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Books in Canada Profile:
Robert J. Sawyer
by Andrew Weiner
Copyright © 1993 by Andrew Weiner.
This article originally appeared in the March 1993 issue of
Books in Canada magazine, a monthly national newsstand magazine
devoted to Canadian books. Many thanks to
Andrew Weiner for giving
permission for it to be included on my web site.
A Sunday in July. Robert J. Sawyer is signing copies of his
just-released novel, Far-Seer (Ace Books)
at the Canadian Booksellers Association tradeshow in Toronto. A passerby
picks up the book and examines the cover.
The cover of Far-Seer shows what is unmistakably a
dinosaur, standing on the deck of a sailing ship, gripping a
telescope. It is an accurate, if somewhat lurid, representation
of the book, which tells the story of the Quintaglios, a race of
intelligent dinosaurs on a distant planet. "What age group is
this for?" the passerby asks, with genuine interest.
For Sawyer, it is hard to imagine a more galling question.
Beneath Far-Seer's garish packaging which is no more or
less than standard-issue cover art for a paperback original
science-fiction novel is a modern parable, told through the
device of a dinosaur Galileo, about the conflict between science
and religious faith. It is painstakingly researched, lucidly
written, meticulously crafted, a vivid depiction of the
scientific method and the scientific mind. But none of this,
unfortunately, is readily evident.
"It's very discouraging," Sawyer says, "to be trying to do stuff
that hopefully is significant and adult, and have people
constantly saying `Oh, I'll buy a copy to give to my 14-year old
son.' It's very disheartening to be thought of as producing
juvenile literature, especially when that judgment is made by
people who have never read science fiction."
Bad enough to be judged by one's own cover. But, as Sawyer well
knows, it goes deeper than that. It is not only Far-Seer
that this well-meaning passerby assumes to be kid's stuff. It is
the entire field of science fiction.
"Maybe it's a grass-is-always-greener thing," Sawyer says. "But
I can't help thinking that writers working in almost any other
area are getting more respect. Certainly in Canada there's no
doubt that mystery writers get more respect than science-fiction
writers. It's really very frustrating."
No respect. At times Sawyer seems about to slip into a
Rodney Dangerfield routine. I can't get no respect.
In every other way, Sawyer's career is proceeding according to
plan. At the age of 32, he has already sold five novels. His
first book, Golden Fleece (Warner Books, December 1990)
was rated best science-fiction novel of the year by the
influential Connecticut-based Magazine of Fantasy & Science
Fiction. Far-Seer was Ace Books'
lead science-fiction title for June 1992, guaranteeing it pride of place
in the paperback racks. Ace has contracted for two sequels about
Sawyer's Quintaglios, as well as a fifth book,
End of an Era.
This success has made it possible for Sawyer to become a
full-time science-fiction writer, a goal he has pursued
single-mindedly for most of the past decade. It is, in many
respects, his dream job. Writing science fiction, he has
observed (in a quote picked up by master-gatherer
John Robert Colombo for his Dictionary of Canadian Quotations), "gives
you a huge canvas: all of space, all of time, all forms of life."
It can also bring you acclaim within the science-fiction field,
along with a fair measure of commercial success.
But what it can't bring you, apparently, is respect.
Robert J. Sawyer was born in Ottawa in 1960, the second of three
sons. His father was an economist, his mother a statistician.
The family moved to Toronto before his first birthday, when his
father took a teaching position at the University of Toronto, and
Sawyer grew up in suburban Willowdale.
Where an earlier generation of science-fiction writers discovered
the field by reading the old pulp magazines, Sawyer's initial
exposure was through television. He recalls watching the
British-made puppet show Fireball XL5 at the age of three.
It was love at first sight.
From children's shows, Sawyer moved on to re-runs of Star
Trek (he was too young to watch it on its prime-time debut),
to juvenile SF, to the real thing: the novels and stories of
Arthur C. Clarke,
Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl that would
inform his own later work. By the age of 10, he was thinking
about writing science fiction himself, "although I never thought
that I would do it full-time. It just didn't seem a reasonable
and respectable way to make a living."
Instead, Sawyer expected to make a career out of his other great
childhood love: dinosaurs. As a preschooler, he would make his
father read him book after book about dinosaurs. Later he would
go to the Royal Ontario Museum and "spend hours staring at the
dinosaur skeletons, wondering about them. They were just so big,
so ancient, so mysterious."
All the way through to his final year of high school, he planned
to become a paleontologist. And then one day it hit him that "I
didn't want to spend the next ten years in school pursuing a
Ph.D. so that I could make $17,000 a year sifting dirt. I wanted
to do something exciting now." He enrolled in Toronto's
Ryerson Polytechnical Institute to study Radio and Television
Arts instead, on a career path towards becoming a professional
But he never really left the dinosaurs behind. They feature not
only in his ongoing Ace Books trilogy, but also in
End of an Era, in
which two intrepid Canadian time travelers seek the
cause of the Great Extinction (the comet didn't do it). End
of an Era was actually written before
due to the vagaries of publishing will not appear until after the
trilogy is complete.
In a sense, Sawyer says, his love of dinosaurs is very much akin
to his love of science fiction. "Here was something that people
knew almost nothing about, but there was an opportunity to think
about what the dinosaurs might have been like just as
science fiction allows us to think about the universe, and our
own place in it."
The young Sawyer, sizing up the skeletons in the ROM, was already
showing the same speculative qualities that would drive him to
write science fiction. Later, in Far-Seer, he would bring
together these two childhood loves to brilliant effect. Sawyer's
Quintaglios are not just humans with tails and big teeth, but
dinosaurs with big brains: slavering over raw meat and violently
defending their personal space even as they debate astronomy and
theology, they are entirely believable, and entirely alien.
After graduating from Ryerson, Sawyer worked there for a year as
a teaching assistant, then became a freelance writer in 1983. He
wrote press releases and product brochures, articles for trade
and business magazines, corporate newsletters and advertising
supplements. His byline became well-known in publications like
the Report On Business Magazine and The Financial
Times. He made a good living. But it was not what he really
wanted to do. What he wanted to do was write science fiction.
During these years, Sawyer wrote and sold a handful of short
stories, published in places like the The Village Voice,
Leisure Ways and Amazing Stories (the original
science-fiction pulp magazine, published continuously since
1926). And all the while he was saving money, against the time
when he could write what he wanted.
"I've always been a believer in having money in the bank, because
it gives me the freedom to do what I want to do," he says. "By
mid-1988, I had reached the point where if I didn't make any
money for five years, I could still maintain my standard of
living." It helped, too, that his wife was still working, and
that they had no children. Sawyer's wife of eight years,
Carolyn Clink, is a customer service representative for printing company
Quebecor, and a poet whose work has appeared in
Poetry Toronto, On Spec and Northern Frights.
While his contemporaries were buying real estate, Sawyer invested
in himself. He wrote Golden Fleece, and sent it to a New
York literary agent, who quickly sold the book to Warner Books.
Sawyer is one of just a handful of Canadian-born science-fiction
writers (his major predecessors being A.E. Van Vogt, Phyllis
Terence M. Green). He is also someone who describes
himself as "a proud Canadian patriot," who uses Canadian settings
and characters in his work wherever possible. Why, then, would he
seek a New York agent and publisher?
"There was no significant domestic science-fiction publishing,"
Sawyer explains. "And there didn't seem to be any downside to
publishing in New York, because the books would still be
distributed in Canada. Later, it became clear to me that the
Canadian literary establishment would rather embrace the author
of a book in a thousand-copy print run from a small local press
than the author of a lead title from an American mass-market
publisher. Writing is just about the only field where if you
make it in New York, you don't necessarily gain acceptance
back in Canada. Instead, you're looked as someone who's done
something tawdry and disreputable."
Or again: No respect.
Golden Fleece is a murder mystery set on a starship. It
is a very accomplished first novel, skillfully blending hard
scientific speculation about interstellar travel and artificial
intelligence with interesting and effective characterization.
Sawyer has always been a great believer in anchoring his
speculations in scientific fact, "so that you are writing about
things that could really happen." When he first started writing,
he believed that scientific speculation alone was enough to carry
a story. He credits Toronto SF author Terence M. Green for
pointing out his need to work on characterization and thematic
development. Golden Fleece demonstrated that he had
learned those lessons well.
Most authors, having written and sold their books, are content to
leave the rest to the publisher. Not Sawyer. He knew that as a
first novel from an unknown writer, Golden Fleece would
get minimal promotion from Warner. As a result, it would almost
certainly get swamped beneath the thousands of other
science-fiction titles competing for attention on the paperback
And so Sawyer set out to promote the book himself. Having
written press releases for corporate clients, he now wrote them
for himself. Knowing that Warner had no intention of sending out
advance galleys of the book, he printed up 75 copies at his own
expense and sent them out to reviewers.
Some writers might raise their eyebrows at such flagrant
self-promotion. But Sawyer is unapologetic. "Writing is a
business. Publishers, book sellers and trade magazines all think
of it as a business. It would be stupid and self-destructive for
me to ignore the business aspects." In any case, he points out,
"I'm not forcing anyone to buy my books. All I can do is draw
attention to the work. I have no control over what reviewers
will say about it."
In the case of Golden Fleece, this strategy paid
dividends. From his galleys, Sawyer received dozens of reviews,
including a rave in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science
Fiction. Armed with these reviews, Sawyer's agent was able
to sell Far-Seer and
End of an Era by auction, with
Ace Books making the winning bid.
"Those galleys cost me $500," Sawyer says. "It's the best money
I ever spent. I figure they helped advance my career by two or
Robert J. Sawyer is a rising star of science fiction. "If Robert
J. Sawyer were a corporation," Vancouver SF writer Spider
Robinson has said, "I would buy stock in him."
So why can't Sawyer get any respect? The answer is to be found
not in his own work, which by the standards of contemporary
science fiction is exemplary, but in the nature of the field in
which he has chosen to work: a field that is widely held in
ridicule, and not without good reason.
Science fiction, of course, has always been held in ridicule by
the literary mainstream. But at one time, at least, serious
science-fiction readers could convince themselves that the
mainstream critics were wrong. True, a lot of science fiction
was dreadful. But there was plenty of good stuff, too.
Thus science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, responding to
accusations that ninety percent of science fiction is "crap,"
could observe that "ninety percent of everything is crap." It
was that saving 10% the Alfred Besters, the J.G. Ballards, the
Philip K. Dicks that gave the lie to science fiction's
But that was before Star Wars and Star Trek, before
science fiction became a highly commercial publishing
proposition, before today's massive formularization and
commodification. Most science fiction published today is truly
awful: poorly written, badly characterized, repetitive and, yes,
juvenile. It is assembly-line stuff, a form of packaged goods
churned out by huge publishing conglomerates like so many cans of
baked beans. It is indefensible. It deserves to be held
in ridicule. And Sawyer knows it.
"There was a time when I was younger when I was really an
evangelist for science fiction," he says. "I thought that people
simply needed to be given a work of science fiction and they
would have this experience that would change them forever. I
don't believe that anymore. The sad truth is that almost all
science fiction is crap, and the percentage of crap in science
fiction is probably higher than in any other form of contemporary
literature. Rather than simply sending someone to the book
store, I would now carefully choose a book for them."
Why, then, does Sawyer bother? Why does he struggle to produce
quality work in a field that for the most part no longer knows,
or cares about, the difference? Why does he write science
fiction at all? Because he still believes in the
potential of science fiction. Indeed, he says, science
fiction is more important today than ever.
"We're living in a world in which people are undergoing all kinds
of experiences that our parents never dreamed of, a world of
biotechnology and surrogate children, of global communications
nets and virtual reality, of whole new realms of human
interaction. In a world that's changing so incredibly rapidly,
people really need to spend a little time saying `gee, where are
these trends taking us?' Science fiction helps us think about
ourselves and our world, about what it means to be human."
So Sawyer remains a true believer in science fiction. But at the
same time, he knows that his best efforts will for the most part
go unappreciated within the genre, and virtually unnoticed
outside of it. And no matter how many books he sells with the
science-fiction field, he will never get any respect outside of
And so he thinks of escape. Perhaps he will write a mystery, or
a mainstream novel. Or perhaps the mainstream will come to him.
"I would be very happy," he says, "to not to be published as a
`science fiction' writer. I think that's the ideal, to have a
publisher say that a book is a quality work on its own terms and
not have it shackled by some genre label."
In this context, Sawyer was encouraged to see McClelland and
Stewart recently publish Terence M. Green's novel of time travel,
Children of the Rainbow, "essentially as mainstream
fiction. I'd like to believe that the future for people like me
is here in Canada, with Canadian publishers. Publishing genres
are an American invention. In Canada we don't have so many works
of fiction produced every year that we need to subdivide them.
"Frankly, I would rather have five mainstream readers than five
genre readers, because there's no point in preaching to the
converted and science fiction is just too important to be left
to science-fiction readers."
Given the track record of major Canadian publishers in handling
or not handling science fiction, this might seem
more a pious hope than a viable career goal. But if determination and
single-mindedness count for anything, Robert J. Sawyer may indeed
pull it off. He may go boldly where almost no science-fiction
writer has gone before, into the strange alien galaxy of the
Canadian literary mainstream. And he may, in the end, get some
Andrew Weiner is the author of the novel Station
Gehenna (Congdon & Weed, 1987), the short-story collection
Distant Signals (Porcépic, 1989), and stories in Again,
Dangerous Visions; Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine;
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction;
Amazing Stories; Interzone;
Ark of Ice;
Northern Frights; Full Spectrum; and many others. A full-time
writer whose byline has appeared in many of Canada's
most-prestigious periodicals, including Quest and
The Financial Post Magazine, Andrew lives in Toronto with his
wife Barbara Moses and his son, Nathaniel.
Postscript: On July 1, 2016 Canada Day
Robert J. Sawyer was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the highest
civilian honour bestowed by the Canadian government, with this citation:
Robert J. Sawyer is renowned internationally for his science-fiction writing. His works ground futurism in hard scientific fact, while showcasing Canadian achievements and culture. Winner of the top three genre awards for
The Terminal Experiment,
he is an inspirational mentor to numerous aspiring writers. A powerful and
engaging speaker, well respected by scientists,
his input as a futurist has been sought repeatedly for conferences by such
organizations as NASA and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)
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