Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

An interview on marketing and promoting your book

by Rob - December 23rd, 2015

Ten years ago today, Tee Morris interviewed me for his “Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy” podcast about the business of marketing and promotion for authors. I think most of it is still quite relevant today, so here it is, a decade on (MP3; runs 35 minutes).

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Three new SF novels coming March 1, 2016

by Rob - December 21st, 2015

Tuesday, March 1, 2016, is the pub date for my next novel, Quantum Night, from Ace — but it’s also the pub date for the new novels by two very good friends of mine (both of which have cover blurbs from me!): Arkwright by Hugo winner Allen Steele from Tor, and The Courier, the debut novel by Gerald Brandt from DAW.

Of Arkwright I said:

Arkwright is both a love-letter to the science-fiction field and a terrific cutting-edge hard-SF novel. Steele’s affection for the Golden Age of Science Fiction shines through on every page, and the narrative rapidly accelerates to interstellar velocity.”
And of The Courier I said:
“Gerald Brandt’s The Courier is a stunning debut: a fast-paced cyberpunky story of a future Los Angeles with a kick-ass heroine you’ll never forget. A terrific book from a distinctive new voice; I’m looking forward to many more books from this author.”
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Mentioned in Tim Wynne-Jones’s latest

by Rob - December 21st, 2015

I’m thrilled to see that the great Canadian young-adult writer Tim Wynne-Jones mentions my 1995 Nebula Award-winning novel The Terminal Experiment in his latest book, The Emperor of Any Place, which came out in October 2015, and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Says one of Tim’s characters:

“If you would like something very entertaining, I have just finished a work of science fiction by Mr. Robert J. Sawyer, The Terminal Experiment. It is a shocker, let me tell you: a murder mystery but also a very interesting treatise on ethical philosophy. Most intriguing.”
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Authoritarians: an existential threat

by Rob - December 18th, 2015

Foresight consultancy Idea Couture publishes a wonderful magazine called MISC. For their Fall 2015 issue, they asked me to contribute a piece on a “looming potential crisis nobody is talking about.” This is what I had to say in MISC; I explore this theme in much greater depth in my upcoming 23rd novel Quantum Night, to be released March 1, 2016:

In all cultures there are a few manipulative authoritarians who wish to lead — and many who are predisposed to follow them blindly. Bob Altemeyer, a professor at the University of Manitoba, demonstrated that whenever authoritarians gain power disaster ensues, as we saw with the invasion of Iraq based on fabricated intelligence. But that fiasco was small potatoes: Altemeyer’s simulations suggest a nuclear holocaust will eventually occur as authoritarian leaders in different parts of the world come into conflict.

His research is still largely ignored even though former Nixon White House counsel John Dean highlighted it in his 2006 book Conservatives Without Conscience. Oh, we panic when Al-Qaeda radicalizes millions, but we’ve paid no attention as the practice has become blatant among political and religious leaders in the West. Indeed, whenever someone tries to draw a parallel to the most obvious historical example — Germany falling under Hitler’s thrall — Godwin’s Law is invoked to falsely insist that no such comparisons are ever apt.

George Orwell said that mind-controlling messages would soon be pumped into our homes — but he would have been astounded that millions voluntarily tune into them in the form of FOX News and conservative talk radio. As Altemeyer has shown, huge numbers have already been radicalized in this way, and they ignore overwhelming evidence that they’ve been lied to. (The failure of blind followers to accept evolution is merely galling; the failure to accept anthropogenic climate change is an existential threat to our species.)

Is there hope? Perhaps. But until we begin to guard against the ways in which whole societies are easily manipulated by charismatic authoritarians, we’re still in enormous danger.


Although a PDF of Bob Altemeyer’s book is available for free here, I recommend the Audible version, which has an updated introduction by John Dean.



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Favorite books in six words

by Rob - December 16th, 2015

Yesterday on my Facebook wall, we played this game:

Describe the plot of your favorite book in exactly six words — but don’t say what it is, let us guess.
I described seven favorite books thusly. Here are the descriptions, along with the books’ titles:


“Computer psychoanalyzes astronaut paralyzed by guilt.”

Gateway, the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning science-fiction novel by Frederik Pohl; my choice for the best SF novel ever written.


“Hen lays dinosaur egg; chaos ensues.”

The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth. As The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature says, the book is “largely a satire on modern life in the USA” — and a brilliant one, at that. Plus, it features two paleontologists and is a rigorous science-fiction novel, to boot.


“Law student tries to impress professor.”

The Paper Chase by John Jay Osborn, Jr. — the novel about Hart, a first-year Harvard law student, and his imperious professor, Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr., later played to Academy Award-winning perfection by John Houseman first in the movie then in the subsequent TV series.


“Noble father defends innocent black man.”

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, my all-time favorite novel.


“Scion of British family is unlovable.”

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature; the first volume of his “The Forsyte Saga.”


“Time traveler meets bifurcated human descendants.”

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, in which he pretty much invents the notion of science fiction as social comment.


“Definitions in alphabetical order; dull, really.”

The dictionary! My favorite is American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition, Unabridged.


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R.I.P., Virginia Sawyer

by Rob - December 9th, 2015

My mother, Virginia Sawyer, aged 90, passed away very early yesterday morning (Tuesday, December 8, 2015), at North York General Hospital in Toronto. She was lucid until the end, and made her own decision to have life-sustaining aids removed.

She was able to say goodbye in person to Jack (her husband of sixty-three years), as well as to me, my wife Carolyn, my brother Peter, his wife Jacquie, and our sister-in-law Kim (my brother Alan’s widow), and, by phone, to her brother Quentin Peterson in California and my mother’s niece Sonja Peterson.

My mother’s remains will be cremated tomorrow morning. At her specific request, there will be no memorial service or memorial marker. Brief death notices — as dictated by her to me shortly before her passing — will appear in The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail newspapers on Thursday, December 10 (tomorrow).

My father John A. Sawyer prepared this obituary for my mother:

Sawyer, Virginia Kivley (Peterson)

Virginia was born in Appleton, Minnesota, on February 26, 1925. She was the daughter of George Martin and Nell (Kivley) Peterson and sister of Quentin Kivley Peterson.

She married John A. (Jack) Sawyer in 1952 and was the mother of Peter D. Sawyer (Jacquie), Robert J. Sawyer (Carolyn), and the late Alan B. Sawyer (Kim).

Virginia graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Minnesota (M.A.), and the University of Chicago (M.B.A.).

She taught Statistics at the University at Buffalo (1947-49), and was a part-time lecturer at the University of Chicago School of Business, Carleton University (Ottawa), McMaster University (Hamilton), and the University of Toronto Woodsworth and Scarborough Colleges.

She was a member of the North York University Women’s Club for many years and made donations to establish the Virginia Sawyer Award in the School of Women’s Studies at York University.

In January 2014, she moved into Canterbury Place Retirement Residence in North York. She died on December 8, 2015.

My mother was predeceased by her youngest son, my brother Alan, who passed away thirty months to the day before her. At my mother’s request, there will be no memorial service, but she asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Alan Sawyer Memorial Awardat Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media (my alma mater, but where Alan, an Emmy Award-winning producer, frequently guest-lectured and mentored):

ryerson.ca/supporting/alansawyer

Or: 416-979-5000 ext. 6541 (ask for Karen)

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Quantum Night cover blurb

by Rob - December 1st, 2015

Here’s the cover blurb for Quantum Night, my 23rd novel, being published three months from today, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, simultaneously in hardcover, audiobook, and ebook:

QUANTUM NIGHT

ROBERT J. SAWYER’s novels are “intelligent, literate, and immensely readable explorations of the biggest ideas there are.”* Now the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Red Planet Blues, FlashForward, and the WWW trilogy explores the thin line between good and evil that every human being is capable of crossing …

Experimental psychologist Jim Marchuk has developed a flawless technique for identifying the previously undetected psychopaths lurking everywhere in society. But while being cross-examined about his breakthrough in court, Jim is shocked to discover that he has lost his memories of six months of his life from twenty years previously — a dark time during which he himself committed heinous acts.

Jim is reunited with Kayla Huron, his forgotten girlfriend from his lost period and now a quantum physicist who has made a stunning discovery about the nature of human consciousness. As a rising tide of violence and hate sweeps across the globe, the psychologist and the physicist combine forces in a race against time to see if they can do the impossible — change human nature — before the entire world descends into darkness.

* The Halifax Chronicle-Herald

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Big-five publishers and lower ebook sales

by Rob - November 9th, 2015

Publishers Weekly reported today:

Lower e-book sales were a big factor in the weak financial performance at HarperCollins and limiting gains at Simon & Schuster in the quarter ended Sept. 30, 2015.
My own take on this is that the big-five publishers have convinced themselves so thoroughly that their product is worth a premium ebook price that they can’t imagine pricing their ebooks at what has clearly turned out to be the much-lower going rate for independently published books.

It seems to me that much of the ebook-reading public has decided, you know what, for what I want out of a reading experience, your product ISN’T worth three or four times as much as other offerings.

Whenever big publishers say ebook sales are declining, they seem to mean ebook sales of their own titles are declining. It wouldn’t hurt publishers to hire fewer English majors and a few more who had studied economics, specifically supply and demand.

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Remembering Michael Coney

by Rob - November 4th, 2015

Ten years ago today, we lost a giant of Canadian SF. Michael G. Coney, whose 1976 novel Brontomek! won the British Science Fiction Association Award, died November 4, 2005, at the age of 73 This year he is being inducted posthumously into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

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On the Best-of-the-Decade Aurora Award

by Rob - November 3rd, 2015

Post TWO OF TWO on this topic, this one about the BEST-OF-DECADE Aurora Award: Members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association may vote now (online) or in-person at SFContario later this month on two new Aurora Awards. I just voted online, and, since the ballot solicited comments to go with votes, here’s what I had to say about the SECOND new Aurora Award (for a discussion of the first new proposed Aurora, a dramatic-presentation award, see here):

Motion to establish a new Aurora Award: The Best in a Decade Aurora Award

This Aurora Award will be given out once per decade to honour novels and multi-volume works (Adult or YA) that have stood the test of time. The award would span a full decade. We also propose that the award for 2001 through 2010 will be given out in 2017. The date that this award will be given out in future years will be chosen by the CSFFA board but will happen in the latter part of each decade..

[X] I do not approve the creation of new Aurora Award: The Best in a Decade Aurora Award.

COMMENTS:

Insufficient information to support this proposal. What of a trilogy that starts in one decade and ends in another (such as Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, each volume of which separately won a best-novel Aurora, and were published in 2009, 2010, and 2011)?

Do we allow books that didn’t make the Aurora ballot in their given year to compete? If so, surely this devalues the Aurora-winning distinction for the novel that DID win the best-novel Aurora in the same year as the best-of-the-decade novel was published, if it’s a standalone.

What if the award goes to a YA novel that was published in a year in which we gave both an adult and a YA Aurora? Doesn’t that devalue the adult-Aurora winner from that year (and conversely devalues the YA winner, should an adult novel win)? Yes, we didn’t give YA awards in the previous decade, but the lack of thought in this proposal (not covering factors that will be relevant the very next time the award is presented) is distressing.

Finally, is seven years’ worth of looking back sufficient? Yeah, we might say that a novel from 2001 that is still well-regarded in 2017 — sixteen years later — has stood the test of time, but has one from 2010 really done that by 2017? Or are we pushing to give this in 2017 because it’s something Hal-Con, the presumptive host of the Auroras that year, wants, rather than because the time is right? Surely the best-of-a-decade needs to have stood the test of AT LEAST a decade’s time, no?

(Pictured: My Aurora Award trophy from 2000, for the novel FlashForward, published in 1999; this work is too old to be considered for the best-of-the-decade Aurora.)

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On the Dramatic-Presentation Aurora Award

by Rob - November 3rd, 2015

Post ONE OF TWO on this topic, this one about the DRAMATIC PRESENTATION Aurora Award: Members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association may vote now (online) or in-person at SFContario later this month on two new Aurora Awards. I just voted online, and, since the ballot solicited comments to go with votes, here’s what I had to say about the FIRST new Aurora Award (for a discussion of the second new proposed Aurora, a best-of-the-decade award, see here):

Motion to establish a new Aurora Award: Best Dramatic Presentation Aurora Award

This new Aurora award would recognize excellence in visual presentations, including but not limited to TV series, TV specials, motion pictures and stage presentations. The Award shall be made on the quality of the overall presentation and so will take into account the acting, direction, cinematography and production as well as the writing. (to be first presented in 2016 for 2015 works.).

[X] I do not approve the creation of new Aurora Award: Best Dramatic Presentation Aurora Award.

Comments:

Although the Hugos have two dramatic categories, they are dominated by blockbuster movies and network TV shows. There are virtually no actually Canadian blockbuster SF&F movies, and with only a couple of exceptions the so-called Canadian SF&F TV shows are simply filmed in Canada but creatively controlled from the US, and although there are fine Canadian stage plays in our genres they are never seen nationally.

Since there’s zero chance of getting screeners for eligible works to be included in the Aurora voters’ packet, and since the truly Canadian works will be minimally seen by potential nominators and voters, this is an ill-advised category.

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Eric Wright, R.I.P.

by Rob - October 26th, 2015

A giant of Canadian literature has left us. My friend Eric Wright, whom I’d known since 1993, and whose Charlie Salter mystery novels, which I began reading in 1984 and which were flagrantly Canadian in setting and tone, were a huge influence on me as a writer, passed away October 9, 2015, at the age of 86.

Eric had been kind enough to blurb my latest novel, Red Planet Blues:

Imagine the plot of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre played out on the planet Mars. Sawyer has, and the result is wonderful in both senses — a terrific noir crime novel that is full of the wonders of Sawyer’s sci-fi world. In Red Planet Blues S Sawyer has imagined, and written, his best book yet.

Eric was always supportive of me, and I had great affection for him. Peter Robinson, Canada’s leading mystery writer, has penned this appreciation of our mutual friend.

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On the fifth anniversary of Ralph Vicinanza’s death

by Rob - September 26th, 2015

Five years ago today, on September 26, 2010, my literary agent, the legendary Ralph Vicinanza, passed away, at the age of 60. Here’s the tribute I wrote to him back then:

Ralph Vicinanza was my agent for the past fifteen years. I remember when I was looking for a new agent calling many of his clients — the biggest names in the business — and asking if they’d recommend him. Every single one sung his praises, and I was thrilled when Ralph took me on as a client — it was very rare for him to take on a new client personally.

I never for one second doubted I’d found the right person — but, of all our interactions, I think nothing made that clearer than a conversation we had one day about the smallest contract he ever negotiated for me.

The worst-selling category of science-fiction books is single-author collections. Because of that, I’d decided I wanted my first collection to be done only in hardcover and only in Canada (so that the poor sales it was doubtless going to get would never show up in Barnes & Noble’s or Borders’ computers). The little Canadian publisher I’d arranged to sell it to (long since defunct) had a boilerplate contract that Ralph didn’t like at all, and he spent days negotiating the various clauses. The advance was piddling (I’ve sold short stories for more than I got for the entire book), meaning Ralph’s commission was minuscule. I kept apologizing to Ralph for all the work he was having to do for such a tiny commission, and finally he said to me, “Don’t ever apologize for making me work, Rob. This is what I do, and I enjoy it. Besides, I never think about the commission on a specific contract; I only think about my client’s overall career.”

He did indeed enjoy negotiating, almost always getting me what I wanted, and doing so without ever ruffling publishers’ feathers. I remember several years ago an author who was with the same publisher I was saying he had a suspicion his agent wasn’t doing as good a job for him as Ralph was for me. He asked me to black out the dollar figures on one of my contracts and let him compare the contractual terms his agent had gotten for him with the ones Ralph had gotten for me. We laid the two contracts side-by-side, and it was clear by the strikeouts and additions that Ralph had worked much, much harder for me than my friend’s agent had for him; in almost every clause of the contract, I had materially better terms, thanks to Ralph.

A decade ago, I worked on the TV series Charlie Jade, and executive producer Robert Wertheimer met with Ralph in New York to hammer out details of my involvement — and for months afterwards, every time I saw Bob, he went on about what a great afternoon of conversation he’d had with Ralph.

Recently, before Ralph had passed on, I had the pleasure of meeting Isaac Asimov’s daughter Robyn; for many years, Ralph had represented the Asimov estate. Robyn and I hit it off immediately — spending the first half-hour we were together trading stories about what a great guy Ralph was. Indeed, in all the years I knew Ralph, I never once — never once — heard anyone say a negative word about him.

Ralph M. Vicinanza was a gentleman of warmth, wit, and compassion, a raconteur, a truly nice guy, and an absolutely terrific agent. I know I’m going to miss him for the rest of my life.

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Lost in Space conclusion

by Rob - September 25th, 2015

One of the special features on the 50th-anniversary LOST IN SPACE Blu-ray set is a 2015 table read of the proposed series finale Bill Mumy himself co-wrote in 1980, with Bill Mumy, Mark Goddard, Marta Kirsten, and Angela Cartwright reading their own classic parts, Guy Williams Jr. standing in for his father, and Angela’s sister (and ALIEN star) Veronica Cartwright playing Dr. Maureen Robinson, plus Kevin Burns absolutely nailing an impression of Jonathan Harris.

The script has a tough task: be true to the original beginnings of LOST IN SPACE as a serious drama, and yet be something that could have followed on after the end of the campy third season — and it accomplishes that as well as anything could. With intro and outro, it runs an hour and 33 minutes, and is well worth watching.

Bill Mumy remembers, with what appears to be some bitterness, that Irwin Allen refused to read the script, but, actually, the justification Allen gives is valid: it would open him to a lawsuit from Mumy or his cowriters if Allen ever decided to do anything on his own with the property (which, of course, was his) that even remotely resembled what this script did; as Allen said, there were only, maybe, a half-dozen ways LOST IN SPACE could have ended, and he couldn’t allow any of them to be fenced off because someone else had taken a crack at some of them before he himself had. Still, it’s sad that that’s the last conversation the two of them ever had.

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Putting SF characters on the couch

by Rob - September 24th, 2015

One of my favourite schticks as a writer is the psychological counselling of my science-fictional characters. I built the entire novel FOREIGNER around it (with the alien counterpart of Galileo being psychoanalyzed by the alien counterpart of Freud), and it is also the framing device in my Hugo Award-nominated HUMANS (where a Neanderthal shrink, Jurard Selgan [named for my friend Marcel Gerard Gagné] has sessions with a troubled Neanderthal quantum physicist).

I’d long thought I’d lifted that from my favourite SF novel, Frederik Pohl’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning GATEWAY (in which a guilt-ridden man is psychoanalyzed by a computer). I first read GATEWAY in the summer of 1978, when it was freshly out in paperback.

Today, while treadmilling, and in honour of me reading Richard Anderson’s as-told-to-by autobiography, I popped in what is either the best or second-best episode of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, namely “The Seven Million Dollar Man” (the only one that equals it in quality is “The Last Kamikaze,” written by Judy Burns). It’s the best work Richard Anderson ever did in the series, and just about the best Lee Majors ever did, Alan Oppenheimer knocks it out of the park as Rudy Wells, and Monte Markham, as the second cyborg, turns in the performance of his career. It’s a perfect combination of cast, script (by Peter Allan Fields), and direction (Dick Moder).

But, as I noted today, it’s also exactly my schtick, at least at the beginning: the psychological analysis of a science-fiction character. The beginning has Steve undergoing his 12th quarterly psych evaluation since becoming a cyborg, and Rudy’s nurse, at the end of the session, stealing the tape recording of the session to give to Markham’s character, the second — emotionally deranged — cyborg.

I saw “Seven Million” when it first aired, on November 1, 1974, almost four years before I read GATEWAY, and that scene probably informed my later work if not as much as Pohl at least quite significantly.

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A hot dense state

by Rob - September 22nd, 2015

I tuned into the season 9 premiere of The Big Bang Theory because my friend Sherry Peters​ tipped me off that my buddy Jim Meskimen was guest-starring (he played the officiant), but, man, was I disappointed. I haven’t watched TBBT for a few years, and except for one science joke at the end (which was also a dick joke, to satisfy what they apparently have come to believe is their core audience of Two and a Half Men die-hards), there was none of the geeky humor, and precious little of the genuine affection between socially awkward characters, that made the early seasons pleasant.

I was so glad to see Jim Meskimen getting primetime network work — he’s truly one of the funniest guys alive — but he was utterly wasted in a paint-by-numbers part. Ah, well. At least I got to hear Barenaked Ladies sing the theme song again.

Fairest of Them All

by Rob - September 21st, 2015

If you’re not yet watching Star Trek Continues, you should be. They’ve produced four brilliant classic-era Star Trek episodes so far, with the fifth debuting soon. I love them all, but, even though I have a cameo in the fourth episode, “The White Iris,” my favorite is the third one, “Fairest of Them All,” directed (as is the fourth) by my great friend James Kerwin (who also directed the brilliant SF noir film Yesterday was a Lie).

“Fairest of Them All” is my favorite not just because it’s technically brilliant and beautifully acted but also because I’m a morally committed lifelong pacifist — a worldview I got from having two thoughtful academics as parents, from having a Unitarian as a mother, and from watching classic Star Trek.

So many Star Trek fan productions (going right back to the first ASCII-character computer games from the 1970s) seem to utterly forget that Star Trek was about pacifism: about Halkans who were willing to die rather than become accessories to killing; about Spock who would argue for pacifism; about Organians who showed both Kirk and Kor the evils of war; about Kirk sparing the Gorn who doubtless would have killed him; about Surak who turned a whole violent race to peace; about a prophetic woman who knew that one day we’ll take all the money we spend now on war and death and spend it on life instead; about humanitarians and statesmen who had a dream that spread among the stars and made all men brothers.

“Fairest of Them All” nobly explores those high ideals, while still telling a rollicking, enormously entertaining story.

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Hyping the dubious Homo naledi

by Rob - September 20th, 2015

The lede is buried in this excellent article by Ray Hartley from South Africa’s Rand Daily Mail. The meat begins with the tenth paragraph, which starts, “There was only one moment during the press event when the giant bubble of hype was threatened by a sharp question.”

Read from that point down, at least, then come back here; I’ll wait.

I often give keynote addresses at science conferences, and in September 2011, I gave the keynote at the Annual Meeting of the Science Media Centre of Canada, in Ottawa. My theme was that science journalists owe it to the readers, and to the science itself, to not be breathless shills for every person wanting press coverage.

It’s still an issue. All the current headlines about Homo naledi “rewriting human evolution” and “upending everything we thought we knew” are not only premature but feed right into the zealots who want to say that science is on shaky ground.

The case in point I used in 2011 was the then-current claim that the speed of light had been exceeded in a laboratory experiment. As I said to the audience of journalists, it’s got to be a measurement error, every one of you knows that it’s almost certainly that, and yet you peddle it as though it were celebrity gossip, requiring no more basis in reality than, “Someone said Brad and Angelina had a fight last night.”

In the case of Homo naledi, we have a paper that was rejected by peer-review, multiple scientists saying the new taxon is invalid, and no dating info available yet, and science “journalists” reporting the hype instead of the facts. Ugh.

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2nd anniversary of best-ever Canadian academic conference on science fiction

by Rob - September 13th, 2015

Two years ago today, the biggest and best academic conference ever held about science fiction in Canada began at McMaster University. “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre” — three days with multiple tracks — was hosted there in honour of the receipt by McMaster of my professional archives (subsequently certified as being of “outstanding significance and national importance” by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board). The conference was fabulous, the papers — many on my work — uniformly excellent, and the event was a career highlight for me.

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Taschen’s 2001 making-of book

by Rob - September 3rd, 2015

My review of Piers Bizony’s The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (published by Taschen) is up now at SFRevu.

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Ask Me Anything transcript

by Rob - September 3rd, 2015

A year ago today – 3 September 2014 — I did an Ask Me Anything session for Reddit. Here’s a transcript:

[–]Drakkenfyre

For Rob Sawyer:

Your books seem very thematically strong to me. What do you try to do with your books, in terms of having a theme and a message?

And do you start out with your theme and build a book around it, or does your theme grow out organically from the story?

[–]RJSawyer

Thanks for the thoughtful question! My writing mentor early on, Terence M. Green, used to speak of creating “thoughtful entertainment” — something that left you pondering for days or weeks after you finished it. I’ve always strived to do work that does the same thing (and, of course, was hugely influenced by the original STAR TREK and the original PLANET OF THE APES, which likewise did that).

I definitely start with a theme — something I want to say — and then work out the plot and characters that will let me say it. Science fiction is often termed “the literature of ideas,” and I think the core of really good SF is a fresh thematic statement, a new idea about something fundamental. For my current novel, THE PHILOSOPHER’S ZOMBIE [since retitled QUANTUM NIGHT], I have a non-printing comment at the very top of the manuscript file spelling out precisely what the theme is, so that I can remind myself to test each scene to see if it’s in service of that theme.

[–]Drakkenfyre

For Rob Sawyer and any other writers on the list with Canadian roots:

Do you think that being Canadian has had either a positive or negative effect on you as a professional writer, both on the business side and on the artistic side? Thanks!

[–]RJSawyer

Hugely, hugely positive effect, Drakkenfyre. I get all the traditional benefits of being a genre-fiction writer in the US plus the sorts of things that rarely happen to my American SF-writing colleagues in the states. I get invited to mainstream literary festivals; my books get taught at just about every Canadian university; I’ve been interviewed over 300 times on Canadian radio and over 300 times on Canadian TV. Canada treats its writers like movie stars (because so few movie stars live here!); I can’t think of a single downside to being Canadian in terms of my writing careers, and oodles of upsides — the biggest of which, of course, was being able to go full-time as a self-employed writer when I was just 23, because I had government-supplied health insurance. ;)

[–]Drakkenfyre

Thank you! Fascinating… especially about health insurance.

[–]gjcbs

For Robert, the final part of the final part of the question trilogy

Favorite Candy Bar?

Since you are a frequent DragonCon attendee, any favorite Atlanta restaurants yet?

Best hangout in Toronto?

Have you ever gotten to tour CERN?

Again, Robert…thanks. I look forward to that Nov 2015 release [QUANTUM NIGHT since moved to March 2016]. Now, how does one arrange a signed first edition in advance/on release?

Continue reading »

Quantum Night cover reveal

by Rob - September 1st, 2015

Six months from today, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, my twenty-third novel, Quantum Night, will be released simultaneously in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. Click the image above for a high-resolution / print-quality version.

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Quantum Night cover reveal on September 1

by Rob - August 26th, 2015

On Tuesday morning (Eastern time), September 1, I will unveil the gorgeous cover for my 23rd novel, Quantum Night. That’s six months to the day in advance of publication: the book will be released in hardcover, ebook, and as an audiobook on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.

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My 23rd novel will be called Quantum Night

by Rob - July 31st, 2015

We still don’t have a cover, but we at last have a final title: my 23rd novel, coming March 1st, 2016, is now officially called:

QUANTUM NIGHT

I’ve never had a title go through so many changes, but with having two different American editors during the creation of this book, a Canadian editor, and separate marketing and sales departments on both sides of the border, there was a lot of back and forth — which was actually nice: it meant everybody was invested in the book.

Here, in chronological order, are the titles this novel has had:

* Thoughtless (but my US editor Ginjer Buchanan thought it was too soft a title, although I liked that it included both “thought” and “ought” (as in ethical behavior), two of the novel’s themes, and also evoked the notion, key to the plot, of beings who were literally thoughtless — with no inner lives)

* The Philosopher’s Zombie (suggested by my friend Nick DiChario and still my favorite title for the book; originally approved by my US editor Ginjer Buchanan, but after she retired, both my new US editor, Jessica Wade, and my Canadian one, Adrienne Kerr, expressed concerns about the z-word, so …)

* Thoughtless (again, as a working title, but my agent thought it was “a terrible title,” so …)

* Quantum Night (my coinage, from a poetic musing by the novel’s main character)

* Psychopath State (my American publisher wanted something that might bring in mainstream readers, so we tried this, then realized it sounded like a scary American university)

* Quantum Psychopath (as I wrote to my editors: “It’s a bit lurid, but it certainly covers both plot elements, and one of my definitions is that ‘science fiction is the literature of intriguing juxtapositions’ — and ‘quantum’ sparking off of ‘psychopath’ certainly is that”)

* Quantum Night (although both my US and Canadian editors, as well as myself, had signed off on Quantum Psychopath, my agent Chris Lotts felt that wasn’t classy enough for this book — a sentiment I secretly shared — and so we reverted to Quantum Night).

And it’s locked — and seven months from tomorrow, it’ll be on bookstore shelves, available in all ebook formats, and also available as an audiobook.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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15 years of national bestsellerdom

by Rob - July 29th, 2015

Speaking, as we were yesterday, of bestsellers lists, it was fifteen years ago today, July 29, 2000, that I first hit a national top-ten mainstream bestsellers list in Canada. My Calculating God hit #8 on the Globe and Mail fiction bestsellers list, and the following week, it hit #7 on the fiction list in Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsmagazine.

The wonderful folks at H.B. Fenn and Company, the Canadian distributor for Tor Books at the time, surprised me with this beautiful (and large!) commemorative poster (click for larger version). As I noted in my journal for September 7, 2000:

Today was an unexpectedly fabulous day. I had a meeting scheduled with Heidi Winter, senior publicist at H.B. Fenn and Company, the Canadian distributor for Tor Books. The meeting was supposed to be a wrap-up discussion about my recent book tour for Calculating God.

Carolyn and I drove up to Bolton, Ontario, where Fenn is headquartered. Heidi took us upstairs to the board room for our meeting …

… except it turned out it wasn’t a meeting. To my absolute shock and delight, it was a surprise party for me! They were celebrating my making the bestsellers lists in The Globe and Mail: Canada’s National Newspaper and Maclean’s: Canada’s National Newsmagazine.

Forty Fenn staff members were on hand to congratulate me. They had a big cake and lots of beverages, and the art department had made up a wonderful “Congratulations, Rob!” poster, signed by all sorts of Fenn staff members.

Harold Fenn (the president) gave a terrific and very moving speech about our ten-year-long association (Fenn is also the Canadian distributor for Warner Books, so they had distributed my first novel, Golden Fleece, back in 1990). I was absolutely floored; I knew making the national mainstream bestsellers lists was a thrill for me, but I hadn’t realized it had been a thrill for the Fenn folk as well. But they seemed at least as delighted as I was.

After the party, the publicity department — Heidi Winter, Marla Krisko, and Melissa Cameron — took Carolyn and me out for a lovely lunch.

I was totally surprised, very touched, and completely thrilled. It was just wonderful.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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“Bestselling author” has become a meaningless term

by Rob - July 28th, 2015

Before the Amazon/self-publishing revolution debased/democratized (take your pick) the term, “bestsellerdom” was easy to ascertain: a book was a bestseller when it appeared on a recognized published-in-print bestsellers list (the most important of which was the one in The New York Times). Such lists do appear still in newspapers and magazines (in Canada, the important ones are the national ones appearing in The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s, Canada’s weekly newsmagazine).

Unfortunately, Amazon has provided so many sub-sub-sub categories that we’re just this side of people claiming bestseller status because they’ve hit number one on a list that goes:

Amazon > All Books > Kindle > Fiction > Fiction Written By Me

(In other words, just like in Kindergarten, everyone who shows up gets a gold star; countless authors have hit top-10 in some Amazon sub-sub-sub category for an our or two, which is all it takes for some of them to forevermore tout themselves as bestselling authors.)

But the bottom line is, in general, “bestselling author” or “bestselling novel” is not something you yourself claim or assert; it’s something you document with a citation to the authority that conferred that status. The beauty of newspaper and magazine bestsellers’ lists, compiled either weekly or monthly, is that they established that you hadn’t just had a statistical blip in sales (“For one hour my ebook was the #4 bestseller in an obscure sub-sub category on Amazon!”) but that you’d made it to that stature for at least seven days or a full month, in a broad (fiction / nonfiction / YA / hardcover / paperback) category in which there are a great many books.

I’ve hit #1 on the highest-level category for my field — science fiction — on three national Amazon lists — .com, .ca, and .co.uk — and, for that matter, #1 on .com’s technothriller list — and #1 on the Audible science-fiction monthly bestsellers’ list, and I’ve been #1 on most of the regional lists in Canada (such as the one published in the Winnipeg Free Press) and even some American ones (for instance, the Palm Beach Daily News) and #1 on the bestsellers list published in Locus, the trade journal of the SF&F fields.

But just as my publishers and readers only care about awards you’ve actually won that people have actually heard of, they only care (if readers care at all) about such things when they recognize the name of the bestsellers’ list you’ve actually appeared on. First “author” fell by the wayside as a term meaning one had actually accomplished something, and generic “bestselling author” has likewise lost any cachet.

I am proud of the one illustrated above. I’ve been on the list in Maclean’s, which is Canada’s national newsmagazine, often starting in 2000, but this was the highest I’ve made it on their list: the #3 bestselling novel of any type, by authors of any nationality, across all of Canada, for the week.

The numbers to the right are the book’s ranking the previous week (I was at #6) and the total number of weeks, including this one, that the book has been on the list so far (so this was my third week).



Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Crowdfunding

by Rob - July 23rd, 2015

I see lots of authors trying to fund the time to write their books via Kickstarter or Indiegogo, and I daily get requests from some of them to promote their campaigns on my Facebook wall. I haven’t figured out my stance on all this yet. Certainly, when I was writing my early books (I wrote my first three novels without contracts, and so without advances prior to their completion), I had to make sacrifices (working my ass off to earn enough money ahead of time so that I could afford to take time off from the nonfiction and corporate freelance writing I was doing then to pursue this).

I’m not saying people should have to suffer for their art, but I’m not yet convinced that this is the right alternative, either. And, of course, I come from an era (old fart that I am) in which authors were compensated on the very straightforward model that you made money when people bought your books, simple as that.

Yesterday, when yet another person asked me to promote their Kickstarter, I wrote:

Not to be a Grinch, but I get asked daily to support Kickstarters for authors, and I have very mixed feelings about the crowdfunding concept, which shifts the burden of risk from the artist to the audience (sight-unseen, with no one having reviewed the finished product, the audience is asked to fund the creation of something). I’m not passing judgment on your project — it indeed sounds worthwhile — it’s just the funding model in general that I have reservations about. Please forgive me.
So, I’m still struggling with this. I’ve supported some Kickstarters for projects that clearly are not commercially viable that I’d like to see done. But early books in a writer’s career? Those have rarely been commercially viable for anyone, and have always represented a substantial degree of risk and commitment on the part of the author.

Yes, I see parallels to the granting culture that swirls around much of Canadian literature. But far from being entrepreneurial, that culture (asking for government handouts) and this one (crowdfunding) strike me as quite the opposite. As I say, I shall continue to mull over the issue.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Join The Authors Guild

by Rob - July 20th, 2015

I recently rejoined The Authors Guild because of the great work they’re doing fighting for fair ebook royalties from traditional publishers (the Guild advocates 50% of net; the big five are all holding fast 25% of net) and a return to actual advances (instead of half the money coming years after the manuscript is accepted — PRH and others are paying “advances” in four installments now).

There’s strength in numbers, so The Authors Guild is having a membership sale. If you join via this link, you get $25 off your first year’s membership (bringing it down to $100), and I get $25 off my renewal. Read more about The Authors Guild here.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Documentary about Susan Oliver

by Rob - July 19th, 2015

Susan Oliver played Vina in Star Trek‘s first pilot “The Cage” (later incorporated into the two-parter “The Menagerie”). Last year at the Star Trek Las Vegas convention, I bought a documentary about her on DVD called The Green Girl, and finally got around to watching it. IT IS SPECTACULAR. Just wonderfully touching and moving, and filled with clips from 1950s-1980s TV, plus interviews with all sorts of behind-the-scenes personal and TV stars from that period. Seriously, I enjoyed every minute. You can get it on DVD, or streaming now.

See the website for the documentary here.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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The pitch that sold Red Planet Blues

by Rob - July 18th, 2015

Four years ago today, on July 18, 2011, I sent this pitch to my US and Canadian editors — which eventually led to the book Red Planet Blues:

Hi, Ginjer and Adrienne.

Now that you’ve accepted Triggers, it’s time for me to get to work on my next book (which you’ve already contracted for; it’s due May 8, 2012).

For that project, I’d like to expand two short works of mine into a novel: the novella “Identity Theft” (23,200 words) and the sequel short story “Biding Time” (5,600 words). Copies of both are attached.

Both are science-fiction/mystery crossover stories with a noir flavor featuring the only private detective on Mars. The characters — including gumshoe Alex Lomax, femme fatale Cassandra Wilkins, the timid Rory Pickover, corrupt police official Dougal McCrae, and the obese black-marketeer Ernie Gargalian — might have been played, in an earlier time, by Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, and Sydney Greenstreet.

These stories are also homages to the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. The Martian frontier town of New Klondike, and its desperate, grizzled prospectors, recall that era (and the similar greed-driven lawlessness of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

I spent three months in the summer of 2007 as writer-in-residence at Berton House in Dawson City, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, which was the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush. (Berton House is the family home of the late Pierre Berton, Canada’s leading writer of historical nonfiction, including Klondike, the definitive history of the gold rush.) Dawson City is filled with historical monuments and recreations from the Gold Rush, and my time there will help me evocatively capture that frontier spirit.

The two stories I’m attaching amount to 29,000 words. The novel — which I’d like to call The Great Martian Fossil Rush — would weigh in at 100,000 words, but these works give a flavor of what that book will be like.

The expansion will deal extensively with the backstory only hinted at in the two short works: the discovery of fossils on Mars, which, in an era of cheap everything, become highly sought-after collectibles, spurring the fossil rush. In addition to the two cases Alex Lomax deals with in the short works, the novel would have as its central plot Alex solving the mystery of the murders of Weingarten and O’Reilly, the two explorers who first discovered the evidence of ancient life on Mars.

The source stories have strong pedigrees: “Identity Theft” was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, and won the world’s largest cash prize for science-fiction writing, Spain’s 6,000-euro Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción. “Biding Time” won Canada’s Aurora Award and was reprinted in Penguin Canada’s The Penguin Book of Crime Stories, edited by Peter Robinson.

I hope this idea appeals to the two of you as much as it does to me!

All best wishes.

Rob

[In the end, the novel was actually called Red Planet Blues. It ran to 105,000 words, and it didn’t incorporate any of “Biding Time.”]
On Facebook, Jon Helms, one of my readers expressed surprise at the above, writing:
Fascinating. I had no idea they contracted authors for unrelated books with delivery dates. I expected that with a series like the The Neanderthal Parallax, I didn’t have any idea it would happen with unrelated books.
My reply to Jon:
My career has been mostly two-book and three-book contracts for not-yet-written books, and it’s never it made any difference to my publishers (Ace in the 1990s and again now; Tor in between) whether the books were related or not. If they’re unrelated, the contract will specify what the first one will be, and for the other one or two will say words to the effect of “a property to be agreed upon later” or simply “untitled Sawyer novel.”

I’ve never had a publisher object to whatever I later proposed to fulfill the second-book or third-book slots on a contract, and, indeed, a couple of times I’ve changed projects midstream even after the approval (neither Calculating God nor Rollback were the novels I’d originally gotten the go-ahead to write, but, as both ended up being Hugo finalists, no one complained).

Sometimes the pitch for a second or third book has been as elaborate as above; other times, it’s just been me sitting down at a convention for a meal with my editor and verbally outlining what I’m thinking of doing. That was the case, in fact, with my upcoming 23rd novel. I described it — quite vaguely, as I hadn’t worked out a lot of details yet — to Ginjer Buchanan over lunch at the Worldcon in Chicago, she asked questions, called it a “chewy” premise, and said she’d trust that I could pull it off. And, boom, off to work.

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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