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

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Corriere della Fantascienza

Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2006 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

An interview with Robert J. Sawyer for the Italian e-zine Corriere della Fantascienza.

Interview conducted Tuesday, June 27, 2006, by Giampietro Stocco.

Giampietro Stocco: Robert, the first thing one notices in your books is the fact you're the first one enjoying your stories. Is that correct?

Robert J. Sawyer; Yes, it is. I started writing science-fiction books because I couldn't find enough ones by other people that appealed to me. Two of my favourite science fiction writers are Larry Niven and Mike Resnick. At a panel they were both on at a convention, Larry once said he writes the kind of science fiction that got him interested in the field when he was 16, and Mike said he writes the kind of science fiction that interests him now as a middle-aged man. I'm trying to do both: have that sense-of-wonder that made SF irresistible to me when I was a teenager, while still say things that resonate with someone who's lived a good chunk of a life. But there's no doubt that some of the little asides in my books — references to classic Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Planet of the Apes are in there because those are things I love.

GS: Science fiction is a genre, but actually it is also a very large kind of literature. In which direction(s) sf seems to be going at the moment?

RJS: Honestly? Down the toilet. The field has had a very hard time surviving the arrival of the 21st century. For many people, the future is now already here, and the notion of a literature about spaceships, aliens, and so on seems irrelevant. In the United States, sales of SF are way, way down, and every month I hear about another one of my colleagues being dumped by his or her publisher. Those with blinders on say it's cyclical, but there's zero evidence over the last quarter-century that there's any sign of an upward turn.

GS:Speaking of cross-over. It is getting into a kind of fashion, mixing up the genres and creating fantasy novels with sf elements or the other way round. It's just marketing or do you find it an interesting experiment?

RJS: I'm a purist; I'm only interested in science fiction. As soon as the author introduces a fantasy element — which, by definition, is something that could never possibly happen, I no longer care about the story. Although people unfamiliar with the genre often fail to understand this, science fiction is a literature of reality, and that's very important to me.

GS: Coming to your novels: which is the one you have loved the most?

RJS: I think Factoring Humanity is the one. I try with all my novels to combine the intimately human with the grandly cosmic, and I think I did the best job of succeeding at that in that book.

GS: How much do you feel you owe to Frederik Pohl?

RJS: When I was in high school, Fred was publishing the very best work of his life, including Gateway and Man Plus. There's no doubt that both were big influences on me. But, overall in my career, the work of Arthur C. Clarke was more influential, I think. Still, I don't think I owe them anything, anymore than anyone who happens to read my books owes me anything. But there were writers who were great helps to me early in my career — Terence M. Green, Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids) demand more space. I try not to be too market-driven; as you observed above, I'm writing for myself. When I have ideas that demand multiple books, I'll do happily work on that scale.

GS: Science fiction and counterfactual history. You seem to like parallel worlds and playing with points of divergences. Could you imagine yourself writing a true uchronie?

RJS: Maybe. But my interests is mostly Canadian history, not American or European history. And the market for a book that had something in Canada's past go differently is probably pretty small.

GS: What can you suggest to young sf writers?

RJS: Don't quit your day job! I'm lucky enough to make a decent living writing science fiction, but it's becoming increasingly difficult for people to do that, as print runs get smaller across the board and books stay in print for shorter periods of time. If you love SF, do it — but plan on supporting yourself by some other means.

GS: Your last novel: speak to us about it.

RJS: In 1982, just after I'd graduated with a bachelor's degree in Radio and Television Arts, I worked at Bakka, Toronto's SF bookstore. Other people who went on to be science fiction and fantasy writers have worked there, too, including Tanya Huff, Michelle West, Cory Doctorow, and Nalo Hopkinson. In honour of Bakka's 30th anniversary in 2002, owner John Rose decided to publish an anthology of stories by employees past and present. I crammed an awful lot of ideas into my story, and as soon as I finished it, I sent a copy to Dave Hartwell, my editor at Tor, saying I thought what I'd really written was a novel outline. Dave agreed, and Mindscan is the result. The book is dedicated to John Rose, the best boss I ever had.

The main idea is about uploading human consciousness. I'd written about scanning human brains before, most significantly in my Nebula Award-winning 1995 novel The Terminal Experiment. But I wanted to revisit the theme, in part, because my thinking has changed on this topic over the intervening decade, and I'm certainly taking a different tack here. The Terminal Experiment was about a biomedical engineer who discovered scientific proof for the existence of the human soul; if anything, Mindscan makes the opposite case: that the mind is fully physical, completely natural, and totally reproducible in artificial form. Indeed, I try to present a new quantum-mechanical model of what actually causes consciousness, and, not to be grandiose about it, but I think I actually add some new dimensions to this on-going discussion. I won't be surprised if I end up going back to this theme again in another ten years; I really do think the most interesting area of science right now is the study of consciousness-of why there is any such thing as subjective experience.

(The rest of these questions were for use on the interviewer's own website)

GS: How would you define yourself as a sf writer? Do you follow any trend in writing a novel, or do you just think of enjoying it yourself as a first issue?

RJS: Sawyer's Rule: By the time you identify a trend, it's too late to cash in on it. I pay no attention to the so-called trends in SF; I just write what interests me. When everyone else was writing cyberpunk, I wrote intelligent dinosaurs (Far-Seer and its sequels); when everyone else was writing about Mars, I wrote about a biomedical engineer who discovers scientific proof for the existence of the hman soul (The Terminal Experiment); when everyone else was writing about nanotechnology, I wrote about whether we have free will (FlashForward). It's precisely that I don't jump on bandwagons that makes my work stand out to whatever extent it does.

GS: The thing I appreciate most in your writing is just the enthusiasm you put in every new idea you get. Which is the secret to keep this up?

RJS: I think it's that I'm a kid at heart. I just love learning new things, and I've never gotten over the childlike wonder I had when I first saw a dinosaur skeleton, or the Milky Way, or a shooting star, or a strange insect.

GS: Book market and writers. Do you mean science fiction is directing itself to some new topics of interest, or the secret is still to build up a good story?

RJS: You always have to tell a good story — that's the most important thing. You can toss off dozens of big ideas in a book — as I did in Starplex — or explore just one or two in depth, as I do in Mindscan, but if the story doesn't engage the reader, all is lost.

GS: Which are the sf authors that have set their deepest footprints in your writing?

RJS: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, James White, Larry Niven, Hal Clement, Fred Pohl. Asimov, James White, and Hal are gone now, but I got to meet them all before they died, and, indeed, Hal became a good friend.

GS: You have definitely written many books. How is your typical writing-day?

RJS: Yes, I've done 17 novels to date, plus 40-odd short stories, and edited four anthologies. I actually try not to have a typical day — one of the joys of being self-employed is not being in a rut! But over the course of each week, I spend time writing, time reading (both fiction for inspiration and pleasure, and nonfiction for research), time surfing the Internet (not nearly as productive as I like to pretend it is — but it's fun), and time getting out and interacting with people, which is crucial for a writer, if he or she is going to be able to portray real people. Generally speaking, I'm a night owl — going to bed around 1:00 a.m. and getting up about 9:00 a.m. And I work seven days a week; I find it breaks my rhythm too much to take weekends off.

GS: Science fiction and alternate history. Are you also interested in points of divergence and parallel worlds?

RJS: Absolutely! My Quintaglio Ascension trilogy (beginning with Far-Seer) came from my wondering what would have happened if the dinosaurs had not gone extinct. And my Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (beginning with Hominids has a hinge point 40,000 years ago, when consciousness was first emerging on this world. I love that stuff!

GS: Sf writers and sf prizes. You have won your share. Which is the main way for an author to get a Nebula or a Hugo prize?

RJS: Well, I won the Nebula first, and that's the one that really changed my life: it changed me from a struggling writer to someone who makes a very good living; it got me translation sales all over the world; and so on. But there's not much doubt that most people consider the Hugo to be more prestigious than the Nebula. I'm certainly thrilled to have both!

GS: Sf authors, movies and tv-series. Did you succeed in getting anything of yours on the big or on the little screen?

RJS: I make five figures (in dollars) each year off of film/TV work and the optioning of rights to my books, and sometimes six figures, but no, nothing has been made, and, although I'm enthusiastic each time we do a new deal — four new options so far this year — I'm realistic enough to know that the chances of any of the projects actually getting made are very slim. Consider how few of the classics of SF have actually come to screen — where is the Neuromancer movie, the film version of The Forever War, the TV miniseries based on Childhood's End, the summer blockbuster adapted from Ender's Game, the weekly series set in Larry Niven's "Known Space"? If one of my books does get adapted, I'll happily cash the cheque, just as if I'd won the lottery — which is about as likely.

GS: Speaking of your last work, what are you preparing at this moment?

RJS: I'm just going through the page proofs for Rollback. It's the story of Dr. Sarah Halifax, who decoded the first-ever radio transmission received from aliens. Thirty-eight years later, a second message is received — and Sarah, now 87, may hold the key to deciphering this one, too ... if she lives long enough.

A wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a rollback — a hugely expensive experimental rejuvenation procedure. She accepts on condition that Don, her husband of sixty years, gets a rollback, too. The process works for Don, making him physically twenty-five again. But in a tragic twist, the rollback fails for Sarah, leaving her in her eighties.

While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly huge age gap between him and his wife, Sarah struggles to do again what she'd done once before: figure out what a signal from the stars contains. The novel explores morals and ethics on both human and cosmic scales, and I've got to say I think it's one of my very best. I hope readers will agree.

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