Monday, March 31, 2008

The Aurora Short-Form Finalists up against the wall

On Saturday night at Ad Astra, Toronto's annual SF convention, I happened to notice that all five of the nominees for this year's Aurora Award for Best Short-Form Work in English were standing or sitting within two metres of each other at the hotel bar. Photo-op! Here they are:

Left to right: Stephen Kotowych, Tony Pi, Hayden Trenholm, David Livingstone Clink, Douglas Smith. As I mentioned before, I'm very, very proud of this group: four of them have been my writing students, and the fifth -- Dave -- is my brother-in-law!

One of the highlights of the con was the launch for Hayden's novel Defining Diana. Hayden and his wife Liz were among the six (!) houseguests Carolyn and I had for the Ad Astra weekend.

For my own part, I gave the first public reading of Wake, volume one of my WWW trilogy. Who knew the book was about apes? I did! :) I read several scenes comprising a subplot of the book about ape-language communication. It was the first time I'd read the material out loud, and I was very gratified by how well it was received.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Brian Hades, my good buddy and publisher of EDGE Science Fiction, points out that this headline, over at SFScope, is quite amusing:

Robert J. Sawyer's Wake to be Serialized in Analog

Hopefully, there'll be a brief obit in Locus, too ... ;)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Friday, March 28, 2008

CBC Radio to serialize Rollback

CBC Radio One's Between the Covers will do a serialized reading of Robert J. Sawyer's Hugo Award-nominated Rollback later this year. Between the Covers airs across Canada, and presents novels in 15-minute chunks each weekday over several weeks. Billed as "Story Time for Adults," it has a huge positive impact on physical book sales in Canada.

Americans tend not to understand just how big a deal CBC Radio is for Canadians, but it is a huge part of our national identity. As my friend Terence M. Green, whose Shadow of Ashland was featured on Between the Covers several years ago (read by Michael Hogan, who went on to play Col. Tigh in the new Battlestar Galactica), said, "Only a Canadian understands how nice this is."

(But for authors in other countries, consider it this way: think of having a 30-second national radio commercial for your book. Now think of having thirty of those in a row. Now think of having that happen on fifteen or twenty consecutive weekdays. And now think of the broadcaster paying you, instead of the other way around, for the privilege of doing this.)

But for a Canadian, this is more about the ... recognition, the imprimatur. It's like ... like you're trying to play hockey, and Wayne Gretzky comes along and says, "Nice shot, kid ..." :)

Currently on Between the Covers, you can hear my buddy Paul Quarrington's comic King Leary, which just won the "Canada Reads" competition. Give a listen here.

So -- yay!

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

My Ad Astra schedule

Toronto's annual SF con, Ad Astra, begins today. I'll be there tonight and tomorrow (Saturday) and maybe on Sunday. As it happens, all my programming is tomorrow (Saturday):

10:00 a.m. Panel: Near Future vs. Far Future (Gallery Centre)

12:00 p.m. Reading: First ever public reading from Wake (Ballroom West)

1:00 p.m. Panel: Authors who Edit (Ballroom Cente)

3:00 p.m. Panel: Fleshing Out Your Characters (Ballroom Centre)

5:00 p.m. Panel: Time Travel in SF/F (Salon 343)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Aurora voting ballot for printing (PDF) now available

You can download it here.

Ballots should be mailed to:

Prix Aurora Awards 2008
1432 Velvet Road
Gibsons BC V0N 1V5

Online voting should be available soon.

Postmark deadline is 7 May 2008. It costs $5 to vote.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Thought experiments in ethics

In the last week, I received two seemingly unrelated emails. One was from a person whose book club is doing my Rollback, and wanted to locate the reference in the novel to the "Trolley Problem," a standard poser in philosophy and ethics classes that Sarah Halifax mentions in the book.

The other, from an academic, wanted to know my opinion of Tom Godwin's classic SF short story "The Cold Equations," which I, in fact, introduced for CBC Radio's Sunday Showcase when it was adapted for radio, with a script by Joe Mahoney (who, in turn, has a cameo in Rollback), back in 2002.

But, actually, the questions are related, because both Rollback and "The Cold Equations" deal with thought experiments about morality. Godwin's title suggests that we don't actually have any volition in these matters (it's out of our hands; the cold equations of physics or celestial mechanics dictate what we must do); I think there's a lot more latitude (but am standing on his shoulders, and have the benefit of an awful lot of research/noodling about morality that emerged in the Post-World-War-II period (such as, to give just one example, the famous Milgram experiment, not to mention the Trolley Problem itself).

Anyway, the Trolley Problem is discussed in Chapter 19 of Rollback, and you can read more about it in Wikipedia.

And here's what I had to say in response to the academic:

I have a sympathetic weariness for "The Cold Equations."

Why? Because the damn thing is being analyzed with a 21st century microscope, even though it's now 54 years old. Yes, people were sexist, then; yes, we all know now that there'd be so much security no one could sneak aboard a spaceship; yes, it's contrived; yes, there were dozens of other ways to solve the problem besides ejecting the girl. The story is of its time and should be left there, or should be forgiven its trespasses of modern sensibility because of its vintage (just as we forgive H.G. Wells his racism today).

But if you strip the story to its bare essentials, and cast it as a philosophy-class thought experiment, it has some merit:

A child, not knowing that by stowing away aboard a spaceship, he/she will doom a rescue mission to save three stranded astronauts because of his or her extra weight. Because of the way the spaceship works, and the laws of physics, you have only two possible solutions: abort the mission (meaning those who are to be rescued will die), or jettison the child (killing him/her) and continue with the mission. What do you do? And, even if you decide on the latter, could you actually, personally, go from being what you set out to do (a rescuer) to something you never intended to be (a murderer)?

Is it any less murder if you talk the child, below the age of majority, and incapable of sophisticated reasoning, into jettisoning himself/herself, rather than you shoving him/her out the airlock?

Now, consider these variations on the scenario:

1) There's only one stranded astronaut, instead of three. Do you actively kill one person to save another?

2) Same as #1, but the child has no criminal record, and the person you have been sent to rescue is, in fact, a known criminal. Who do you choose to save?

3) Same as #1, but the child is your own child.

4) The child is the child of the person you are to save, and the person you have been ordered to save has told you explicitly he/she would rather die than have his/her child sacrificed in an attempt at rescue.

5) Same as #4, but the person you are to save is your own space colony's sole doctor -- who in turn will be able to save others, whereas the uneducated child is actually of no asset to your colony.

6) Same as #5, but you yourself require treatment by the doctor or you will die

7) Same as #6, but the reason you require treatment is your own damn fault, because you've brought on lung cancer, or some futuristic equivalent, through smoking, or some futuristic equivalent, which you knew from the outset was a likely outcome of your own fully volitional behavior.

8) The person you are to rescue in fact became stranded because of his/her own stupidity/recklessness.

Etc. Etc.

So, yeah, I'm weary because this one story has been so talked about, but I'm mostly weary because the analysis in SF circles tends to the picayune (quibbling over the details of the scenario, rather than grappling with the underlying ethics), and most often amounts to the sort of trickery James T. Kirk evinced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when he explained how he beat the Kobayashi Maru "no-win" scenario as a cadet:
McCOY: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.


KIRK: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship.


DAVID MARCUS: He cheated!

KIRK: I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking. (pause) I don't like to lose.

When the analysis amounts to that -- avoiding the tough moral issue by tweaking the scenario so that it doesn't have to be faced -- I get tired of the discourse around "The Cold Equations." But I've often said that SF is a laboratory for thought experiments about the human condition, and as such, Godwin's half-century-old story still bears consideration.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Humor in the SF of Robert J. Sawyer

Fiona Kelleghan

On Thursday, March 20, 2008, Fiona Kelleghan of the University of Miami presented a paper entitled "The Intimately Human and the Grandly Cosmic: Humor and the Sublime in the Works of Robert J. Sawyer" at the 29th annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, Florida.

I was in the audience, and recorded the talk on my trusty iRiver digital recorder, and, with Prof. Kelleghan's kind permission, I've uploaded it to my website. You can hear the whole thing (22 minutes, 20 megabytes) as an MP3 right here. (The talk is introduced by Loren Means, an independent scholar.)

I must say, Fiona's comic delivery is excellent ...

UPDATE: And you can hear her 2009 paper, "Time and Fiction of Robert J. Sawyer: Flash Forward to the End of an Era," here.

(Pictured: Fiona Kelleghan)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Analog to serialize Wake

[Update: Robert J. Sawyer's novel Wake is now out in book form -- read all about it here.]
Pssst! Wanna be among the very first to read Wake, the first volume of the WWW trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer? Subscribe to Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the world's top-selling English-language SF magazine.

I'm thrilled to announce that Stanley Schmidt, the Hugo-Award-nominated editor of Analog, has just bought serialization rights to Wake. Stan will be running the full text of the novel in four parts, in the November 2008, December 2008, combined January-February 2009, and March 2009 issues (the hardcover will follow later in the spring of 2009 from Ace Science Fiction in the US and Penguin in Canada).

Since the "November" issue actually comes out early in September, and since it takes a while to start receiving subscription copies, now would be a good time to subscribe to Analog. You can subscribe to the print edition here or the electronic edition here (one year) or here (two years).

This is my fifth (!) serialization sale to Analog, and I hold, by far, the record now for sales during Stan's 30-year tenure as editor of the magazine (no other author has more than three). My Analog serials:You just can't beat this kind of exposure. Every single one of my previous serials went on to be a Hugo finalist (and Hominids won the Hugo); in addition, The Terminal Experiment (which Analog ran under my original title for the book, Hobson's Choice) won the Nebula Award, and Starplex was also nominated for it (and was the only 1996 book to be nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula).

(Yes, serialization is great for book sales -- you just can't beat having tens of thousands of people doing word of mouth about the novel on the day it first arrives on bookstore shelves.)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Aurora short-form ballot

Quandaries, quandaries! Who to vote for? Here are the nominees for the Aurora Award for Best Short-Form Work in English this year:

"Falling" by David Clink (On Spec)

"Saturn in G Minor" by Stephen Kotowych (Writers of the Future XXIII)

"Metamorphoses in Amber" by Tony Pi (Abyss & Apex)

"The Dancer at the Red Door" by Douglas Smith (Under Cover of Darkness)

"Like Water in the Desert" by Hayden Trenholm (Challenging Destiny)

Steve, Tony, Doug, and Hayden are all former writing students of mine -- and Dave is my brother-in-law!

Congratulations to them all!

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Rollback nominated for Aurora Award

Hot on the heels of its nomination for the Hugo Award, my novel Rollback has just been nominated for the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards ("the Auroras"). Ian Randal Strock over at SFScope has the full list of nominees.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Losing my virginity

... my PowerPoint virginity, that is! ;)

I give lots of keynote addresses about science and futurism topics, but I've never used PowerPoint before (nor have I ever had any complaints about its absence ... oh, organizers sometimes stammer before my talks, "You ... you don't have PowerPoint?," but after my talks they never mention its absence, and instead praise the speech).

But today's topic -- a primer on ecommerce for the cottage-country area of Muskoka, 200 km north of Toronto -- was one that lent itself to this approach, and so I put together my first PowerPoint presentation. The response to the talk was overwhelmingly positive.

Muskoka got buried in snow last night (Carolyn and I drove up yesterday afternoon), and it sure looked pretty, but I'm glad to be safe and sound at home now ...

Playing with PowerPoint was actually kinda fun, and I received a nifty remote control / laser pointer as a gift a while ago, which I used for the first time today, so I might do more PowerPoint in the future.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Monday, March 24, 2008

Is it racist to mention skin color?

A letter I received today from a reader:
I just finished reading Rollback, Mindscan, and Humans, and while I enjoyed the stories, one thing seriously annoyed me. WHY do you insist upon identifying every character who comes upon the scene by their race and/or skin color? "A black man entered the room." "A white woman sat down." Why do we need to know this? To me, it smacks of racism on your part. What do you have to say about it?
My response:
I think it's exactly the opposite. To pretend that people don't have skin colors is to ignore the obvious, and suggests, to me, a suspect delicacy. It's silly to describe eye color and hair color but be so sensitive about skin color as to be embarrassed/scared to mention it.

If the police asked you to describe a person, you'd mention (or be prodded to mention) their race, hair color, eye color, height, and build. Why on Earth should we be afraid to mention any one of those when describing people in fiction? The police would not believe you if you said you noticed eye color but not skin color, but suddenly if you mention it in providing a description you're racist?

Now, what is racist is to assume that all characters are, by default, blue-eyed white males, and only mention how they deviate from that -- you will never, ever find an example of that in my fiction, although it's common enough in other people's writings.

Indeed, by portraying an ethnically diverse society in which people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character I am doing my part to fight racism; to allow you (or anyone) to complacently populate the future with people solely of your own race in your imagination would be a failure of social responsibility on my part. You can't help but see a multicultural future when you read my books, and I'm proud of that.

Also, you're unfair in your examples. These are samples of what I actually said, in Rollback, for instance:
  • Lenore looked to be twenty-five -- a real twenty-five, no doubt. Her orange hair cascaded down to her shoulders, and she had freckled white skin and bright green eyes.

  • A server about Lenore's age ... tall and broad-shouldered, with chocolate brown skin and waist-length blue-black hair.

  • Bonhoff was a broad-shouldered white woman of about forty, with close-cropped blond hair.

  • Coming toward them was a young couple: an Asian woman and a white man, the man pushing a stroller. Don was wearing sunglasses -- as was Lenore -- so he felt no compunction about looking at the beautiful young woman, with long black hair, wearing pink shorts and a red tank top.

  • The minister -- a short black man of about forty-five, with hair starting to both gray and recede -- entered, and soon enough the service was under way.

  • Dr. Petra Jones was a tall, impeccably dressed black woman who looked to be about thirty -- although, with employees of Rejuvenex, one could never be sure, Don supposed. She was strikingly beautiful, with high cheekbones and animated eyes, and hair that she wore in dreadlocks, a style he'd seen come in and out of fashion several times now.
So, I've got a black clergyman for a white family, a mixed-race couple, people of all races and both genders holding positions of authority and power, and none of them behaving stereotypically ... and you see racism? Puh-leeze. You might as reasonably accuse me of ageism for so often mentioning how old people are.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Truly blatant award campaigning!

But not by me! (Although I do appear in this YouTube video.) See why Robert J. Sawyer endorses Todd McGuinness for a Spacey Award.

(The Spaceys are SF media awards given annually by Space: The Imagination Station, the Canadian counterpart of the SciFi Channel.)

(Filmed in my office Wednesday, June 6, 2007; note the Master Replicas tricorder on the bookshelf behind me.)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

You'll have to speak up, sonny ...

I'm getting old! I remember when I used to be the youngest guy on the Hugo ballot -- now I'm the oldest (or possibly the second oldest). Wikipedia doesn't have a day and month for Ian McDonald's birthday, but he was born in 1960, like me.

This year's best-novel Hugo finalists, in descending order of age:

Robert J. Sawyer: April 29, 1960 (47)
Ian McDonald: 1960 (47?)
Michael Chabon: May 24, 1963 (44)
Charles Stross: October 18, 1964 (43)
John Scalzi: May 10, 1969 (38)

Interesting that we're all children of the 1960s, though ...

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Friday, March 21, 2008

Larry Hodges: Top 10 Reasons why Rollback will win the Hugo

These are terrific, courtesy of my Odyssey writing student Larry Hodges: Top 10 Reasons Why Rollback Will Win the Hugo.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Rollback nominated for the Hugo Award

I am thrilled, honoured, and delighted that my novel Rollback is one of five finalists for this year's HUGO AWARD, the world's top international honour for science fiction.

The winner will be announced Saturday, August 9, 2008, in Denver at a gala awards ceremony concluding the 66th Annual World Science Fiction Convention. The 6,000 members worldwide of that convention will cast ballots to determine the winner.

The full list of best-novel nominees:

  • The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, Fourth Estate)
  • Brasyl by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, Pyr)
  • Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer (Tor, Analog Oct 2006-Jan/Feb 2007)
  • The Last Colony by John Scalzi (Tor)
  • Halting State by Charles Stross (Ace)
My press release aimed at the Canadian media is here, and the official World Science Fiction Convention press release, with a all nominees in all categories, is mirrored here in Microsoft Word format.

Anyone may become a member of the World Science Fiction Convention and vote; it's $50 for a supporting membership (which gets you all the publications and the right to vote for the Hugos this year and nominate next year), and $200 for an attending membership, which lets you attend the convention, as well. More on the convention is here, and to become a member, see here. Carolyn and I will be attending, of course!

This is my eleventh Hugo Award nomination. I previously won the best-novel Hugo in 2003 for Hominids.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke passes

... and I'm in mourning. I've done three radio interviews so far, one for the CBC, and two for the BBC, but it's hard to do justice to such a great man in sound bites. R.I.P., Sir Arthur. You were, and always will be, my favourite science-fiction writer.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Everyday Fantastic

Back in 2005, there was a wonderful academic conference at Brock University entitled "The Uses of the Science Fiction Genre." I gave the keynote address.

Michael Berman, a philosophy professor at Brock, has now collected papers inspired by that conference into a terrific new book: The Everyday Fantastic: Essays on Science Fiction and Human Being. The book is out now from Cambridge Scholars Publishing. You can find out more about it here, and if you download this sample PDF, you can read the table of contents, Michael's introduction, and my essay.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Stocking up on ebooks

I'm on the road for nine days, starting tomorrow, and so swung by and grabbed some ebooks for the trip:

The novel (marketed as "mainstream," but clearly SF from the description) The Philosopher's Apprentice by James Morrow (whose birthday it is today -- happy birthday, Jim!)

And these nonfiction books:

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess

Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel by Michio Kaku

The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World by Tim Harford

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

(How can you not love a book about books by someone whose name is "Prose"?)

All but the last of the above are new releases this week or last week at

Also grabbed this week's free Nebula nominees: stories by Matthew Hughes and Ted Chiang.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Sunday, March 16, 2008

I came, I saw, Ikea

I am probably way happier than I should be to have installed two new bookcases in my office. Carolyn and I built two 80 cm wide Ikea Billy bookcases, and put risers (height extensions on them), and added an extra shelf to each one. Total new bookshelf space in our home: 8*76 cm, or 600 cm -- over six meters, or just about 20 feet of space for more books. Yay!

And I've been actually organizing books: getting all the titles about game theory together on one shelf, all the books about future space-travel ideas together on another. I'm finding books in my collection I'd totally forgotten I owned.

Yes, I love books. :)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Carolyn and I had a good time Friday and Saturday at SciBarCamp at the University of Toronto, but we blew off going today.

Yesterday, I attended a nice session on John Searle's classic "Chinese room paradox."

I also led a session on the World Wide Web gaining consciousness. One fellow, thinking he was above the rest of us, demanded of the fifteen or so people at my session, "How many of you have ever considered that consciousness might not really exist?" He expected us all to look blankly at him, and wait for him to enlighten us -- but, of course, every hand in the room went up. As I pointedly said to him, at a gathering like this it's not safe to assume that you are the smartest person in the room. :)

Later, the same guy tried to lecture my SF-writing colleague Dr. Peter Watts, saying "Let me explain evolution to you." Peter, of course, is a marine biologist, and knows the topic cold -- as he made quite clear to this fellow. :)

After that, science journalist Dan Falk moderated a panel on "What is time?" Panelists were fellow SF writer Karl Schroeder (one of the organizers of SciBarCamp), physicist Lee Smolin, and myself.

That's Lee and me pictured above. We were supposed to write our names and our interests on our name badges. Lee's says, "Lee" and the greek letter pi -- 'cause he works at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which is known as PI. I decided the simplest way to express what I was interested in was just to write "42" -- Douglas Adams's shorthand for life, the universe, and everything. :)

Carolyn gave a very good session (in the most beautiful room in the building) on science poetry (her session title: "What rhymes with neutrino?").

I have to say I preferred the way the original SciFooCamp organized its events (that blue T-shirt I'm wearing is my SciFooCamp shirt, by the way). There, they simply put a big timetable up on the wall, with room names and their capacities listed across the top and timeslots down the side. If you wanted to present, you picked a time and a room size, and wrote down what you wanted to do. It was fast -- every slot filled quickly. It was efficient -- you didn't end up getting counterprogrammed against something you wanted to see.

SciBarCamp adopted a much more elaborate system, in which people proposed topics in writing, others voted on them, and then the organizers after everyone had gone home for the day decided what would go when and where for the next day, and emailed out schedules. So, of course, silliness like having me scheduled (for the panel on time) opposite a discussion about the relationship between science and science fiction happened. And we ended up with huge blocks of time in which there was only one event; the other three programming rooms just sat vacant. I hope if there's a second SciBarCamp they'll use the SciFooCamp model for how to set up programming.

Not to grouse too much, but when the organizers take it upon themselves to schedule they become de facto responsible for maintaining that schedule, monitoring sessions and making sure they don't go overtime ... except they did this only sporadically. And so because of a combination of starting late (for no good reason that I could see) after lunch on Saturday, and then not keeping the events in synch, we ended up with a confusing mess of a schedule by Saturday afternoon. Again, a SciFooCamp-style self-organizing schedule makes all participants responsible for the timetable, and works better, especially when you're dealing with 10-minute and 20-minute programming blocks. Still, everyone had fun, and that's what counts. :)

Also, we'd been told that there were reservations at the Duke of York pub for after SciBarCamp wrapped for the day on Saturday ... and there were. But the programming ended at 5:00 p.m., and the reservation was at 8:00 p.m. People were suddenly told to go to dinner on their own and then return three hours later to the pub. That struck me and Carolyn as ... less that optimal ... since the Duke of York, of course, has full food service (incidentally, it's the pub that the character Lenore works at in my latest novel, Rollback). Rather than kill three hours, we headed back to Mississauga.

Still, the organizers deserve great credit for their initiative, and for getting a lot of really interesting people together on short notice. I had a good time, and would go to another such event.

(Photo: Physicist Lee Smolin, science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Friday, March 14, 2008

The Elegant Universe DVD

To get Carolyn up to speed for SciBarCamp, we watched the Brian Greene documentary series The Elegant Universe. Greene is a very engaging presenter, and the series was excellent. Beware, though: don't buy The Elegant Universe and Beyond -- that's a repackaged DVD set at double the cost with two unrelated Einstein documentaries thrown in. The basic, original series of three hour-long documentaries is the one to get; has it for $19.95. Quite a terrific series, very well done.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Hyperspace with Sam Neill

I normally watch sitcoms while doing my half-hour on the treadmill most mornings, but I decided to take a break this week and watch the BBC science-documentary series Hyperspace with Sam Neill (also known, apparently in its original UK run, as just Space).

This one is worth watching. The information content is not high, but the photography is beautiful, and the special-effects sequences are stunning: Earth forming from the accretion of planetesimals, a solar-sail ship unfurling in flight, probes diving into the ocean of Europa. Although the series is now six years old, the effects rival anything on the best science-fiction shows today, and really do convey the classic sense of wonder.

Six twenty-eight-minute episodes on one DVD, with Sam Neill (of Jurassic Park fame) a very congenial guide.

Nice to see Seth Shostak interviewed in the episode on SETI, and David Brin in the one called "New Worlds." has the series for $17.99, and it's well worth that.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Calgary McNally Robinson closing

The great downtown Calgary bookstore McNally Robinson, on the open-air mall Stephen Avenue Walk, is closing on August 1, 2008.

Calgary's economy is booming -- wages are high, rents are higher -- and a small-margins business like bookselling can't make a go of it in such a prime downtown location.

I'm really sad about this. Not only was I very fond of the staff -- who had always treated me extremely well -- but it was a truly beautiful bookstore: three storeys, with a lovely spiral staircase, a restaurant, and a great, spacious patio on which many a wonderful book launch had been held (including the one for Danita Maslan's Rogue Harvest, published under my Robert J. Sawyer Books imprint). I have wonderful memories of attending events at the store -- my own, and those of other authors -- and of just browsing or of chatting with the knowledgeable staff. It's a real loss.

(The McNally Robinson chain is doing fine, with another store opening in two weeks in Winnipeg, and one opening in Toronto 13 months from now. The Calgary branch was not one of those that contributes to the Locus bestsellers list.)

Today's Calgary Herald has more.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Books and Movies

On Tuesday, and again today, people have asked me about film options; the implicit assumption was that these are common occurences and lucrative, and that they as often as not lead to the film actually being made. I addressed these issues in a magazine column in 2001, but I thought it was worth resurrecting that piece, so here it is:


by Robert J. Sawyer

It happens all the time: I meet someone, they inquire about what I do for a living, I tell them I write science-fiction novels, and they ask whether any of them have been made into movies.

Two misconceptions underlie that question, one naive and the other galling.

The naive misconception is that most novels, or at least a goodly fraction of them, get made into films. The truth is that hardly any actually do. Indeed, even most major novels don't get produced for the silver screen. Consider the winners of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award, the "Academy Award" of the science-fiction field. Thirty-six novels have received that trophy (including my own The Terminal Experiment, which won the 1995 award). Of those 36, how many do you think have been flickified?

Only two — and, as it happens, the first two: Frank Herbert's Dune (which won the 1965 Nebula), and Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon (which won the 1966 award, and was filmed as Charly). All the others — including such classics as Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, William Gibson's Neuromancer, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, Larry Niven's Ringworld, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars — remain unfilmed.

And if books of that stature don't get made into movies, consider just how unlikely it is that an average novel by a midlist writer is ever going to be filmed. In fact, only a handful of SF novels have ever been made into movies, and in many cases the resulting products were atrocious. David Brin's The Postman and Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters are great books, but the film adaptations stank. (Probably the best film ever made from an SF novel was 1968's very liberal adaptation of Pierre Boulle's La Planète des singes, which came out 33 years ago as the original Planet of the Apes.)

Indeed, I had dinner recently with friends, and, as it often does for us newly middle-aged folk, the topic of eventual retirement came up. One of my buddies opined that I had nothing to worry about: all I needed was for a couple of my books to be made into movies, and I'd be all set. I told her that was precisely like planning to win the lottery — the odds are about the same.

In fact, most authors don't get rich even when a movie is made of one of their books. Option fees (the amount producers pay to have you agree not to license the movie rights to anyone else) start at about US$5,000 for a year — a nice windfall, sure, but not life-changing. And an author's compensation if a movie is made from his or her book is typically between US$150,000 and US$300,000 — all of which comes as a lump payment, letting the tax people carve 50% right off the top. Now, yes, even after the government has siphoned off its share, that's certainly a pile of money — but it's only a tenth of what the average person needs in order to retire with a middle-class income.

Now, what about the galling misconception? It's the belief that a book is a second-rate form of expression. Unless the story is committed to film, we're led to believe that the book is a failure.

Poppycock. Despite the pernicious auteur school of filmmaking (which promulgates the lie that the director is the sole creator of the film), movies are enormously collaborative, and therefore are exercises in compromise. A novel, on the other hand, is one person's pure, unadulterated vision: it's exactly what the artist intended, without concession or budgetary constraints.

(This isn't sour grapes, by the way; many of my novels have been optioned, and, at this writing [in 2001], it looks like Illegal Alien might indeed actually get filmed next year; an excellent screenplay adaptation of it has been written by Michael Lennick, and David Coatsworth, executive producer of Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Sixth Day, is slated to produce.) [2008 update: and we got thisclose, too, but, as with most projects that get optioned for years on end, ultimately nothing came of it.]

People do understand this as related to other kinds of art. No one said to Michelangelo after he finished sculpting David that, well, gee, it's a nice enough statue, but, you know, unless they make an action figure out of it, what good is it? And yet the same principle should obviously apply to books versus movies: the definitive version of Dune is Frank Herbert's novel, not the theatrical film or the recent Sci-Fi Channel miniseries. And my all-time favourite SF novel, Frederik Pohl's Gateway, won't become one whit better than it already is if someone someday makes a movie out of it. Books are an end unto themselves, not proposals aimed at Hollywood; whether the book is a success or failure has nothing to do with whether Tinsel Town takes an interest.

So next time you're chatting with an author, don't ask if there have been any movies made from his or her books. Instead, ask where you can buy a copy of the actual, complete, finished work of art: the original dreamer's words on the printed page.

After all, as everybody knows, the book is always better than the movie.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Mindscan posthumanism questions

Got asked some interesting questions about Mindscan this morning by a university student studying the book in a fourth-year honours seminar on "The Rhetoric of the Posthuman."

1. What do you mean by "uploading" (uploading consciousness? feelings? factor x?) and what do you believe are the consequences of this?

That's the crux of the whole novel. What is personhood? Do we have souls? And, if we don't, what makes you the real you and a copy of you somehow ersatz? In the context of the novel, what's being copied is the quantum-mechanical states of the microtubules in your brain -- the seat of consciousness in the Penrose-Hameroff model. Is that what you are? If others can't tell the difference by the way you respond to questions, then the answer is yes for all meaningful purposes.

2. Are you a proponent for a posthuman future? Is it degrading in your opinion?

I'm not a proponent per se; I'm still wrestling with the issue of whether it's really the same person. But I do think it's very unfortunate that some people squander what time they have in their normal, biological life in vague hopes of some other existence later on -- but I feel the same way about those who shortchange this existence for the sake of some putative afterlife. As to whether it's degrading, well, having worms eat your flesh as you rot in the ground is literally degrading; becoming an android or uploading your consciousness into a computer is no worse, surely, and arguably much better.

3. Do you think there would be an existential threat if posthumans existed? (The consequences for the original Jake in your novel trigger this question ... I wonder if he would he have done whatever he could to get his old life back).

There's an existential threat because people believe in the afterlife -- suicide bombers are deluded into thinking they're going to heaven. That's a much, much greater threat to humanity than people who want to live longer in this existence -- because at least those who are trying to prolong their time in this realm have a vested interested in not wrecking the place up too badly. The worst thing that can be said about most of those pursuing posthumanism is that they are perhaps narcissistic -- they love themselves too much.

On the other hand, those pursuing the religious afterlife are often misanthropic, and that can be much, much worse. (In the novel, I went to pains to establish that Jake's quest was not to have an extended, superhuman life, but rather to simply have the normal life most people got, instead of dying young or -- worse -- ending up in a vegetative state for decades.)

For more about Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer, see here.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I'm a cover boy again!

This time it's on The Library Link, the quarterly magazine of the Mississauga Public Library. This is the cover of the January-March 2008 edition (Volume 5, Number 1). The photo is by Stephen Uhraney, and was taken October 4, 2007.

I live in Mississauga, which is a city of 700,000 just west of Toronto. The cover was also done up as a poster, and is on display at various library branches.

The books I'm leaning on are (top to bottom):
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  • Final Diagnosis by James White
  • The Perseids and Other Stories by Robert Charles Wilson
  • Jem by Frederik Pohl
  • Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick
  • Contact by Carl Sagan
All are personal favourites of mine.

Free copies of the magazine are available at any Mississauga Public Library branch until the end of this month, March 2008 (I meant to post this back in January, but forget -- sorry!).

(Last year, I was also the cover boy on Quill & Quire, the Canadian publishing trade journal).

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Star Trek remastered compilation

If you haven't yet seen the sorts of things that have been done in remastering classic Star Trek, check out this nice YouTube compilation of stills. The remastered episodes -- with all-new effects sequences -- are in syndication now, and are forthcoming on BluRay DVD.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Monday, March 10, 2008

"Living in Toronto" online

For the rest of this week, the episode of CBC Toronto's Living in Toronto featuring Robert J. Sawyer is online right here.

The segment with me is the first one in the show.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Free Nebula-award nominee

My friend Vera Nazarian is up for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story, and the good folks at Fictionwise are giving away her story during the nomination period. You can get it for free right here. Expect to see more Nebula nominees show up for free at Fictionwise over the next few weeks ...

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Rob on Toronto TV today

Don't forget I'm on CBC TV Toronto's Living in Toronto today at 1:00 p.m. :)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Aurora nominations deadline looming

The deadline for nominating for the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards ("the Auroras") is fast approaching.

Online ballots must be cast by Monday, March 17, 2008 (one week from today).

Any Canadian may nominate, and there is no charge to do so. The online ballot is here.

A comprehensive list of eligible works to choose from is here (English) et ici (français), at the Canadian SF Works Database.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Thursday, March 6, 2008

SF authors at Gartner Security Summit

I'll be participating at the Gartner IT Security Summit in Washington, DC, in June 2008.

When Gartner's Victor Wheatman approached me about putting together a panel of SF authors for the summit, we quickly came up with a dream-team list, and were delighted by who said yes: Sigma chair Arlan Andrews, plus Greg Bear and Bruce Sterling.

More details are in the Wall Street Journal's blog.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Upcoming Events

Some of my upcoming events for 2008:
  • Reader and Panelist
    International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts
    Orlando, Florida
    March 19-23, 2008

  • Panelist
    Ad Astra 2008
    Toronto, Ontario
    March 28-30, 2008

  • Panelist
    EerieCon 2008
    Niagara Falls, New York
    April 18-20, 2008

  • Book Launch for Identity Theft and Other Stories
    Bakka-Phoenix Books
    697 Queen Street West
    Toronto, Ontario
    Saturday, May 10, 2008, at 3:00 p.m.

  • Panelist
    Keycon 25
    The 2008 Canadian National Science Fiction Convention
    Winnipeg, Manitoba
    May 16-19, 2008 (Friday through Monday, four days over the Canadian Victoria Day weekend)

  • Readings and Signings: Robert J. Sawyer and Nick DiChario
    McNally Robinson at Grant Park
    Winnipeg, Manitoba
    Saturday, May 17, 2008, at 2:00 p.m.

  • US Book Launch for:
    Identity Theft and Other Stories by Robert J. Sawyer
    Valley of Day-Glo by Nick DiChario
    Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories by Nancy Kress
    Barnes & Noble
    3349 Monroe Avenue
    Pittsford (Rochester), New York
    Saturday, June 21, 2008, at 7:00 p.m.

  • Special Guest
    Comic-Con International: San Diego
    San Diego, California
    July 24-27, 2008

  • Panelist
    Denvention 3: The World Science Fiction Convention
    Denver, Colorado
    August 6-10, 2008

  • Guest of Honour
    Pure Speculation
    Edmonton, Alberta
    October 17-19, 2008

  • Program Participant
    Surrey International Writers Conference
    Surrey (Vancouver), British Columbia
    October 24-26, 2008

  • Panelist
    World Fantasy Convention 2008
    Calgary, Alberta
    October 30-November 3, 2008
My events calendar is always available here.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Living in Toronto

I'll be interviewed this coming Monday, March 10, 2008, at 1:00 p.m. on CBC TV Toronto's program Living in Toronto about my novel Rollback -- and I'll be recommending some other good SF reading, too. The segment with me was recorded a little while ago at Toronto's Bakka-Phoenix Books, and also features the lovely Chris Szego, manager of the store.

Living in Toronto is the new show hosted by Mary Ito, who used to frequently have me on her old show on TVOntario, More2Life.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

SciBarCamp in Toronto

In 2006, I was a participant at the inaugural Science Foo Camp (or SciFooCamp; "Foo" is short for "Friends of O'Reilly," the giant computer-book publisher).

The event was co-sponsored by O'Reilly and the journal Nature (which published one of my stories back in 2000 -- "The Abdication of Pope Mary III," a little number called "gob-smacking" by Publishers Weekly).

SciFooCamp was held at the Googleplex -- the international headquarters of Google -- and I loved every minute.

Something a bit similar (and a direct spin-off) is being put together in Toronto this month. Says Timo Hannay of Nature:
Together with a few friends in the Toronto area (including Lee Smolin, who you may have met at SciFoo) I am helping to organize an "Open Source" version of SciFoo, named SciBarCamp, in homage to both SciFoo and BarCamp. The event is being held in Toronto from the evening of March 14 (a Friday) to Sunday March 16.
I'll be there, and am very much looking forward to it. Unlike the invitation-only SciFoo Camp, SciBarCamp is open to anyone, although there is a cap on attendance.

(The name BarCamp is a sly reference to the original O'Reilly FooCamps; "Foobar" is a common hacker term, and "bar" is what comes after "foo" ...)

The idea is that you come and participate for the whole weekend -- you're either in or you're out, basically, just like summer camp. :) And participate is an important word; this isn't a passive series of seminars. Rather, people are expected to present or at least engage in Q&A at the sessions that emerge.

In fact, one of the things I like best is that people are penalized for using PowerPoint:
The talks will be informal and interactive; to encourage this, speakers who wish to give PowerPoint presentations will have ten minutes to present, while those without will have twenty minutes.
More info is here.

At the original SciFoo Camp, I led a session the possibilities of the World Wide Web gaining consciousness (and publicly acknowledged that this was brainstorming for my upcoming WWW trilogy).

To give a sense of how high-powered the original SciFooCamp was, the photo above shows a few of the people who came to my session there: Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation, Google co-founder Larry Page, and SF writer Greg Bear.

More about my time at the original SciFooCamp in 2006 is here.

I'm very much looking forward to SciBarCamp (not the least of which because it's being held at Hart House at the University of Toronto; for several summers, I taught an intensive course in writing science fiction at Hart House).

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Monday, March 3, 2008

And I'm #1 in Saskatoon!

McNally Robinson, Canada's second-largest bookstore chain, has bestsellers' lists for Winnipeg, Calgary, and Saskatoon. Right now the Rollback paperback is #7 on the mass-market list (combined fiction and nonfiction) in Calgary, and it's #1 in Saskatoon.

Here's the Saskatoon list:
#1. Rollback
By Robert J Sawyer - $8.99

#2. Jumper
By Steven Gould - $9.99

#3. The Pillars Of The Earth
By Ken Follett - $10.99

#4. Atonement
By Ian Mcewan - $11.99

#5. Iron Kissed
By Patricia Briggs - $10.99

#6. Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers
By Lilian Jackson Braun - $10.99

#7. The Other Boleyn Girl
By Philippa Gregory - $10.99

#8. The Gift Of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence
By Gavin Debecker - $10.99

#9. People Of The Nightland
By W. Michael Gear - $7.49

#10. Death Comes For The Fat Man
By Reginald Hill - $11.99
(I suspect the web page is dynamic, and may change, but here's a link to it.)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Rollback #2 Canadian fiction bestseller


BookNet Canada's BNC SalesData service has just released its list of the top 20 Canadian fiction titles for the two weeks ending February 24, 2008. BookNet tracks actual point-of-sale purchases at over 650 bookstores across Canada.

The top five Canadian-authored fiction titles for the last two weeks are:
1. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
(HarperCollins Canada, $16.50 pa, 9780006391555)

2. Rollback, Robert J. Sawyer (Tor Books/H.B.Fenn, $8.99 mm, 9780765349743)

3. The Ladies' Lending Library, Janice Kulyk Keefer (HarperCollins Canada, $15.95 pa, 9780002006378)

4. Late Nights on Air, Elizabeth Hay (McClelland & Stewart, $32.99 cl, 9780771038112)

5. The End of the Alphabet, CS Richardson (Anchor Canada, $17.95 pa, 9780385663410)
The only other SF/F title on the list is Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel, at number 11.

I am absolutely thrilled, needless to say!

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Penguin Canada hires new commercial fiction editor

Penguin Canada has just announced the hiring of the person who will be my Canadian editor -- and will head up the commercial-fiction publishing list for the company. (I copied the job listing here back in January.)

Laura Shin, formerly a Senior Editor at Harlequin -- where she worked on crime, fantasy, and women’s fiction -- will be the Canadian editor for my new WWW trilogy, as well as other science fiction, fantasy, crime, thriller, horror, and women’s commercial fiction titles.

Penguin Canada publisher David Davidar and Executive Editor Nicole Winstanley spent a lot of time looking for just the right person, and I'm very much looking forward to working with Laura.

For those who have paid accounts, there's a long article about Laura being hired at Quill & Quire; the opening, which nonsubscribers can read for free, begins:
Over the past few years, Penguin Canada has been making efforts to bolster its genre output, signing sci-fi author Robert Sawyer, thriller writer Michael Slade, and several others. Now they’ve taken the next logical step -- hiring a full-time commercial fiction editor.
Laura was praised by her Harlequin author Kathleen O'Brien of Florida in an online interview:
My own editor, Laura Shin, is the kind of person you'd like to be stranded on a deserted island with. She's smart and funny and capable and literate and great fun to talk to! I think that kind of editor creates the best environment for creativity.
I'm very excited about Laura's appointment, and look forward to working with her. (Guy Gavriel Kay is going to work with Nicole Winstanely, who used to be his literary agent.) Now, as all good penguins do, let's waddle boldly into the future!

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Sunday, March 2, 2008

More nostalgia: Bewitched

You gotta take this with a grain of salt, 'cause I'm one of the few people on the planet who likes the Thunderbirds live-action film ... but I also really like 2005 theatrical Bewitched film. I'd seen it before on an airplane, but Carolyn hadn't, so we watched it on DVD tonight.

Like the live-action Thunderbirds, Bewitched has real affection for its underlying source material, and even uses a few clips from the original series. And it's a wonderful bit of metafiction -- a movie about making a remake of an old TV series. :)

Oh, and the soundtrack is excellent: Steve Lawrence singing the lyrics to the Bewitched TV theme (yes, it has lyrics -- good ones, too); Ella Fitzgerald doing "Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead," The Police doing "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic."

Nicole Kidman is adorable, Will Farrell is ... Will Farrell :), Steve Carell totally channels Paul Lynde -- oh, and it's got Stephen Colbert in a small part, plus great work, as always, by Michael Caine. Give it a try! :)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

A trip down memory lane ...

Yesterday, Carolyn and I had three friends from high school over for a game of Trivial Pursuit, some ordered-in Swiss Chalet barbecue chicken, and watching some stuff on our big-screen TV.

The friends were Carolyn's brother David (one of my best friends quite separate from being my brother-in-law), Ted Bleaney (known to fans of my Quintaglio novels as the source name for saurian priests Det-Yenalb and Det-Bleen), and Gillian Clinton; we were all members of the high-school science-fiction club NASFA (after whom Afsan is named in the Quintaglio books) back in the day ...

Carolyn and I have an extensive DVD collection, but, to my surprise, we all converged in a matter of seconds on the film we wanted to watch: the 1983 movie WarGames. This is one of my all-time favorite movies. I think John Wood is amazing as Prof. Stephen Falken in that film -- a fascinating portrayal of a genius who had trouble dealing with reality. I just saw online that the producers had considered casting John Lennon in the role, and he would have been a very interesting choice, too. But Wood really inhabits the role.

For more nostalgia, I'm reading Barney Rosenzweig's excellent memoir Cagney & Lacey ... and Me, and he makes a comment about how to tell a good script from a bad one that rings true with WarGames. In a bad script, the writer puts everything into dialog; in a good script, the writer leaves room for the actors to act. And Wood acts in this film. There's a great moment when he's been told off by Ally Sheedy's character ("When was the last time you cared about anything?"), in which we simply see Wood's face. And when he arrives at the Cheyenne Mountain NORAD complex, he stops on a staircase and you see his eyes scanning the tactical displays, and you get that he comprehends it all. A truly wonderful performance.

Also wonderful: Dabney Coleman, as John Wood's erstwhile research partner John McKittrick; I'd watch him read the phonebook.

Rarely mentioned online is Juanin Clay, who plays Coleman's assistant in the film (the woman who yells, "They're clear, they're clear, hold the door -- hold the goddamn door!" as the NORAD complex is being locked down), but she was fabulous in the film (and she shared equal co-starring billing with Barry Corbin, who plays a blowhard general). Sadly, WarGames was her last film role; she died just three years later at 45.

Alley Sheedy is terrific, and so is Matthew Broderick. But it's John Wood who steals the show for me -- the character of Falken, and his performance of it, are both terrific.

And, after all, how can I not love a film that has this bit of dialog:
Stephen Falken: Are either of you paleontologists? I'm in desperate need of a paleontologist.

Jennifer (Ally Sheedy): No, we're high school students.

Stephen Falken: Pity.
The day was rounded out with watching an episode of The Rat Patrol (which I enjoy only for Eric Braeden's / Hans Gudegast's performance, but Carolyn, Gillian, and David were all very fond of when it first aired in the 1960s), and a couple of classic Warner Bros. cartoons: "One Froggy Evening" and "Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2 Century."

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

A new record on late payment

Writers live at the mercy of publishers who often take unconscionably long times to pay, but in all my 29 years selling my work professionally, I think a new record for lateness was reached this week. One full year after it was due, Pearson Educational Canada sent me a cheque for a reprint of one of my short stories in a textbook.

Granted, it was a nice reprint fee -- $500 to use my 1,400-word story "The Blue Planet," which was also in David G. Hartwell's Year's Best SF 5; that works out to a cool 35 cents a word. But still -- a year? WTF? (That's "Waiting Time Forever," of course ...)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

Arrested Development

I start most mornings by treadmilling for half an hour. I've got a portable DVD player with a 10-inch screen mounted on my treadmill's control panel, and I watch sitcoms to pass the time.

And I've just recently finished watching the third and final season of Arrested Development, a wonderful series about a rich family that loses everything because of shady business dealings on the part of the patriarch (the fabulous Jeffrey Tambor). The series stars Jason Bateman as Tambor's son, trying to keep the dysfunctional family together. Jessica Walter is perfect as the scheming mother; Michael Cera -- who lives not far from me, actually -- is incredibly natural in his performance as Bateman's son; the stunningly beautiful Portia di Rossi is excellent as Bateman's shallow sister.

In fact, the whole cast is fabulous, and the dialog is absolutely first-rate. Arrested Development is one of the new breed of sitcoms without a laugh track; it trusts the audience to know what's funny, and I frequently found myself in hysterics over the three seasons.

The narrator is Ron Howard (yes, from Happy Days) and his delivery is perfect. And his old Happy Days buddy Henry Winkler frequently guest stars as the family's lawyer, Barry Zuckercorn -- showing just how wonderfully talented Winkler is. Other guest stars: Charlize Theron, Dave Thomas, Justine Bateman, Scott Baio, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Liza Minnelli, Jeff Garlin, Amy Poehler, Ed Begley Jr., Carl Weathers, and James Lipton (from Inside the Actor's Studio, as a prison warden).

The show is surreal in a lot of ways (one of the family's few remaing vehicles is a stair car, of the kind used to disembark from airplanes), and it's full of meta humor (jokes that acknowledge slyly that this is a TV show).

How good is this show? Well, after I finished the third and final season of Arrested Development, I started in on season six of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the brilliant Larry David sitcom ... and Curb seems lame in comparison.

Check it out. The DVDs are quite cheap most of the time ( has all three seasons in a combined set for $45 right now).

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site