Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

My suggestion for FlashForward’s second season

by Rob - February 19th, 2015

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


Hi, All.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All best wishes.


Robert J. Sawyer online:

I gave up writing short stories ten years ago today

by Rob - February 6th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many of those stories are available for free here:

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

35th anniversary of my first sale

by Rob - January 18th, 2015

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

The Beagle has landed

by Rob - January 16th, 2015

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

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

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

“Just idle curiosity.”

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

“But I am intrigued by money.”

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

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

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

“Beagle 2?” I said.

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

“Is it worth something?”

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

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Four rules for life

by Rob - January 12th, 2015

Four rules for living a better and happier life that seem sensible to me:

  • Make amends

  • Accept apologies

  • Don’t discard people

  • Care

Robert J. Sawyer online:

NASFA 40th anniversary coming up

by Rob - January 4th, 2015

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

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:

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).

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.

If you were a NASFA member, come to the reunion. Until then, live long and prosper!
Robert J. Sawyer online:

The Primate Directive

by Rob - December 30th, 2014

My review of issue 1 of the Star Trek / Planet of the Apes crossover comic “The Primate Directive” is now online at

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Idris Elba as James Bond

by Rob - December 27th, 2014

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.
Robert J. Sawyer online:

2014 Year in Review

by Rob - December 26th, 2014

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.

Having Calculating God hit #1 on the Science Fiction Bestsellers’ List for the month of 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.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Apes as nonhuman persons

by Rob - December 23rd, 2014

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.

Later in the novel

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.”

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame

by Rob - December 19th, 2014

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.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Tributes to Michael Lennick

by Rob - December 19th, 2014

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.

&#151Claire Lemieux-Lamarche
Thornhill, Ontario

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. &#151 with the love.

&#151Robert J. Sawyer
Mississauga, Ontario

He reached out and touched the sky, and in doing so, he touched us all.

&#151Chris Darling
Los Angeles, California

God Bless you Michael I will never forget you and the things you taught me about life.

&#151Sarah Mitchell Manson
Toronto, Ontario

So long, my good friend.
Ad Astra per aspera.

&#151Michel Plaxton
Mississauga, Ontario

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.

&#151Steve Howes
Paris, Ontario

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…

&#151Errol Bruce-Knapp
Peterborough, Ontario

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.

&#151John-Paul Edwards
Scarborough, Ontario

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.

&#151Andrew Rock
Hamilton, Ontario

FlashForward flashback

by Rob - December 15th, 2014

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

Here’s that list:

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

Said Barnes & Noble:

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

My students and the Auroras

by Rob - December 14th, 2014

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

2003: Robert J. Sawyer

2004: Douglas Smith (my student at Ryerson)

2005: Isaac Szpindel (Ryerson)

2006: Derwin Mak (Ryerson)

2007: Robert J. Sawyer

2008: Hayden Trenholm (IFWA)

2009: Randy McCharles (Banff)

2010: Eileen Bell (Banff)

2011: Hayden Trenholm (IFWA)

2012: Suzanne Church (in my critique group)

2013: Douglas Smith (Ryerson)

2014: Ryan McFadden (Banff)

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

The Blue Planet

by Rob - December 12th, 2014

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

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

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

Read the full short story

Robert J. Sawyer online:

35th anniversary of Star Trek: The Motion Picture

by Rob - December 7th, 2014

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

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

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

“Another movie?” suggested her dad.

“Sure,” said Caitlin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

My Star Trek novel, 30 years on

by Rob - November 27th, 2014

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Michael Lennick memorial gathering

by Rob - November 15th, 2014

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Michael Lennick, R.I.P.

by Rob - November 8th, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace, my friend. Rest in peace.

Added later:

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Following Ghomeshigate

by Rob - October 31st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Running WordStar under Windows

by Rob - October 30th, 2014

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

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

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

I finished writing Golden Fleece 25 years ago today

by Rob - September 26th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some reviews of the novel.

Alien SETI radio message received in Golden Fleece.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

My film and TV work

by Rob - September 23rd, 2014

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Free science-fiction festival in Greater Toronto

by Rob - September 9th, 2014

Science Fiction Spectacular!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noon: Lunch break

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

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

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

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

The dark side of Little Miss Sunshine

by Rob - September 3rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

My Star Trek computer-graphics article — 30 years later

by Rob - June 30th, 2014

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

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

by Robert J. Sawyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

University of Winnipeg convocation address

by Rob - June 21st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

My next prediction was this:

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

I also wrote:

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

My next prediction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward, all of us, into the future.

Thank you very much.

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Honorary doctorate

by Rob - June 13th, 2014

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

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Calculating God #1 Audible bestseller

by Rob - June 1st, 2014

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

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Will self-published authors be Amazon’s next hardball target?

by Rob - May 23rd, 2014 is playing hardball with Hachette, one of the big-5 traditional publishers; it’s previously done such things with Macmillan (the big-5 publisher of which science-fiction giant Tor is part).

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

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

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online: