SFWRITER.COM > About Rob > Autobiography
Robert J. Sawyer
From Contemporary Authors
Copyright © 2003 by Robert J.
All Rights Reserved.
Robert J. Sawyer wrote this 10,000-word autobiography in January 2003
under commission for Gale Research. It appeared in
Contemporary Authors Volume 212, published in 2004.
My father, John Arthur Sawyer, was born in Toronto in 1924; his
ancestry is Scottish and English. My mother, Virginia Kivley
Peterson Sawyer, was born in Appleton, Minnesota, in 1925, but
grew up in Berkeley, California. Her background is Swedish and
Norwegian. They were married at the University of Chicago in
1952, where they were both graduate students in economics.
Shortly thereafter, they moved to Ottawa, Canada's capital, where
my dad was employed by what was then called the Dominion Bureau
of Statistics and is now known as Statistics Canada. I was born
in Ottawa on April 29, 1960 but my parents almost
immediately moved again, this time to Toronto, so that my father
could take a teaching post at the University of Toronto starting
in the fall of 1960.
After a few years, my mother started teaching at the University
of Toronto, as well, lecturing in statistics. It was unusual,
back then, having a mother who worked outside the home, and even
more so to have one who worked in an intellectually challenging
field; my friends didn't quite know what to make of it. Still,
it had advantages: we were the first family on our street to
have two cars one for my dad and one for my mom. These
days, that's very common, but it wasn't then, and I was very
proud of both my parents.
I have two brothers, Peter Douglas Sawyer, who is six years older
than me, and Alan Bruce Sawyer, who is sixteen months younger.
My parents had hoped to space their children more evenly, but
there were medical complications after my older brother was born.
It's too bad: I've never been as close to Peter as I would have
liked, but of course no sixteen-year-old wants a ten-year-old
tagging along. And my relationship with Alan was strained during
much of our childhood; we were so close in age that a rivalry was
inevitable. Still, I was very much the traditional middle child,
always trying to make peace and build bridges.
My mother had been a bona fide gifted child, graduating
from the University of California at Berkeley when she was 17,
and my older brother had been accelerated (put ahead a grade)
twice at school. The teachers and my parents meant well in doing
this, but Peter had a bunch of troubles in his early years, in
large measure because he was pushed ahead.
I was a bright kid, too, but, because of what happened to Peter,
my parents resolutely kept me at the grade appropriate for my
age. It was probably for the best, but I remember being bored
most of the time in the classroom, and that led to me being
somewhat disruptive there. But at the end of every week, my
father took me down to the Royal Ontario Museum's Saturday
Morning Club, where bright kids got to go behind the scenes in
the museum's various departments and learn all sorts of
fascinating things; that was the intellectual highlight of my
I was a chubby kid, and lousy at sports. I'm sure this
disappointed my dad, who was a big baseball fan. I also had a
coordination problem and still do, to some degree
and couldn't throw a ball well or get my body to do the things
that my friends could do with ease. (Ultimately, I think this
problem had something to do with me becoming a writer. An
athlete has to get it right on the first try: if you're taking a
shot at the goal, you don't get a second chance to score a point.
But a writer revises, and keeps going back until he or she is
So, instead of playing sports, I watched a lot of TV. There's
never been much domestic Canadian dramatic television. Instead,
Canadian channels fill their prime-time schedules with American
programs. But, since 90 percent of all Canadians live within a
hundred miles of the U.S. border, we also receive American TV
stations. Today, with almost all Canadians getting their TV via
cable, the cable operators simply delete the US signal and
simultaneously substitute the Canadian one meaning we see
the same episode of the same series, but with Canadian, instead
of American, commercials.
But in the 1960s and 1970s, things were different. Canadian
stations had to entice us to watch their broadcasts of the
program (with the ads they'd sold), rather than the American
ones. To do that, they showed the American-made programs earlier
When I was 12, in 1972, my favorite new series was called
Search, starring Hugh O'Brian and Burgess Meredith. It
was an intricately plotted caper series, with high-tech agents,
linked by miniature cameras and radios to a mission-control
center, working to recover missing objects. In Toronto, we got
the Canadian broadcast of the latest episode on Tuesdays at 8:00
p.m. on local channel 9, and then, the next night, at 10:00 p.m.,
we got the American broadcast, spilling over from the NBC station
in Buffalo, New York.
I never missed an episode on Tuesday nights, but I wanted more.
Every Wednesday night I had a fight with my mom, because I wanted
to stay up to watch Search again the exact same
episode I'd seen the day before. It was an hour-long series,
meaning it wasn't over until 11:00 p.m. way too late, my
mom felt, for a 12-year-old on a school night. But I whined and
wheedled, and she would usually give in.
Back then, I couldn't articulate why it was so important to me to
watch the same episode a second time but I understand it
perfectly now. I was learning how to write. On Tuesday nights,
I'd be surprised by the twists and turns the plots took
and on Wednesday nights, knowing how the story turned out, I was
able to see how the writer had developed the plot.
Now, television drama may not be the greatest form of literature
but the structure it uses is wonderful for learning
plotting. There was always something else on and, at every
commercial break, there was an opportunity for you to switch to
another program, so TV writers had to end every act
indeed, just about every scene except the last with a
little cliffhanger, to keep you in suspense, to keep you from
(Today, of course, there are videocassette recorders and DVD
players; no one has to go through the difficulties I did to see
the same program twice in rapid succession. Still, I think
watching a program twice or reading a book twice is
a great way to see exactly how the writer accomplished what he or
she had set out to do.)
Search wasn't the only TV program that had an impact on
me. The original Star Trek the one with Kirk,
Spock, and McCoy was also
a huge influence.
I only saw one episode in first run: "The Devil in the Dark," the one with
the Horta. That had been a special treat; my parents didn't
approve of me watching violent TV shows (the spy program
The Man from UNCLE was banned in our house); nor did they ever
buy us toy guns (although we did receive a few as presents from
neighborhood kids over the years, over my parents' objections).
Those bans certainly had an effect on me; I consider myself a
pacifist today, and most of the characters I write about go out
of their way to avoid a fight not out of cowardice, but
out of principle.
Anyway, there was a book published in 1968, while Star
Trek was still in first run, called The Making of Star
Trek. It was the first book of its kind, and I found it
absolutely fascinating. The edition I have has "The book on how
to write for TV!" emblazoned above the title. The authors were
Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry (the latter the creator
of Star Trek), and it contained all sorts of materials:
blueprints of the starship Enterprise, close-up photos of
props, character sketches of the ship's crew, and dozens of memos
sent between various people involved in the production arguing
about every little background detail, from what powered the
starship to what sorts of family names Vulcans might have.
These days, many DVD releases come with commentary by the
screenwriter or director, but back then this sort of insight into
the creative process was completely unprecedented. I'm sure I
would have loved Star Trek regardless, but I learned an
enormous amount watching the 79 original episodes re-run over and
over again, once the show was in syndication, because of the
background in that book. One of the key skills for an SF writer
is "world building" creating a convincing alternate
reality, and giving the audience insights into it through
well-chosen background details. There's no doubt I learned this
skill through Star Trek.
Of course, my earliest stories didn't have much in the way of
world building but I do think it's interesting that from
day one, I was writing from non-human perspectives. The very
first story I ever wrote, when I was six or seven, was called
Ironically, at that time, I had no idea that "Bobby" was a form
of my own name, Robert.
(Actually, I was called "Robin" as a child. That was what my
mother wanted to give me as my legal name, but my father thought
it would be better to have a more masculine name; also, he had a
great fondness for his Scottish heritage, and so my given names,
Robert James, are after historic kings of Scotland. But I was
registered at school as Robin Sawyer, and the local Parks and
Recreation Department, guessing my gender by my name, kept
sending me invitations to join girl's ice-skating teams and
similar things. When I was ten, I rebelled against the name
Robin, and have used Robert (or Rob) ever since. I actually
regret it now; Robin is a great name for a writer.)
In 1968, when I was eight years old, my father took me to see the
then-new movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was my
introduction to the work of Arthur C. Clarke,
then and now my
favorite science-fiction writer, and I ultimately saw 2001
a total of 25 times on the big screen. Part of the appeal was
the fact that the movie had that year in its title. One of the
nice things about being born in a year that ends in zero is that
it makes math simple. Even as a kid, I knew I would be 41 in
2001, and my father, sitting next to me in Toronto's Glendale
Theatre, was then 43 meaning I'd be younger than my dad
was then when the wonders of giant space stations and cities on
the moon and thinking computers would supposedly be a reality.
Also an important part of my childhood was the Apollo
program, which really did put human beings on the moon. I was
absolutely fascinated by it, and my parents used to let me stay
home from school to watch important mission events on TV.
Still, I mostly enjoyed school except for a few bullies.
I hadn't really shown a profound interest in writing by the time
I was in grade four, but my teacher, Peter Moroz, let me indulge
my interest in space.
By the time I got into grade five, though, I was very much
intrigued by writing. My teacher, Patricia Matthews, greatly
encouraged me in that. This was back in the days before
photocopies were common, and there was no such thing as a word
processor. She used to ask me for copies of my stories, so she
could keep them for herself my first fan and I
dutifully wrote out duplicates of them by hand for her.
Multiculturalism has always been part of my life. Toronto, where
I live, has been recognized by the UN as the most multicultural
city in the world. The original Star Trek, with its
multiracial crew, certainly underscored that, and even as a kid,
I never allowed other kids to get away with racist, or
anti-Semitic, remarks in my presence.
Indeed, I remember one of the few times I was ashamed to be a
Canadian was while watching the opening ceremonies on TV for
Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. Canada's participation was a series of
female dancers and every one of them was white with
brunette hair. Even as a ten-year-old, I knew that was wrong.
There should have been people of all races represented. I've
always tried to do just that in my writing.
Now that I'm older, I realize the enormous racism that was going
on in the southern U.S. during my childhood. When I'm asked who
my heroes are, people expect me to name scientists or writers.
No; indeed, one of the great shocks of my life was discovering
that one of my childhood heroes, the American paleontologist Roy
Chapman Andrews, who died the year I was born, had been a racist.
My heroes today are Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi
people who struggled nonviolently to change the world. I'm an
idealist at heart, and the two most moving experiences I've had
as a tourist were visiting the United Nations Headquarters in New
York City, and the Civil Rights Museum in Tennessee.
In public school (Kindergarten through Grade 6), I didn't really
have many friends who were as bright as me, and that was
emotionally quite hard. In Junior High (Grades 7 through 9), I
had one close friend who was quite bright, and we spent a lot of
time together talking about space and science fiction. It wasn't
until high school, though, that I really found a group of friends
who were as intelligent as I was, and my high-school years were
some of the best of my life.
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
Fossil Hunter, and
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
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
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.
Incredible as it seems today, with the fifth Star Trek TV
series currently in first-run, back in 1977, when I was 17, it
had been eight years since the original Star Trek went off
the air, and it looked like there would never be any more. So
some friends and I set about shaping a series of audio dramas
there was no way we could afford to do TV! that
would be the new Star Trek.
I was the driving creative force, and the first proposal I came
up with as the basis of our series was something I called
Creator Quest: in the 21st century (which seemed a long
way off then!), scientific evidence points to a guiding
intelligence for our universe, and a starship sets off to find
this God. Aided by my brother Alan, we produced a mock opening
credits sequence for the show, with music and ominous narration.
I don't remember much of it, except the last words were "... the
astral quest for our creator!"
Anyway, my friends looked at me like I was nuts after I played
the Creator Quest demo tape, and so I decided to start
over. I proposed a format very similar to Star Trek.
Instead of a United Federation of Planets, it had a Commonwealth
of Planets (Canada, of course, is part of the Commonwealth of
Nations, the alliance of countries formerly under British
control). But my parents' pacifism had had an affect on me. I
completely rejected the military background of Star Trek,
and came up with a democratic, socialist structure based on that
of a university (the university-like setting was also, I'm sure,
my parents' influence; remember, they both taught at the
University of Toronto).
Our series ended up being named Star Station Terra
(because our little SF club that had spun off from NASFA, pulling
in a few people who had never gone to Northview and others who
had already graduated, was called the Society for Speculative
Thinking, and we wanted it to have the same initials).
Contributing in major ways to fleshing out the series were my
friends Tom Nadas, Carolyn Clink, Ariel Reich, and Do-Ming Lum,
but still the core concept was mine including the presence
of dolphins aboard our starship. At that time, American
biologist John C. Lilly was talking a lot about his theory that
dolphins might be as intelligent as humans. That notion
fascinated me, so I threw in a dolphin named Bobo.
We wrote a bunch of scripts, and put them through many drafts,
but never got around to producing the audio dramas. That was
fine by me it was really the writing, not the production,
that I was interested in. All in all, it was a great experience.
In 1974, my parents bought a vacation home on Canandaigua Lake,
one of Upstate New York's Finger Lakes, and we made frequent
trips there. The nearest city was Rochester, New York, and my
parents became members of the Rochester Museum & Science
Center. In the summer of 1979, the Strasenburgh Planetarium,
which was part of the RMSC,
announced a contest to be judged by
science-fiction great Isaac Asimov: write a short story that
could be made into a dramatic planetarium star show.
I decided to dust off one of my old Star Station Terra
ideas, and wrote it up in prose. I stripped out any parts of the
background that I myself had not made up, added new stuff to
cover what was missing, and submitted the story. I thought there
might be a prejudice against a Canadian entering an American
contest, so I put the address of my family's US vacation home on
In January of 1980, Isaac Asimov's pick was announced and
it wasn't me. Still, the planetarium was having a reception for
everyone who had entered the contest, and my mother agreed to
drive me down, along with Carolyn Clink,
two years older than me,
a member of the Society for Speculative Thinking, and now, after
four years of friendship, my new girlfriend.
As soon as we arrived at the reception, the planetarium's
director came running over to me. "We were hoping you would
come!" he said. "We've been trying to reach you for weeks!" It
turned out that the story Asimov had liked best really only had
enough meat on it for a ten-minute starshow, and so the
planetarium staff had decided to buy rights to two additional
stories and one of them was mine!
Of course, they'd only had the US phone number of the vacation
home, which had been vacant since the summer so they
hadn't been able to contact me. I was absolutely stunned
it was completely unexpected.
The planetarium didn't have much money in its budget, but they
paid me US$85 for the rights to make a starshow from my story
and that worked out, almost exactly, at the then-current
exchange rate, to Cdn$100. For years, I had a photocopy of the
check framed in my bedroom with the words "First Sale" beneath
(Twenty years later, the Rochester Museum & Science Center was
soliciting funds for an improvement campaign. Donors who gave a
certain amount of money got to have a brick embedded in a
sidewalk in front of the museum, with an inscription on it. Most
of them say "In memory of ..." and give a person's name. My
mother made the required donation, and her brick says, simply,
"My son's career started here.")
The short story I sold to the planetarium was called "Motive."
It was just 5,000 words long, but contained many of the elements
that went on to be major parts of my fiction. The spaceship
Star Station Terra had become Starplex,
which I thought was a way cool term (imagine my embarrassment decades
later to find out that Starplex was also the name of a company
that makes urine-specimen containers for doctors' offices).
Fifteen years later, I wrote a novel called
Starplex, set aboard a very similar
In "Motive," Starplex was controlled by a master computer,
patterned after Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and like
Hal, that computer committed a murder; my first novel,
Golden Fleece, also dealt with a homicidal computer, and many of my
works have continued this pattern of combining science fiction
"Motive" also featured dinosaur-like aliens called Quintaglios,
and I went on to write three novels about them
Fossil Hunter, and
The starshow that was made up of the three short stories ran for
192 performances in the summer of 1980 under the umbrella title
"Futurescapes." I saw it several times. Although some liberties
that weren't improvements were taken with my original story, it
was still a fabulous experience, and I was determined to continue
writing science fiction.
As I said earlier, the province of Ontario, where I lived then
and now, used to be unique in North America in that it had an
extra year of high school grade 13. That was phased out
in 2003, which in some ways is too bad. Grade 13 was one of the
best years of my life, and I studied all sorts of fascinating
topics, including a cinema course, two courses in Latin, and an
independent biology course, where I got to choose my own subject
matter: I studied dinosaurs and dolphins.
Indeed, dinosaurs had been a life-long passion of mine, and I had
thought for sure that I'd go on to university to become a
vertebrate paleontologist specializing in the study of dinosaurs.
But in grade 13, I started looking at the actual paleontological
job prospects, and I was astonished to find them quite dim. Back
then, there were only 24 dinosaurian paleontologists in the
entire world, and only three in Canada ... and it didn't seem
likely that one of those three was going to volunteer to retire
just because I had arrived on the scene.
I'd always sort of assumed I'd go to the University of Toronto
not only was it local, but my father still taught there,
and that meant his children were entitled to free tuition. But,
suddenly, I had no idea what I was going to do for my future.
Fortunately, a new direction fell into my lap in November 1978.
We were allowed to take a day off school to go to a "Tour and
Discussion Day" at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnical Institute,
which offered bachelor degree-programs in applied arts and
technology. I was thinking of maybe studying journalism I
had been founder and editor of my school's newspaper,
The Northview Post, and thought that a journalism degree might
let me write for a living (writing fiction for a living
seemed like a ridiculous dream). Ryerson was the only place in
Toronto to offer a journalism degree, so I signed up to tour that
department but you could stay away from school for the
whole day if you signed up to tour two departments, so, on a
whim, I selected Radio and Television Arts for my second tour,
because that book The Making of Star Trek had fascinated
me so much.
The tour was spectacular all that wonderful television
equipment! The dimly lit control rooms reminded me of the
mission control center from the TV series Search.
I was told this was a very competitive program only one in
five applicants got accepted for it but I decided to try,
and, lo and behold, I got in. I started my studies there in
September 1979, and I had my first piece of fiction published at
the end of my first year, in Ryerson's literary annual,
White Wall Review.
From the start, my fiction was full of Canadian content, and that
was in direct response to what I'd grown up watching on TV. In
the 1960s and 1970s, most Canadian-made episodic television was
lousy. CTV Canada's only commercial television network at
the time had precisely one Canadian drama, a cop show
called Police Surgeon, and one Canadian sitcom, a
completely unfunny long-suffering-husband-and-daffy-wife show
called The Trouble With Tracy. Even as a kid, I was
infuriated by these programs, because although they were made in
Canada, they were set in the United States. I remember
being appalled when one episode of Police Surgeon was
filmed at my beloved Royal Ontario Museum, but they called it by
another name and had raised the Stars and Stripes on the flagpole
Still, this was part of the Canadian psyche back then: a belief
that the only way to succeed on the international stage was to
disguise the fact that you were Canadian. Indeed, when I was
starting off writing, people kept telling me not to set my
stories in Canada if I wanted them to be published in the States.
Ever the rationalist, I wondered where this pervasive belief had
come from and started looking for quality modern works by
Canadians that were set in Canada and published in the U.S. I
expected there to be a list of failed books, movies, and TV shows
that had formed the basis of this belief but there was
nothing. It seemed everyone had just assumed that this would be
true, and that no one had tested it.
Well, when I did start publishing, I decided to test it, being
flagrantly Canadian in my work. I just couldn't believe that
Americans could be so provincial (if you'll forgive the pun) to
reject a book just because of its setting. Lo and behold, I
turned out to be correct. I've never once had an American
editor, reviewer, bookseller, or reader complain about the
Canadian content in my books.
Many writers have long resumes, listing all the odd jobs they did
to support their craft. Not me; I've only ever had two jobs
since graduating in 1982. Ryerson hired me to return for the
following academic year to help teach television studio
production techniques to second- and third-year students. I'd
applied for this job for three reasons. First, 1982 was the
middle of a recession in Canada, and for the first time in its
history, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Canada's
giant state-owned radio and TV factory was laying off
people. Normally, Ryerson grads waltzed into entry-level
positions at Canadian studios, but that year we were all
competing with seasoned veterans from the CBC who were also
looking for work.
Second, the job at Ryerson paid well, by the standards of what
entry-level broadcasting positions offer: Cdn$14,000 a year. It
seems like peanuts today, and it wasn't very much back then, but,
according to a salary survey done by Ryerson it made me the
third-highest-paid Radio and Television Arts grad in my year.
Third, and most important, my girlfriend and now
fiancée Carolyn was also studying at Ryerson
(Graphic Arts Management a business course for the
printing industry); she had one more year to go, and I wanted to
be close to her.
Still, I graduated in April 1982, and the job at Ryerson didn't
begin until September meaning I had four months off with
nothing to do. I'd moved away from home after my second year at
Ryerson, and had bills to pay.
Enter John Rose, the elfin proprietor of
science-fiction specialty bookstore. I'd been a regular customer
of the store for eight years by this point, and John offered me a
summer job. The pay was just $4.25 an hour; I probably could
have found something somewhat more lucrative, but the chance to
work in a science-fiction store was too appealing to pass up.
I worked the cash desk, shelved books, and counted inventory
but there was one part of the job I managed to avoid.
Books go into bookstores on a returnable basis, meaning if they
don't sell, the retailer can return them to the publisher and owe
nothing. But for paperback books the format back then
that most science fiction was published in only the
covers of the books are returned. They're ripped from the
body of the book, and the store destroys what's left. The other
clerks, who were long-term employees, all had to do this, but I
managed not to have to do it; I said only half-kidding
that I thought it would scar me for life.
I really didn't end up making any money at Bakka. As an
employee, I was entitled to a 40% discount on everything in the
store, and I spent almost my entire earnings buying books.
Still, in June of that year, John Rose did something remarkable.
He took me to the annual convention of the Canadian Booksellers
Association. It was, in many ways, a crazy thing to do
John had to (a) pay me my wages for the day I attended, and (b)
pay a fee to get me in. But John knew I wanted to be a writer,
and he thought I should really see how the retailing industry
works. The CBA convention now called BookExpo Canada
is where publishers come to show retailers their upcoming
books, and where big-name authors sign copies of their new books
for retailers (the comparable American event is, not
surprisingly, called BookExpo America).
That summer was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me.
Many of my writing colleagues are astonished about how savvy I am
about the business of publishing; well, the seeds of that came
from that summer working in a bookstore, and that day at the CBA.
(Twenty years later, in the summer of 2002, I was back at
BookExpo Canada, this time as an author; it wasn't the first time
I'd been signing at BookExpo Canada since 1995 but
it was particularly memorable, as, to my astonishment, I had the
longest line-up of any author at the show. The reason was the
launch of Hominids,
my first novel in the two years since my book
Calculating God had become a
surprise top-ten national mainstream bestseller in Canada.)
I went on to a successful writing career after working at Bakka,
but I wasn't the only one. In the two decades that have
followed, several other Bakka employees all hired long
after I'd left went on to writing careers, including Tanya
Huff, Michelle West, Nalo Hopkinson, and Cory Doctorow. In honor
of the store's thirtieth anniversary in 2002, John Rose asked
each of us to write an original SF story to be published in a
limited-edition anthology. He couldn't afford to pay us for the
stories, but we all agreed we all owed John far too much
to worry about doing some work for free.
And, besides, I'd been doing free writing for Bakka for a long
time. I got my first computer in December 1983. The very first
thing I wrote on it was a piece for Bakka's occasional newsletter
summarizing the accomplishments by
Canadian science-fiction writers.
That was the first of many things I did to help other
writers, and Canadian science-fiction writers in particular.
Indeed, from 1984 to 1992, I coordinated a social group
of Toronto-area science-fiction writers founded by legendary SF
editor Judith Merril; I spearheaded the successful movement to
establish a Canadian region of the Science Fiction and Fantasy
Writers of America; and in 1998, I served as that organization's
My girlfriend Carolyn did graduate from Ryerson in 1983, but
Canada was still in the middle of a recession, and it was a full
year before she found a job. We were living together, and needed
money, so I went after as many freelance writing contracts as I
could. They were all nonfiction: articles for newspapers
and magazines, press releases and brochures for corporations,
newsletters for government departments. The work was actually
pretty lucrative, but I didn't find it at all creatively
satisfying. Still, I spent five years doing that sort of thing,
producing mountains of promotional materials and over 200
articles for computing and personal-finance magazines. All the
while, I was putting money in the bank.
I did learn a lot during this period, even though I wasn't
writing much fiction. Many of the articles I wrote required
interviews, which I had to transcribe. People talk in a very
disjointed manner, but I learned to fashion quotes that captured
what the person intended to convey without presenting their words
verbatim. Since the work I was doing was contracted for, I also
learned about making deadlines, and to write even when I didn't
feel like doing so.
I hadn't given up my dream of writing science fiction, but it had
very much been on the back burner. I'd sold a few short stories
after "Motive," had won a couple of minor writing contests, and
had outlined a novel in the summer of 1980 but by 1988,
when I was 28, that novel remained unwritten. My only really
significant publication to that date was the novelette "Golden
Fleece," which appeared as the cover story in the September 1988
edition of Amazing Stories, the world's oldest
Carolyn and I had gotten married four years earlier, in 1984. I
now told her I wanted to really try to concentrate on writing
science fiction. Although I was still doing a lot of corporate
and government work (my big project for that year was editing a
study about the future of the parks in and around Niagara Falls,
Ontario), I made a concerted effort to clear time in my schedule
to work on writing the novel I'd outlined eight years ago. The
result was that by December 1988, I had finally written that
novel, End of an Era.
I queried a literary agent named
Richard Curtis in New York, sending him a copy of the September
Amazing Stories with my cover story.
He asked to see my novel manuscript, and in January 1989 he agreed
to represent it.
It never even occurred to me to wait and see what would happen
with End of an Era. I continued turning down guaranteed
nonfiction work, and launched straight away into my second novel,
expanding the "Golden Fleece" novelette from its current 13,000
words to 60,000. (Back then, it was possible to sell 60,000-word
science-fiction novels; today, the lower limit seems to be
80,000, with 100,000 preferred. I found it very hard work the
first few times trying to get even 60,000-word books written, and
I wonder if the acceptable lower limit had been higher then
whether I would have ever managed to finish one.)
The first three publishers Richard Curtis submitted End of an
Era to all turned it down. By October 1989, I'd finished the
novel-length Golden Fleece, and sent it to Richard. He
sold that one to the first publisher he submitted it to, Warner
I've always been an early adopter of computer technologies. I've
had Internet access since 1984, and in 1987 I became active on
CompuServe, then the world's largest online service. There, I
made friends with John E. Stith, an established SF writer. John
gave me the best advice I'd ever gotten: he said that publishers
really don't do anything to push mass-market paperback original
novels. Lately, John had started making his own bound galleys
(advance copies of a book, usually given to booksellers or
reviewers). I took John's advice, producing 77 bound galleys at
my own expense, using a copy shop at the University of Toronto.
I sent the galleys to various reviewers, including Orson Scott
Card, who wrote the "Books to Look For" column in
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
It was a shot in the dark.
On July 24, 1990, one of the best moments of my life happened.
My phone rang, and a voice said, "This is Orson Card." Not only
had he read my book, he had loved it and he promised a
rave review was forthcoming. I was ecstatic.
Sadly, though, Golden Fleece tanked in the marketplace.
It had a horrendous cover, and Waldenbooks, one of the major US
chains, hadn't taken any copies. Richard Curtis had sent End
of an Era to the editor at Warner who had bought Golden
Fleece, presenting it as my second novel. My Christmas
stocking that year had a lump of coal in it: just before the
holiday, the editor passed on publishing another book by me.
I'd seen the highs and lows of publishing in that single month:
my first book had come out, and my publisher had dumped me.
Richard admitted it would be very hard to find me a new
publisher, because the first question one would ask is why I had
left Warner, and as soon as the answer was given that I'd
been dropped because my sales stunk I would be dead in the
But then, something wonderful occurred. Orson Scott Card came
out with his year-end summation in The Magazine of Fantasy and
Science Fiction, and he declared Golden Fleece
to be the best science-fiction novel of 1990. And, of course, I hadn't
been sitting on my behind; by this point, I had finished my third
about the intelligent-dinosaur aliens I
had introduced a decade earlier in my planetarium-starshow story,
Richard Curtis thought Far-Seer was "a masterpiece."
Armed with Card's original review, plus the other
that Golden Fleece had received, Richard organized
an auction for my next two books and Peter Heck, an editor
at Ace Science Fiction (now part of Penguin USA), made the
winning bid. Suddenly, I was back in the game. I decided to
give up all non-science-fiction writing. For my fourth book,
Richard suggested I do a sequel to Far-Seer. I had never
intended such a thing, but followed Richard's advice, producing
before Far-Seer was actually in stores.
Ace then asked for a third Quintaglio book. I agreed to do it,
but hated every minute of writing it. I've never liked
reading series; the last thing I wanted to do was spend my
career writing one. I made up my mind that
would be the final Quintaglio book.
Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner got
great reviews, but they didn't sell particularly well. I blame a
large part of that on the covers, which made the books look like
fantasy, not SF.
End of an Era,
which came out after
Foreigner, confused the marketplace, too. Although
completely unrelated to the Quintaglio books, it also involved
dinosaurs and the "End" in the title made people think it was the
concluding volume of that series.
Sales for End of an Era were poor, and I knew I was in
trouble again. See, it's easier to sell your first novel than it
is your sixth. With a first novel, the publisher doesn't know if
you're going to be the next Isaac Asimov, and so they're willing
to take a chance. By the time your fifth novel is out, they
do know and I wasn't. A publisher would be better
off buying a new novel, for less money, from a first-timer, than
another book from me. I decided it was time for drastic action.
I'd always felt I was writing about important issues. Golden
Fleece, for instance, was about the inherent bugginess of
computer systems, an issue that was very much of concern in 1989,
when U.S. president Ronald Reagan was proposing "Star Wars," a
computer-controlled missile-defense system that would have to
work flawlessly the first time it was used, something many
computer scientists felt was impossible. Golden Fleece,
with its buggy computer main character, very much was meant to
illuminate that. (Ironically, one of the very few requests my
editor at Warner made was for me to remove the specific reference
to Reagan's Star Wars this should have prepared me
for what was going to come, but it didn't ...)
Likewise, Far-Seer had been issue-based, looking at the
Catholic Church's stance on birth control. Of course, because
that novel was set on an alien world, no reference to the Roman
church was made in the text, but I felt sure most readers would
understand what I was really talking about.
So, I decided I'd write my next book without a contract, take as
long as necessary, and produce a blockbuster, doing the most
complex, sophisticated story I could manage, with the most subtle
and realistic human characters possible. More than that: I
wanted to tackle a controversial issue, and not disguise it, but
rather deal with it head on.
And so I wrote The Terminal Experiment.
The issue was abortion, which fundamentally centers around differing beliefs
about when life actually begins at conception, at birth,
or at some point in between. To put it in metaphysical terms,
the question is when does the soul enter the body?
Well, The Terminal Experiment deals with a biomedical
engineer who discovers when the soul leaves the body
tracking its movements on an enhanced
electroencephalograph as people die. He sets about to find out
when it enters the body, as well.
I wrote the book, pouring everything I had into it. I sent it to
my agent, who thought it was tremendous everything we'd
both hoped it would be. He sent it to my new editor, who had
replaced Peter Heck at Ace, when he left to write his own mystery
novels and she rejected it.
I was absolutely stunned. In her rejection letter, my editor
said she'd only consider buying the book if I dropped all
references to the soul and to the abortion issue.
I could not bring myself to do that, and I told Richard so. He
arranged another auction, sending the manuscript to five
publishers. HarperCollins USA was then in the midst of starting
a new paperback science-fiction line, to be called HarperPrism,
and they bought the book. Richard also sold serialization rights
to Analog, the number-one best-selling English-language SF
magazine; Analog would run the full text of the novel in
four massive chunks prior to its book publication.
The book, verbatim as I'd submitted it to my old editor, went on
to win the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's
Nebula Award for Best Novel of 1995. If I'd eviscerated the
book, as my old editor had wanted, it would be a forgotten work
today. (The year it came out was the first year Amazon.com was
in operation; The Terminal Experiment came in fifty-third
in total sales for all books in all categories available on
Amazon.com that year.)
I was definitely being pulled in two directions at this point.
On the one hand, I had grown up reading far-future off-Earth
spaceships-and-aliens SF. On the other hand, The Terminal
Experiment had succeeded precisely because it was none of
those things. I had two more novel ideas at that time, and they
were at the opposite ends of the SF continuum. One,
would be my attempt to deal with every
outstanding conundrum in modern astrophysics, in a plot that
covered billions of years of time and millions of light-years of
space. The other,
was a novel about the
impact genetic testing has on people's lives, and was very much
in the vein of The Terminal Experiment. In fact,
Frameshift would be set in the present day (not even
sixteen years in the future, as The Terminal Experiment
was). Starplex was very much event-driven;
Frameshift was very much character-driven.
I ended up writing both these books, for two different
publishers. Analog serialized Starplex,
just as it had The Terminal Experiment, and that book
went on to be a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.
Ace who had published the Quintaglio trilogy and
End of an Era, but had rejected
The Terminal Experiment bought
Starplex from the briefest outline
I'd ever written.
I also wrote Frameshift, but without a contract, since my
editor at HarperPrism had left the company for health reasons.
Unfortunately, my old agent was unable to sell the book, and I
acquired new representation, in the person of Ralph Vicinanza,
who is the top agent in science fiction, fantasy, and horror (his
other clients include Stephen King and the estate of Isaac
Asimov). Ralph found the perfect editor for the book, David G.
Hartwell, at Tor, the largest SF publisher in the world.
Frameshift was my first book published in hardcover, and
it sold well, was nominated for the Hugo Award, and won Japan's
Seiun Award (as had my earlier End of an Era) for best
foreign novel of the year.
From then on, it's been nothing but near-future or present-day SF
novels for me, and I suspect it will stay that way. That doesn't
mean I soft-pedal the science; not at all. I try to have
large-scale transcendent sense-of-wonder notions at the heart of
all my novels, in the best classic SF pulp-magazine tradition.
Indeed, after writing Frameshift, I formulated a mission
statement for my writing: "to combine the intimately human with
the grandly cosmic." Focusing on that led me to do my next novel
for Tor, Factoring Humanity,
which I think is the best thing I've written to date.
Factoring Humanity tells the story of the discovery of an
alien technology that allows people to surf the human collective
unconscious the way we currently surf cyberspace. The woman who
discovers this technology uses it to resolve the crisis that is
tearing her family apart: her daughter has accused her husband
of having abused her as a child, a charge the husband flatly
I often get asked why the people in my books have such unhappy
lives. Peter Hobson's wife is cheating on him in
The Terminal Experiment;
Pierre Tardivel has Huntington's Disease in
Michiko Komura's daughter is killed in the
opening of FlashForward;
and Tom Jericho has terminal lung
cancer in Calculating God.
It's not that I live an
unhappy life quite the contrary; I'm more happy and
content than most people. But I do like writing about raw
emotions, and of course these come out most in extreme
circumstances. Indeed, the appeal of mystery fiction for many
readers isn't the intellectual puzzle of figuring out whodunit.
Rather, it's the emotional lives of the characters, which are
brought to the surface by the extreme circumstance of having
someone close to them die. I'm looking for that same sort of
laying bare of inner feelings in my science-fiction writing.
Still, I have had my share of misfortune. In the summer of 1985,
I walked through what I thought was an open doorway at a shopping
mall but it wasn't; it was a plate-glass window. If the
window had been made of safety glass, nothing would have
happened. But, instead, the window broke into giant pieces. I
brought my right hand up to shield my face just as a large,
jagged portion fell down out of the top of the frame. It sliced
open the back of my hand, severing tendons.
My hand was bandaged for weeks, keeping me from doing any writing
(I'm right handed), and to this day it has a horrific scar
running diagonally across its back. My handwriting had always
been somewhat sloppy, but ever since the accident it's been all
but illegible. If I lived in a different era, that injury would
have put an end to my writing career, but it doesn't impede my
use of a computer. The irony isn't lost on me: I'm a
science-fiction writer who needs high-tech tools to do his job.
And that job has really become all-consuming, I must admit. I
don't have any children; neither my wife nor I ever felt the urge
to have any, and, indeed, when I turned 40, I had a vasectomy.
(Prior to that, we jokingly decided if we ever had a kid to name
him Peabo Clamhead Clink-Sawyer ... and the horrific prospect of
forcing someone to go through life with that name was enough to
keep us from becoming parents.)
My father was an only child, and neither of my brothers have any
kids, either so the Sawyer line will be extinct once we
die. I find myself wondering about this from time to time, since
I've had a life-long interest in evolution, and the definition of
success in evolution is the passing on of your genes to the next
generation, something I've totally failed to do. And yet I
do feel I have some small degree of immortality: the
words I've written will survive after I'm gone. I'm not fool
enough to think I'll be widely read in the future, but it does
please me to know that every once in a while, someone will pick
up or download a book by me in the centuries to
come. I guess that means I'm more interested in the survival of
my memes than my genes "meme" being evolutionist
term for a persistent idea.
Metaphysical thoughts? I suppose. Indeed, religion seems to
figure a lot in my novels and that causes people to ask
frequently about my own religious background. I can't really say
that I have one. My father was a lapsed Anglican (what Americans
call Episcopalian), and my mother was a Unitarian. I'd attended
a Unitarian Sunday School for a few years, but never really
understood whatever point they were trying to make. We seemed to
spend most of our time going for hikes along a river bank
I vividly remember a succession of soakers, and my little brother
falling in and almost floating away. But God was never
mentioned, and we never opened a bible or other holy book.
My best friend in public school was quite religious, and his
mother kept trying to convert me. As a kid, I couldn't see how
any intelligent person could believe in God. I vividly remember
my friend telling me one day when we were playing in my backyard
that God could count every blade of grass in the yard. Rather
than be impressed by this supposed feat of divine numeracy, I
thought my friend dim for believing such a silly story.
Indeed, it wasn't until after I finished university that my
perspective began to change a bit. My first major contract as a
freelance writer came in October 1983 with a little consulting
firm called The Rosewell Group, headed by the Honorable David
MacDonald, formerly Canada's Secretary of State.
Rosewell was trying to launch an interfaith television cable
channel, bringing various denominations of Christians, Jews,
Muslims, Hindus, and more together. They needed someone to
produce promotional materials and to edit their license
application to the Canadian federal broadcasting regulator, the
CRTC. One of my professors at Ryerson recommended me for the
job, and I took it, spending the next nine months working with
The Rosewell Group. This brought me into contact with high-level
people in Canada's various faith groups, and I was astonished to
find that most of them were intelligent, well-read, thoughtful,
and fun people.
They didn't make me believe in God but they did show me
that such belief wasn't necessarily a sign of intellectual
weakness or irrationality. I came to realize, indeed, that
atheism is an act of faith. Science, after all, doesn't deal in
negative results it doesn't disprove things; therefore, it
can't disprove the existence of God. And, of course, a wily
creator could choose to conceal from us the fact that we live in
a created universe. To say "I believe there is no God," I
realized, is philosophically exactly the same as saying "I
believe there is a God" both are statements based on
It seems to me that the only non-faith position is agnosticism,
either in the popular sense of the word ("I don't know if God
exists") or the technical sense ("The nature of God, if one
exists, is by definition unknowable by its creations"). These
days, my own belief tends toward the popular definition; I don't
think that if a god exists it is necessarily true that it will
always elude our comprehension.
Still, I strongly disagree with those who say that science is just
another religion. Belief in science doesn't require faith;
science can demonstrate its truth quite effectively. To use
Richard Dawkins's example, science makes airplanes that really
work. The wooden airplanes made by cargo cults and the wax wings
of Icarus didn't work, no matter how fervently their owners
believed that they should. Indeed, the beauty of science is that
it can even make an airplane that will carry someone aloft who
believes flight is impossible. Science invites skepticism,
welcomes verification, and is open to revision when evidence
warrants; faith has not one of those properties, and I consider
myself devoid of faith.
When people want to ask less personal questions than about my
religious beliefs, they usually inquire what my hobbies are. The
sad truth is that I don't have any. Oh, I like to read
but that's part of a writer's job. And I have a nice collection
of science-fiction toys, especially those based on TV shows from
the 1960s (in my office, there's a 34-inch wooden model of
Fireball XL5, four toy versions of the robot from
Lost in Space, a 12-inch Gorn and a 12-inch Andorian
from Star Trek, and models of various vehicles from
Thunderbirds). I also collect plastic dinosaurs my
only criterion is that they must have been scientifically
accurate depictions at the time they were made. But these
collections take up almost none of my time. Being a writer is,
as I said before, an all-consuming life for me, occupying, in one
way or another, most of my waking hours. I sometimes think I'd
like to do fossil hunting or get into building intricate
science-fiction model kits, and I do buy books about both these
topics, but I just don't have the time for either pursuit.
Even my vacations almost always have something to do with work.
Just about every year, my wife and I travel to wherever the World
Science Fiction Convention is being held. It was in Melbourne,
Australia, in 1999, and we took five weeks of extra time so we
could explore Australia and New Zealand, but those five weeks
were the last real vacation I've had. There is a treadmill
quality to being a writer: if you don't keep producing new books
at a good clip, your readers will go off and find someone else to
Maybe that sounds insecure but, despite winning over
two dozen awards and having a
substantial degree of financial success, I am insecure
about my writing. Most of the writers I know are. Indeed,
it's become almost a running gag with my friend
Edo van Belkom, a great horror writer, that
whenever he's about halfway through writing a book he'll phone me
up and tell me that his book stinks, that he's throwing in the
towel, that the manuscript should go in the garbage, that he
doesn't understand why he ever thought he could write books. Of
course, I talk Edo through this difficult time, and he continues
on. But then, a few weeks later, the roles are reversed, and I
phone Edo expressing all the same concerns about my latest
project. I think a certain degree of doubt is important: it
keeps me from getting complacent or lazy about my writing.
Still, I wouldn't change my current conditions for anything. I
love my work, I love my wife, I love my life, I love my home.
What more can anyone ask?
Photo by Stephen Uhraney
More Good Reading
About Rob's first sale
About Rob's first SF publication
Oodles more about Rob