts to performing surgery on a Squirrelio doll. And by the time Halloween rolled around, everyone was trick-or-treating as if nothing had happened at all.
We kept telling people that this was the biggest disaster in human history, but showing them that it, in fact, had less impact on day-to-day life for most people than did 9/11.
What else did Lost give us? A small group of characters forced to depend on each other for survival despite their competing agendas.
One of our notions early on was that Lost had only 40 stories to tell, while we had 7 billion. But in fact, we ended up almost never telling stories about the flashforwards of people outside our core group. We did it once with the guy who had Addison’s disease, but that was about it for flashforward-of-the-week episodes, and instead we became fixated on people who didn’t have flashforwards — Demetri, the Blue Hand members, etc., which would be a bit like Lost becoming fixated on people who had planned to be on that Oceanic flight, but had missed boarding it in time for take off.
Lost worked because we understood why we were concentrating on these 40 people — they were isolated from all of humanity.
FlashForward didn’t work because we were concentrating on our ten or so regulars, who, in many cases, had problems the viewers found banal — surely somebody, somewhere, our viewers were thinking, has to have had a more interesting flashforward than an AA guy who saw himself drinking, or a woman who saw herself with a man who wasn’t her husband … but we kept going back to those storylines, without explaining why our focus was so tight even though the whole world had been affected.
And, finally, Lost, while concentrating on its core group, was able to widen the sweep to include other people as needed through flashbacks to earlier events. That kept Lost from ever getting claustrophobic, despite the confined setting and small number of people stranded on the island.
So, is there a way to actually make FlashForward the new Lost in season two? That is:
(1) is there a way to make it about a huge disaster again — and actually about dealing with the aftermath of that disaster and the need for survival;
(2) is there a way to explain why we’re focussing on a small core group, instead of telling the story of a worldwide event affecting 7 billion people; and
(3) is there a way to build a structure that includes intriguing flashbacks that periodically expand our focus?
I think the answer on all three points is yes, and although I didn’t frame it in the above terms (as a way to make FlashForward really deserve the designation of “the new Lost”), I did suggest the scenario below to David Goyer in a memo on November 19, 2009, and I’d like to repeat that pitch again, in modified form. Obviously, some story details have changed since then, but you’ll get the gist:
Why are the bad guys so desperate to perfect the replicating of flashforwards? Answer: they got too greedy, with disastrous consequences. They’ve been orchestrating miniature isolated flashforwards for years now (since 1991) in hopes, as I said in a previous memo, of gaining financial information from the future.
But they’ve also seen that the next flashforward (the one that will occur at the end of season one) will cause not just a global blackout (that is, not just a shutting down of the conscious part of the brain, leaving the autonomic part — controlling heartbeat, breathing, etc. — operating) but a total global brain-function shutdown: all seven billion people will die; their conscious, unconscious, and autonomic functioning stopping.
That could be our killer end-of-season-one moment: everyone (except for Simon and a few others wearing the QED rings) looking out at the Los Angeles landscape littered with collapsed bodies, and this dialog:
SIMON: “Another blackout. How long till they wake up this time?”
McDOW: “They don’t. They’re not unconscious. They’re dead. All seven billion of them.”
Off Simon to the end credits — and onward to Season Two!
From there, you’ve got a great springboard for what could truly be the new Lost:
* a handful of characters who didn’t die (those wearing the QED rings, plus, if we want, others who were protected some other way);
* disaster on a gigantic scale — the entire world shut down, and no hope of food or electricity production, etc., coming back online, because there just aren’t any people left operate the equipment, forcing our characters to fight to survive.
In other words, it’s a story about a small band of characters struggling to survive without modern comforts — just like Lost.
And it’s now logically a story about a handful of characters (our survivors) instead of the whole (now dead) human race — just like Lost.
And, of course, to tell the backstory (which I outline in the next few paragraphs), we would need flashbacks, and so we could, as needed, expand the cast of characters — just like Lost.
Indeed, we could contrive it that the season-one-ending blackout that killed almost everyone had the effect of causing spontaneous, unpredictable time displacement for those characters who did survive, giving them flashbacks and flashfowards — just like Lost.
Here’s the proposed backstory and ultimate quest: The goal of the “bad guys” we met in season one (Flosso’s employers) was to find a way to jump the consciousness of the human race PAST the total global shutdown, reanimating everyone; they’re out to save humanity (including themselves, as a subset of that humanity — they’re not altruists).
This could be the resonance for Charlie’s “No More Good Days” line — she, and Flosso’s employers, had seen that no matter which one of the many worlds that might exist comes to pass, in all of them humanity is dead; no matter how you slice the future, there are no more good days — unless our people find a way to leapfrog consciousness ahead, resurrecting the human race.
And thus, in our first-season finale, we see that Charlie is in fact quoting something she heard Lloyd say on April 29, 2010: in all the many worlds yet to come that branch off of this now, humanity is dead. Lloyd, in looking at the formula Dylan has written in lipstick on the mirror, realizes that a consequence of it is that a synchronized multi-accelerator event like Flosso’s people are planning will not displace consciousness; it will destroy it.
(Also, this could help rehabilitate Janis as the mole: she knows that helping the bad guys is the only way to ultimately save humanity.)
What we end up with is a Season Two that really is about a disaster, but a much bigger one than Lost ever portrayed, with the stakes — the resurrection of humanity — much higher than any Lost ever dealt with. We end up not just being the new Lost, but Lost to the max — bigger, grander, and even more involving.
All best wishes.
Ten years ago today I finished writing my last short story ever (“Biding Time”); I said then that I was giving up short fiction for good, but people refused to believe me. Well, it’s been a decade now, folks, and I’m showing no signs of fictive recidivism.
I had a nice little career as a short-story writer, with 44 stories published, now all collected in two volumes — Iterations and Other Stories and Identity Theft and Other Stories. The stories first appeared in a mix of classic genre venues such as Analog, Amazing Stories, and On Spec, original anthologies, and places that don’t normally publish fiction, such as The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Leisure Ways, and The Village Voice.
My stories were nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Awards; won Science Fiction Chronicle‘s Reader Award for best short story of the year; won Analog‘s Analytical Library Award for best short story of the year in that magazine; won five Aurora Awards; won France‘s and Spain’s top SF awards; and won an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.
I had a story in the journal Nature; had a story read on CBC Radio; had a story produced as a planetarium starshow; had stories optioned for film; and had work reprinted in Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF and in The Penguin Book of Crime Stories.
My short fiction has been praised as everything from “quietly intelligent” (Booklist) to “gobsmacking” (Publishers Weekly) and “highly entertaining” (Quill & Quire). Of my final collection, Identity Theft and Other Stories, Booklist said:
Sawyer’s collection showcases not only an irresistibly engaging narrative voice but also a gift for confronting thorny philosophical conundrums. At every opportunity, Sawyer forces his readers to think while holding their attention with ingenious premises and superlative craftsmanship.
But I’m a busy guy, and I can’t do everything. In the past 10 years, I’ve turned down numerous short-fiction commissions, including several from glossy magazines at a dollar a word or more. I’m content concentrating on novels and scriptwriting, but I’m still very proud of the work I did at shorter lengths.
Many of those stories are available for free here:
Also, see my thoughts from five years ago, on the fifth anniversary of me giving up short fiction, on why I decided to kick the habit.
Thirty-five years ago today, on January 18, 1980, I made my first professional sale: a science-fiction story about a starship called Starplex, with a crew that included reptilian aliens called Quintaglios, to the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York, which dramatized the story as part their summer 1980 starshow “Futurescapes.”
Read the history of that first sale (a page I wrote in 2010 for the 30th anniversary).
In honor of the discovery of the remains of Beagle 2 on Mars, an excerpt from my novel Red Planet Blues, which mentions it. Martian private-detective Alex Lomax is talking with blackmarket fossil dealer Ernie Gargalian:
Since Berling hadn’t yet shown up, I took the opportunity to ask Ernie a question. “So,” I said, doing my best to sound nonchalant, “do you think anyone will ever rediscover the Alpha Deposit?”
Ernie’s eyes, already mostly lost in his fleshy face, narrowed even further. “Why do you ask?”
“Just idle curiosity.”
“You, Mr. Double-X, are curious about women. You are curious about liquor. You are curious about sports. You are not curious about fossils.”
“But I am intrigued by money.”
“True. And, to answer your question, I doubt it’ll happen anytime soon. In an unguarded moment many years ago, after perhaps one too many glasses of port, Denny O’Reilly said to me that the Alpha was only the size of a football field — an Earth one, that is.”
“But why hasn’t anyone else found it yet? I mean, it has been twenty mears.”
“All we know is that it’s somewhere here in Isidis Planitia — and Isidis Planitia is the flat bottom of the remains of a giant impact crater fifteen hundred kilometers in diameter. It’s as big as Hudson Bay on Earth; you could fit over three hundred million football fields in it. Even with all the stampeders who’ve come here, there are still huge tracts of the plain that no one has ever set foot upon, my boy. Hell, no one’s even found Beagle 2, and that presumably isn’t even buried.”
“Beagle 2?” I said.
“A British Mars probe. It was supposed to touch down on Isidis Planitia in 2003, but no signal was ever picked up from it.”
“Is it worth something?”
“Sure, to a space buff, assuming it’s not smashed to bits. I’d be glad to find a buyer for the wreckage, if someone brought it in.”
“Maybe I should look for it. I was never any good at spotting fossils, but wreckage — that’s something I understand.”
“By Gad, you might make a decent sideline of it, at that,” said Ernie. “There’s even bigger salvage out there …”
I’m hoping Google searches will bring some people here:
On October 16, 1975, Robert J. Sawyer, Richard Gotlib, and Ted Bleaney founded NASFA, the Northview Association for Science Fiction Addicts, based at Northview Heights Secondary School in Willowdale (later North York; later still, Toronto), Ontario, Canada.
We’re having a 40th anniversary reunion party on Saturday, October 24, 2015, at the home of Robert J. Sawyer and Carolyn Clink in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, starting at 3:00 p.m.
All past members of NASFA (“Nasforians,” as we called ourselves) are invited and encouraged to attend. (And we’re defining “members” loosely here: if you were an occasional attendee or just fondly remember the NASFA gang from your days at Northview Heights, you’re more than welcome to attend!)
For address and directions, email me at email@example.com.
NASFA was a major part of my life: I met my wife there, as well as and many of the people who are still my very best friends, a fact attested to by how many of my books are dedicated to NASFA members:
- Far-Seer is dedicated to Carolyn Clink
- End of an Era is dedicated to David Livingstone Clink
- The Terminal Experiment is dedicated to Ted Bleaney
- Starplex is dedicated to Ariel Reich
- Factoring Humanity is dedicated to Asbed Bedrossian
- FlashForward is dedicated to Richard Gotlib
Our staff sponsors were Robert E. Howley and Joe Marcynuk.
(The photo above shows Bob Howley and Rob Sawyer at Northview’s 50th reunion in May 2007.)
NASFA also had a spinoff / alumni group for several years called SST: The Society for Speculative Thinking. All former SST members are welcome at this reunion, as well!
NASFA organized three one-day science-fiction conventions in Toronto:
- NASFACON, in 1977, with Judith Merril as one of the Guests of Honour;
- NASFACON TWO, in 1979, with Phyllis Gotlieb as a GoH;
- and NASFACON THREE, in 1982, with John Robert Colombo among the GoHs.
By the way, the 20th anniversary NASFA reunion is where I got the idea for my novel FlashForward, which deals with people having foreknowledge of what their lives will be like 20 years in the future.
If you’re a former member of NASFA or know any NHSS alumni from that era (1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983), please help spread the word.
Carolyn and I hosted NASFA reunion parties in 1985 (10th anniversary), 1990 (15th anniversary), 1995 (20th anniversary), 2000 (25th anniversary), 2005 (30th anniversary), and 2010 (35th anniversary) — and we’re doing it again here in 2015 (40th anniversary). We’re very much looking forward to seeing old friends!
Here are some of my reminiscences about NASFA, taken from a 10,000-word autobiography of me published in Gale’s Contemporary Authors in 2004:
In October 1975, when I was beginning Grade 10, I made friends with a guy named Rick Gotlib, who was in my Latin class (yes, Latin was an oddball choice — but I thought it would help me to understand scientific terms; I was planning on becoming a scientist). We both had an interest in science fiction, and spent one lunch period trying to stump each other with trivia questions. Rick and I figured there had to be other science-fiction fans in the school, and so decided to start a science-fiction club: the Northview Association for Science Fiction Addicts, or NASFA (Afsan, the main character in my novels Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner, is NASFA spelled backwards).If you were a NASFA member, come to the reunion. Until then, live long and prosper!
The first meeting was a great success, and, to our surprise and delight, a large number of pretty girls joined the club — an unexpected bonus. I’d never really had female friends prior to this — the street I’d grown up on was filled with boys — but suddenly I did. Most of the people who joined the club were older than Rick and I were (back then, Ontario High School went to Grade 13, meaning some of our members were eighteen at the beginning of the year, and nineteen by the time it ended).
And then a miracle occurred: the teachers went on strike. For months, Northview Heights Secondary School — and all the other high schools in Ontario — were closed. But we decided to keep holding NASFA meetings anyway during that period, once a week at different people’s houses.
It was an unusual situation: a couple of Grade 10 boys hanging out with boys and girls in Grades 11, 12, and even 13. But since there were no classes to worry about during the strike, we were treated as equals; all that mattered was how clever or funny we could be. Indeed, to my astonishment, I soon found myself dating a gorgeous girl named Lorian Fraser who was two grades ahead of me — quite a heady experience for a guy who, in junior high, had been very awkward around girls.
I’d hung around with some bad kids in junior high, but had avoided getting entangled in the smoking, drinking, and drugs they were experimenting with. There’s always been something in me that was averse to peer-group pressure: when bell-bottomed pants came into style in the late 1960s, I refused to wear them, making my mother drive me all over town looking for stores that still had straight legs. And, until I was in my 20s, I never wore blue jeans, despite the fact — or more precisely, because of the fact — that everybody else was wearing them.
But the science-fiction crowd in high school never got into trouble. Not one of us smoked, no one was using drugs, and only a few occasionally drank. (Robert Charles Wilson, another SF writer and one of my closest friends, noted recently that I’ve never developed adult vices: to this day, I don’t drive and I don’t drink, but I’ve got a real fondness for chocolate milk, potato chips, and pizza.)
Still, we members of NASFA had incredible amounts of fun, and I felt intellectually stimulated all the time. Several members of the club talked about wanting to write science fiction, but it seemed clear that I was the only one who was really serious about it, and in the summer after grade ten, I made my first-ever submission to a science-fiction magazine. The story, quite rightly, was rejected, but I wasn’t discouraged. On the contrary, I was rather impressed by the simplicity of the process: anyone, anywhere, could send in a story, and it would be seriously considered for publication.
Of course Idris Elba can play James Bond. Below is how Sam Spade is described by his creator Dashiell Hammett in the first paragraph of The Maltese Falcon novel, and the picture is Sam Spade as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the definitive film version; Bogart looks nothing like Space — but nonetheless nailed the part, perfectly capturing the character (after two previous filmed versions failed to do so):
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down — from high flat temples — in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
For me, 2014 was a bittersweet year, with the loss of dear friends Colin Edmond, 19, and Michael Lennick, 61, both way too young. It was also the year we moved my parents out of the home I grew up in and closed up the house.
Because of the time I took off during and after my brother Alan’s battle with cancer, which took him in June 2013, I didn’t have a new book published in 2014. Still, it was an eventful year professionally:
Writing the commissioned feature-film screenplay adaptation (drafts one and two) of my novel Triggers for Copperheart Entertainment, Toronto, for a projected $50-million motion picture.
Having the paperback of Red Planet Blues released in April.
Receiving the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award (“the Skylark”) from the New England Science Fiction Association in February (presented annually since 1966 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”).
Receiving an honorary doctorate (my second) from the University of Winnipeg in June (LL.D. [Doctor Legum, Doctor of Laws], honoris causa), with the doctorate jointly sponsored by the Dean of Science and the past Dean of Theology.
Being one of the nine initial inductees into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in October.
Being long-listed for Retail Council of Canada’s / Canadian Booksellers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Libris Award in March.
Having the Mississauga Public Library host the day-long Mississauga Science Fiction Spectacular in my honour in October, with me giving the keynote and featuring my dream team of friends and colleagues speaking: Marie Bilodeau, Tanya Huff, and Robert Charles Wilson.
Giving other keynote addresses to:
- Ontario Library Association Super Conference, Toronto in January
- NorthWords Writers Festival, Yellowknife in June
- 12th International Symposium on Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation in Space, Montreal in June
- Write on the Sound Writers’ Conference, Edmonds, Washington, in October
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York, in October
- Niagara-on-the-Lake Writers’ Circle Rising Spirit Awards Celebration in November
- George M. Ewing Canandaigua Forum, Canandaigua, New York, in November.
Debating the president of the American Civil Liberties Union about privacy at the St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland in May.
Being a featured guest at the Toronto Public Library’s Book Lover’s Ball in February and at Dragon Con in Atlanta in September.
Having my work used for five community-wide reading programs:
- Triggers as the “One Book, One County” choice for Dufferin County, Ontario
- The Terminal Experiment for the general-public “Community Reads” reading program for the city of Canandaigua, New York
- Wake as the middle-grade and high-school system-wide reading program from the Canandaigua District School Board, New York
- FlashForward for the community-wide Halton District School Board Reads program, Ontario
- And my short story “The Stanley Cup Caper” featured in store-front posters citywide in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, as part of Reading Town Canada in May.
Having my short story “Ours to Discover” used as the Spring 2014 state-wide reading-comprehension test by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.
Attending the concluding session of the four-week close-reading study of my novel Calculating God at Seneca College at York University in March.
Hosting the 30th-anniversary reunion party for Hydra North, Canada’s first association for science fiction professionals, in May.
Other fun things included:
- Attending the Writers of the Future ceremony in Los Angeles in April
- Visiting Los Angeles again in July and staying with great friends actress Kipleigh Brown and comedian Emo Philips there
- Attending the convention Star Trek Las Vegas as a guest of Deep Space Nine actress Chase Masterson in August
- Attending When Words Collide in Calgary in August
- Attending a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in New York in October as the guest of one of the producers
- Getting a private behind-the-scenes tour of the paleontology collection at the Rochester Museum and Science Center in October
- Attending writing retreats in Canmore, Alberta; in Calgary, Alberta; and three times in Winnipeg, Manitoba; and hosting one in Mississauga, Ontario.
And, of course, working on my twenty-third novel, which will be published in April 2016.
- Previous Years in Review: 2013 / 2007 / 2001 / 2000 / 1999 / 1998 / 1997 / 1996 / 1995
- Decade in Review: January 1999 to December 2008
Apropos of the news story about a court in Argentina deciding that an orangutan being kept in a zoo is entitled to the rights of a “nonhuman person,” I’ve been writing about this issue going back 20 years now; it’s discussed at length in my Nebula-Award-winning novel The Terminal Experiment, which was first published in serialized form starting with the mid-December 1994 edition of Analog magazine.
The Terminal Experiment, which also won Canada’s Aurora Award and was a Hugo Award finalist, tells the story of a biomedical engineer who discovers scientific proof for the existence of the human soul.
(The term “bonobo” for Pan paniscus hadn’t come into wide usage yet; that happened three years later with the 1997 publication of Frans de Waal’s Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.)
From The Terminal Experiment:
When Peter Hobson had taken a university elective in taxonomy, the two species of chimpanzees had been Pan troglodytes (common chimps) and Pan paniscus (pygmy chimps).
But the split between chimps and humans had occurred just 500,000 generations ago, and they still have 98.4% of their DNA in common. In 1993, a group including evolutionist Richard Dawkins and bestselling science-fiction writer Douglas Adams published the Declaration on Great Apes, which urged the adoption of a bill of rights for our simian cousins.
In took thirteen years, but eventually their declaration came to be argued at the UN. An unprecedented resolution was adopted formally reclassifying chimpanzees as members of genus Homo, meaning there were now three extant species of humanity: Homo sapiens, Homo troglodytes, and Homo paniscus. Human rights were divided into two broad categories: those, such as the entitlement to life, liberty, and freedom from torture, that applied to all members of genus Homo, and other rights, such as pursuit of happiness, religious freedom, and ownership of land, that were reserved exclusively to H. sapiens.
Of course, under Homo rights, no one could ever kill a chimp again for experimental purposes — indeed, no one could imprison a chimp in a lab. And many nations had modified their legal definitions of homicide to include the killing of chimps.
Adriaan Kortlandt, the first animal behaviorist to observe wild chimpanzees, once referred to them as “eerie souls in animals’ furs.” But now Peter Hobson was in a position to see how literally Kortlandt’s observation should be taken. The soulwave existed in Homo sapiens. It did not exist in Bos taurus, the common cow. Peter supported the simian-rights movement, but all the good that had been done in the last few years might be undone if it were shown that humans had souls but chimps did not. Still, Peter knew that if he himself did not do the test, someone else eventually would.
Even though chimps were no longer captured for labs, zoos, or circuses, some were still living in human-operated facilities. The United Kingdom, Canada, the U.S., Tanzania, and Burundi jointly funded a chimpanzee retirement home in Glasgow — of all places — for chimps that couldn’t be returned to the wild. Peter phoned the sanctuary, to find out if any of the chimps there were near death. According to the director, Brenda MacTavish, several were in their fifties, which was old age for a chimp, but none were terminal. Still, Peter arranged to have some scanning equipment shipped to her.
The screen image changed to show a middle-aged red-haired woman: Brenda MacTavish, from the Glasgow Chimpanzee Retirement Home. “Ah, Peter,” she said, “I called your office and they said you’d be here.”
“Hi, Brenda,” Peter said. He peered at the screen. Had she been crying?
“Forgive the state I’m in,” she said. “We just lost Cornelius, one of our oldest residents. He had a heart attack; chimps normally don’t get those, but he’d been used for years in smoking research.” She shook her head in wonder at the cruelty. “When we first spoke, of course, I dinna know what you were up to. Now I’ve seen you all over the telly, and read all about it in The Economist. Anyway, we got the recordings you wanted. I’m sending the data over the net tonight.”
“Did you look at it?” said Peter.
“Aye,” she said. “Chimps have souls.” Her voice was bitter, as she thought about her lost friend. “As if anyone could have ever doubted that.”
I realized today that I hadn’t noted yet here in my blog one of the biggest honours of my career: On Saturday, October 5, 2014, I was one of the initial inductees into The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, administered by The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association — the same people responsible for Canada’s venerable Aurora Awards.
The initial nine inductees are:
- William Gibson
- Phyllis Gotlieb
- Judith Merril
- Dennis Mullin
- Jeanne Robinson
- Spider Robinson
- Robert J. Sawyer
- Susan Wood
- A.E. van Vogt
The guidelines for being inducted are here. I’m deeply honoured and moved. Thank you.
Dennis Mullin and Susan Wood are prominent Canadian fans; the others are all authors.
Phyllis Gotlieb, Judith Merril, Jeanne Robinson, Susan Wood, and A.E. van Vogt were inducted posthumously.
The induction took place at VCON 39, this year’s Canadian National Science Fiction Convention (or “CanVention”), held in Vancouver; William Gibson, Spider Robinson, and I all made it to the convention to receive our induction plaques.
Here are some of the tributes that came in to my great friend Michael Lennick, who passed away November 7, 2014. (The picture is of Michael and his wife Shirley Gulliford.)
Michael will be missed by all who knew him. I enjoyed the wonderful times we shared working on The All-Night Show. I am very saddened by his loss.
Michael was a terrific guy: talented, tenacious, warm, supportive, and kind. We worked together on everything from Discovery Channel documentaries to CBC Radio drama, and his genius and good humour shone through every moment. Canada has lost a national treasure. R.I.P., my friend. with the love.
Robert J. Sawyer
He reached out and touched the sky, and in doing so, he touched us all.
Los Angeles, California
God Bless you Michael I will never forget you and the things you taught me about life.
Sarah Mitchell Manson
So long, my good friend.
Ad Astra per aspera.
I never met Michael, but I am a big fan of the All Night Show, and corresponded with Michael via Facebook and email. I was one of the grateful recipients of his DVD documentary on the All Night Show. A few months back, I wrote a summary of the All Night Show viewer experience on the FB page, and Michael wrote a warm response, which I really appreciated. To his family and friends, please know that Michael’s talent had an impact on many people and please know that he will always be remembered. I am not in Toronto, and cannot attend the Memorial Service but I will visit a Royal Bank to contribute to a Memorial Bench, as mentioned on the ANS FB page.
An extraordinary Space documentary maker, loved and respected by current and former NASA pioneers. His Foolish Earthling Productions preserved humanity’s history in space for future generations. Had he not done it in his own unique style that history would likely not have been recorded. Michael’s brilliant creative talents and gentle presence are sorely missed. Very large hugs and condolences to his family, friends and colleagues…
Michael had a major influence in several areas of my career goals. I will remember his easy-going manner while sharing important information. I enjoyed his youthful attitude. And his drive as a film maker. It was a pleasure working under him on the All Night Show and at Light and Motion. He passed away far too young. You will be missed Michael.
The All Night Show and its staff were a defining influence in my early broadcast life. Working on it was sheer joy. Thank you Michael.
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:
- Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
- Neil Gaiman, Stardust
- Robert J. Sawyer, Flashforward
- Michael Crichton, Timeline
- Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Shadow
- Elizabeth Haydon, Rhapsody
- Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson, Dune: House Atreides
- Brian Jacques, Marlfox: A Tale from Redwall
- L.E. Modesitt Jr., Gravity Dreams
- Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium
- George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings
- Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky
- Richard Bowes, Minions of the Moon
- Elizabeth Hand, Black Light
- Frank M. Robinson, Waiting
- Terry Goodkind, Soul of the Fire
- Ken MacLeod, The Cassini Division
- Brendan DuBois, Resurrection Day
- Ben Bova, Return to Mars
- Sean McMullen, Souls in the Great Machine
- 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.
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.
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.”
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.