Friday, August 22, 2008

In a feisty mood ...

I'm speaking and reading at a Canadian literary festival next month, and I confess to have been in a rather feisty mood when it came time for me to answer a by-email interview sent to me by the publicity manager for the festival. Here's what I had to say:

1. How is the role and importance of science fiction writing shifting in the world as we wake up to environmental and technological issues?

The role isn't shifting -- but the general public is waking up to the role the genre has always historically filled: a place for wondering what will happen "if this goes on." Science fiction has long dealt with environmental disasters, and has illuminated not just the promise but the peril of new technologies -- and the real world is taking note.

The recent TV special How William Shatner Changed the World was a wonderful tongue-in-cheek look at how science fiction had set much of the modern agenda, from computers to cell phones, from telecommuting to genetic engineering. Science fiction beta-tests the future; it's our distant-early-warning system for whatever threats are just over the horizon.

2. What are your own hopes and visions for the genre and its relationship to the literary world? What are the main issues in that sphere?

Despite what I just said, in some circles, science fiction still fails to get enough respect. As it happens, today's mail brought the new issue of Quill & Quire, with an ad for the University of Guelph's new Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing -- and there's not one single genre-fiction writer on the faculty, let alone a science-fiction writer.

The assumption that SF can't be high art, that it doesn't take skill and subtlety to write, is a pernicious canard perpetuated by those who have never read the stuff.

As far as literary merit is concerned, I'll pit my books, or the ambitious books by my colleagues, along with our awards (41 national and international ones to date for my own work) and reviews (including starred reviews, denoting work of exceptional merit, for my latest, Rollback, in both Library Journal and Publishers Weekly) against anything that's out there in other fields.

Science fiction writers do everything that other writers do, plus more -- they add a layer of social consciousness and forward thinking onto all the other literary virtues that any fiction must contain.

3. In your success and popularity you seem to have taken on a seriously custodian/cultural kind of role that has real pragmatic use. What does that tell us -- what cultural need is being met? What kind/level of responsibility do you feel in that?

The Ottawa Citizen and the CBC have both dubbed me "the dean of Canadian science fiction," and, earlier this year, when naming me one of the 30 most influential people in Canadian literature, Quill & Quire said I'm "the public face of Canadian sci-fi."

I take those roles seriously; I'm an evangelist for the genre I've devoted my life to: I want it to be well and widely read. Science fiction is important: it talks in meaningful ways about the future, it proffers solutions, and it engenders hope.

As the pace of change accelerates, more than ever we need literary advance scouts, helping us steer the way toward a better tomorrow, either by portraying desirable futures -- which tends to be my own style -- or by shining a spotlight on dystopias, in hopes that we can avoid them.

4. Feel free too, to comment on your thoughts around appearing at the Festival itself and the importance of a representative from the science-fiction quarter.

Well, if you'll forgive me, it's about bloody time! :)

Among the literary festivals I've done previously are: Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, 2008 and 2000; Harbourfront International Festival of Authors, 2007 and 1996; Banff-Calgary WordFest, 2007; Stratford Book Festival, 2005; Singapore Writers Festival, 2005; Shuswap Lake International Writers' Festival, 2004; Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, 2004 and 2002; Moose Jaw Festival of Words, 2003; Winnipeg Writers Festival, 2002 and 1997; and the Ottawa International Writers Festival, 2000; plus events at the National Library of Canada, 1999 and 1996, and the Library of Congress in Washington in 2007 and 1999.

So, it's impossible to say that your festival is being cutting-edge here in letting one token SF writer in. That said, I'm thrilled at the opportunity to reach a new audience. What I've found every single time -- every single time -- I've done a mainstream literary festival is that the audience responds enormously positively; it's the self-appointed gate-keepers, whether on the festival circuit, at the Canada Council, or in academia, who are holding on to old prejudices, not -- thank God! -- the reading public.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At August 22, 2008 7:25 AM , Blogger Mark Leslie said...

I know you can't hear my applause, but I am applauding quite voraciously right now. Very well said, Rob.

At August 22, 2008 8:36 AM , Blogger H Don said...

And they're still letting you come? :)


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