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

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Robert J. Sawyer's First Sale

Copyright © 2010 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.


I'm writing this on January 18, 2010 — the 30th anniversary of me becoming a professional writer. It was on Friday, January 18, 1980, that I made my first professional sale, when the Strasenburgh Planetarium [pictured below in 2008], part of the Rochester Museum & Science Center in Rochester, New York, bought rights to adapt my unpublished science-fiction short story "Motive" as one third of a dramatic planetarium star show. I was nineteen years old. [Strasenburgh Planetarium

In 1974, my parents bought a vacation home at Bristol Harbour Village on Canandaigua Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. The nearest big city was Rochester, New York, and my mother promptly became a member of the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC). And in August 1979, they announced a contest to be judged by Isaac Asimov for an original short story to be turned into a dramatic planetarium starshow. I entered (as did my friend and fellow Torontonian Do-Ming Lum, who learned about the contest from me).

I did something I've never done since. I decided to hide the fact that I was Canadian. I had my father submit the story on one of his trips to Bristol Harbour Village, with the return address of the vacation home, and I left off my phone number, since the 416 area code would give away that I was from Toronto. I was afraid there might be prejudice against a Canadian entrant.

Late in December 1979, I was sent a letter saying that I was not one of the contest finalists, but that all entrants were being invited to a reception to be held at the planetarium on Friday, January 18, 1980. It was a miracle that I received the letter at all: normally, no one was down at our vacation home in the dead of winter, but my dad had gone down to check on it, and had brought the letter back to Toronto.

On a whim, I decided to go down to Rochester for the reception, and bring my then-girlfriend Carolyn Clink (who has been my wife for 25 years now). We had no car back then, but my mother kindly drove us the three and a half hours to the event, and — lo and behold — as soon as I checked in, the planetarium staff descended on me saying they'd been trying to reach me for weeks. The story Asimov had chosen as the winner, "Exodus" by Joanne Mitchell, Ph.D., would take only ten minutes to dramatize, and so they'd decided to do a trilogy starshow, adapting three stories — and the third-place finalist (by James A. Abbot) was not visually suited to a planetarium show, so they wanted to buy the rights to mine!

I was stunned, and thrilled, and kissed Carolyn, and said yes. They'd planned to pay $250 for the planetarium rights to the winning story, but since they were now doing three stories, they split it three ways, so my first-ever payment for writing was US$85 (worth almost exactly Cdn$100 at that time). They handed me a check on the spot.

[Strasenburgh Star Theatre Lesson learned that night: I never again tried to hide that I'm Canadian; indeed, being flagrantly Canadian has become one of the signatures of my work.

This sale was one of the three that got me my status as an Active Member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (as the organization was called in those days before "and Fantasy" was added to its name).

The contest, and the planetarium show that came from it, are lost to history. But, in a nostalgic mood, Carolyn scanned the relevant documents yesterday, and we OCR'd them, so that there would be a record of all this. The show, entitled FutureScapes, with a script by Bill Gutsch adapting stories by Robert J. Sawyer, Peter Wm. V. Fedorchuk, and Joanne Mitchell, and produced by Francis C. Biddy, (who sadly passed away in 2000) ran for 192 performances between Monday, June 30, and Sunday, October 19, 1980; at that time, Don Hall was the planetarium's director. (Bill Gutsch — Dr. William A. Gutsch, Jr. — went on to become Chairman of the Hayden Planetarium.)

I saw FutureScapes three or four times, including repeatedly with Carolyn and once with my friend Ted Bleaney, to whom my novel The Terminal Experiment is dedicated.

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 story was set aboard a spaceship called Starplex, which I later used as the setting of my Hugo and Nebula-Award nominated 1996 novel Starplex.

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).

"Motive" dealt with the mysterious death of Ambassador Alalalar of Bedrossian's Planet (named for my great friend Asbed Bedrossian, to whom my novel Factoring Humanity is dedicated) and the efforts to solve the mystery by a man named Simcoe (a last name I went on to use again in my novel FlashForward, basis for the ABC TV series).

On January 18, 1993 — by coincidence, the 13th anniversary of me selling him "Motive" — Fran Biddy sent me a letter that said in part, "I'd love to take credit for giving you your start, but the credit rightfully belongs to you — you wrote Motive, after all; we just liked it a lot."

In 2000, 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." And it did — thirty years ago today.

The history of that first sale is contained in the following documents (and PDF scans of the originals are here; the final page is pasted-up from various components of the HEXAGON newsletter, so it would all fit on one sheet).

Call for Submissions

From the August 1979 edition of RMSC NEWS published by the Rochester Museum & Science Center:

Write Your Ticket to Stardom

Author Isaac Asimov will judge the first science-fiction story contest sponsored by the Strasenburgh Planetarium. Plans are for the winning entry to be published by the Gannett Rochester Newspapers and, if suitable, to be made into a star show.

Deadline for all entries is October 12 [1979]. Stories should be science-fiction, not fantasy; in other words, the plot and characters should stem from a plausible, scientific base. A private party will be held in the Star Theatre early next year to honor all winners.

Following are submission guidelines:

1. Stories should be between 3,000 - 6,000 words.

2. Cash prizes of $100 - first place, $50 - second place and $25 - third place will be awarded. An additional $250 purchase prize will be awarded if a story is chosen to be developed into a star show; suitability will be determined by the Planetarium staff. If the purchase prize is awarded, the author must grant exclusive production rights to the RMSC. If the show is later sold to another planetarium, the author will receive a residual of $100 for each sale.

3. Entrants under age 18 must include the signature of a parent or legal guardian with their entry. All entrants should clearly print their name, mailing address and phone number on their entry. Send entries to: SCI-FI, Strasenburgh Planetarium, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Box 1480, Rochester, New York 14603.

4. Entries will not be returned, so submit a photocopy rather than the original of your story.

5. Each entrant will receive two free admission coupons to the Planetarium.

6. Stories should be written for production as a Planetarium show. A few pointers:

A. A variety of visual scenes, or settings will add interest. The more scenes, the better.

B. The Planetarium is a visual medium, so writers should "think visual." The script may almost be seen as a succession of captions for the visuals.

C. Full-dome environmental scenes are better than small scenes set in a localized area of the dome. A useful technique is to imagine the Planetarium audience in the midst of the action, as participants in the show.

D. Planetariums specialize in producing visuals of astronomical objects and space hardware. Examples are stars, galaxies, planets and rockets.

E. Planetariums do not usually show the characters in a story. If characters are used, they may be heard but almost never seen. An example is within the visual environment of a spaceship's bridge, we may hear the ship's officers reacting to a dramatic occurrence, but we will not see them.

Asimov scripted the popular star show The Last Question in 1972. His own definition of science-fiction is "that branch of literature which deals with the response of human beings to advances in science and technology.... it constantly considers the future .... it dosen't [sic] escape into the 'never was' as fantasy does, but into the 'just possibly might be.'"

For further information on the science-fiction story contest, contact Planetarium Producer Fran Biddy.

Rob's Cover Letter

31 Cliffside Drive
Route #5
Canandaigua NY 14424

24 September 1979

Dear Planetarium Staff:

Enclosed is a photocopy of "Motive", my entry for the science fiction story contest announced in the August 1979 issue of RMSC News.

Whether I win or not, knowing that Isaac Asimov will read my words is certainly reward for the effort in writing this story.


Robert J. Sawyer

The Finalists are Announced

December 28, 1979

Mr. Robert J. Sawyer
31 Cliffside Drive, Rte #5
Canandaigua, New York 14424

Dear Robert:

The response to our first-ever Science Fiction Story Contest has been gratifying and exciting. We received almost three dozen entries, and we'd like to thank you for your time, interest and story. The quality of the work of Rochester's writers, as reflected by the entries we received, is very high. As a gesture of our appreciation of your support for the contest, we have enclosed two guest coupons for your use.

After lengthy and difficult judging, we are pleased to announce the first, second, and third place winners, as selected by Dr. Isaac Asimov:

1) Exodus, by Joanne Mitchell, Ph.D.
2) Palisades, by Peter Wm. V. Fedorchuck [sic; it's acutally "Fedorchuk"]
3) The Expatriates, by James A. Abbot, M.D.

The purchase prize is still under consideration, and will be announced in January.

We would like to invite you to a reception for all entrants at the Strasenburgh Planetarium, 663 East Avenue, at 8 pm on January 18, 1980. At this reception, the awards will be presented, refreshments will be served, the first-place story will be read, and everyone will have a chance to see our current show, Illusions. You are also invited to bring one or two guests with you. Please let us know whether or not you will be able to join us, by calling 244-6060, '(Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm) and asking for Josie Estill.


[signature: "Fran Biddy"]

Francis C. Biddy
Associate Producer

An Update on the Show

June 16, 1980

Mr. Robert J. Sawyer
31 Cliffside Drive
Route # 5
Canandaigua, New York 14424

Dear Rob :

I'm very pleased with the progress we're making on Futurescapes, the show based on the three purchase-award stories. The process of adapting the three stories to a very exacting visual medium has been long and difficult, but the planetarium staff is now eagerly anticipating opening night. The show will open at 8 pm on Monday, June 30.

Please accept our invitation to join us for the opening night performance. After the show, we'll all (staff, writers and actors) get together for pizza and beer/wine/soda. Feel free to bring a guest. Please let me know whether or not you'll be able to join us (244-6060 - if I'm not available, leave a message with Josie Estill).

I've enclosed a copy of the show script for your interest. Visual cues are noted in the margin.


Fran Biddy,

Announcing the Premiere

From the June 1980 edition of the newsletter HEXAGON: Your Connection with the Rochester Museum & Science Center:


Adaptations of award-winning short stories from the Strasenburgh Planetarium's recent science fiction writing contest constitute its newest feature presentation Futurescapes, opening Monday, June 30. Each of the show's three segments proposes a different tale of what the future may hold for us.

The first segment, "Motive," is from a story by Robert J. Sawyer of Toronto and Canandaigua. This is a murder-mystery set far in the future when the earth has joined other civilizations in the exploration of our galaxy. Diplomatic relations are about to be opened with yet another civilization when a charismatic ambassador dies under mysterious circumstances. This is a classic whodunnit with a surprise ending.

"Palisades" is adapted from a story by Peter Wm. V. Fedorchuk of Wayland. As the story opens, three astronauts are engaged in a routine mission to service a giant, earth-orbiting satellite. When their mission is suddenly interrupted by the abrupt arrival of an alien presence, this futurescape becomes a bizarre struggle to communicate.

The last story in the trilogy is "Exodus," by Joanne Mitchell of Rochester. This is the story that Dr. Isaac Asimov selected as the first prize winner in the Planetarium's contest. The first space colony is under construction in earth's orbit. It is soon to be populated by a carefully screened crew. The well-orchestrated plan goes awry when a group of unwelcome guests arrives in their home-built rocket. They are refugees from earth, eager to work, and dedicated to a future in space. Will they be sent back to earth, or allowed to remain as the first colonists? "Exodus" is a warm and moving story, with an unexpected double twist at the end.

Futurescapes premieres at 8 pm Monday, June 30 and continues through Sunday, October 19, with performances daily. For showtimes and admissions, consult the HEXAGON calendar.

More Good Reading

PDF scans of the original documents referenced above

Rob's first SF publication

Rob's 10,000-word autobiography
Rob's short fiction
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