[Robert J. Sawyer]  Science Fiction Writer
 ROBERT J. SAWYER
 Hugo and Nebula Award Winner

SFWRITER.COM > About Rob > Autobiography

[Science Fiction Writer Robert J. Sawyer]

  Robert J. Sawyer  
  Autobiography  

  From Contemporary Authors  

Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
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 childhood.

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 satisfied.) 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 in Canada.

[Search logo] 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 turning away.

(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 "Bobby Bug." 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 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.

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 the submission.

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 it.

(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 vessel.

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 and mystery.

"Motive" also featured dinosaur-like aliens called Quintaglios, and I went on to write three novels about them (Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner).

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 out front.

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 Bakka, Toronto's 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.

[Hominids] (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 president.

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.

[Amazing Cover Art] 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 science-fiction magazine.

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 1988 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 Books.

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 water.

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 novel, Far-Seer, about the intelligent-dinosaur aliens I had introduced a decade earlier in my planetarium-starshow story, "Motive."

Richard Curtis thought Far-Seer was "a masterpiece." Armed with Card's original review, plus the other excellent reviews 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 Fossil Hunter 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 Foreigner 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.

[Rob wins Nebula] 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, Starplex, 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, Frameshift, 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 denies.

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 Frameshift; 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.

[Science Fiction Writer Robert J. Sawyer]

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 Richard Dawkins's 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 faith.

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 read.

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?

  [Robert J. Sawyer]

Photo by Stephen Uhraney


  More Good Reading  

About Rob's first sale
About Rob's first SF publication
Oodles more about Rob


  Twitter Feed  


Home
Novels
About Rob
For Book Clubs
Blog
Search
Short Stories
Press Kit
How to Write
Facebook
Buy Books
Nonfiction
E-mail Rob
Canadian SF
Twitter
[SFWRITER license plate]