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Sci-fi rooted in reality, says author Robert Sawyer
Canadian Press, April 8, 1997
TORONTO (CP) Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer figures he and other science-fiction writers are doing society a favor by helping people get a grip on what's going on around them.
"Rational, realistic, skeptical, logical thinking is the only sensible way to deal with reality," Sawyer has said. "Science fiction underscores that way of thinking."
Headlines have recently been full of people who are choosing other ways of dealing with reality the Heaven's Gate cult members who committed suicide last month in San Diego, thinking they could hitch a ride on a UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet; the Solar Temple cult members who burned to death in Quebec, believing they were going on to something greater.
Less dramatic but more pervasive are people who put stock in crystals and tarot cards, astrology and past life regression.
Sawyer says it's easy to see why society would take a step backward into old beliefs when humanity keeps getting slapped in the face with its own insignificance.
"Every time you turn around you see some new photo from the Hubble telescope or some new estimate of how old the universe is," he said in an interview.
"Earth wasn't the only planet with life, and this isn't the only star system with planets we just keep getting smaller and smaller and less and less significant."
Astrology appeals to people because it suggests the whole universe has a direct impact on each individual, different from its impact on other individuals, he said.
The same yearning for cosmic importance also feeds the conviction that aliens are visiting Earth to abduct ordinary humans.
"They're interested in talking to you, they don't want to talk to (physicist) Stephen Hawking or the president of the United States, they want to pick up Cletus and his boys in the pickup truck in Tennessee and that makes Cletus and Bubba really special in the scheme of the universe."
Sawyer, a resident of the Toronto-area community of Thornhill, gave up a successful freelance journalism career to write science fiction full-time about eight years ago, and has been winning critical acclaim since his first novel, Golden Fleece, was published in 1990.
He has racked up an impressive list of awards as a literary debunker of pseudo-science. Last year his book The Terminal Experiment won the Nebula dubbed the Academy Award of science fiction for best novel. He'll find out April 20 whether his book Starplex (Ace, $7.99) has won in the same category this year.
The action of Starplex takes place on a space exploration vessel way out in the galaxy, but while the plot employs some standard sci-fi techniques including a motley assortment of aliens manning the craft the book isn't typical space opera with wham-bam action from beginning to end.
Instead, Sawyer tackles the larger question of how life began, and proposes an answer that is scientifically plausible but won't make any human feel more significant.
Suggesting answers to life's great questions is not a departure for Sawyer, whose last novel debated the existence of the human soul. For him, that's what really good science fiction is all about.
"The questions that you answer in mainstream literature are will the guy get the girl, will the girl get the guy, will the guy get the job, will the girl have the success she wants in life," he said, adding that those are interesting questions that can be answered any number of ways.
"But they're not the deep questions. The deep questions are where did we come from, as a race, as individuals, as a universe. Where are we going, as a race, as individuals, as a universe. And science fiction is the genre that lets us ask really big questions."
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