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

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Delos Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

An interview with Robert J. Sawyer for the Italian e-zine Delos Science Fiction.

Interview conducted Monday, May 6, 1996, by Luigi Pachi.

[Italian Cover Art] Q: I've just heard you've won the Nebula award with your novel The Terminal Experiment, which is going to be published in May 1996 here in Italy. What's your feeling about winning such an important award? Were you expecting this result?

A: Without a doubt, winning the Nebula Award is the biggest thing that's ever happened to me professionally. I was totally surprised to win. This was my first-ever Nebula nomination; usually, an author is nominated several times before actually winning. Also, this was an award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and I'm not an American. Rather, I'm a Canadian, and the book is set entirely in Canada. I sort of expected a little prejudice against the book because of that. Also, mine was the only one of the six nominees to be originally published in paperback, and the only one for which the publisher didn't mail out a large quantity of copies to SFWA members, trying to garner votes; usually hardcovers have an advantage in the awards. When they opened the envelope and called my name at the awards banquet, I was absolutely shocked.

Q: In your opinion, which one of the ingredients you have used for your novel has been the reason for winning the Nebula award this year?

A: The great American literary novelist William Faulkner once said that "the human heart in conflict with itself" is the only thing worth writing about. Science fiction seems to fight against this, though. It's often about technology or neat tricks of science, but not about anything human. Well, The Terminal Experiment is a very human novel, and it is, quite literally about the human heart — or soul — in conflict with itself; the main character of the novel ends up face-to-face with an artificial-intelligence simulation of his own all-too-fallible human soul. Without in any way denigrating the other very fine novels that were nominated for the Nebula, I think mine was the most universal in theme. SFWA has all kinds of writers in it — thoughtful, literary writers; action-adventure writers; high fantasy writers; hard-SF writers. The theme of my book seemed to appeal across group lines.

Q: Can you explain to our readers the environment in which your awarded story has been set?

A: The Terminal Experiment is set in Toronto, Canada, in the year 2011 — just fifteen years from now. Toronto is the largest city in Canada; it's a very modern, very clean, very ethnically diverse city. It always seemed to me a natural setting for an SF novel, but only one or two have ever previously been set in that city. The world of 2011 is only a little bit more advanced than our present day. There are no flying cars or teleportation machines. But there is a much greater presence of computers in day-to-day life; indeed, one of the most terrifying parts of the novel deals with a character's "smart" house — a house in which every light and door and faucet is controlled by computer — turning against her.

Q: Which one of your characters in your novel do you like most and why?

A: My favorite character in the book is Sarkar Muhammed. Sarkar is the longtime best-friend of the main character, Peter Hobson. He's got strong moral convictions — as many Muslims do — but he's not a cardboard reactionary, as Muslims are often portrayed in the media. Rather, he's a fun guy to be with, cracks a lot of good jokes, and is also brilliant. He was a lot of fun to write.

Q: When did you start reading, and then writing, about science fiction?

A: I began reading science fiction when I was ten or so. My parents are both academics, and they always encouraged me to read. When my father discovered I was watching science-fiction programs on television, rather than trying to discourage me from that, he instead went out and bought some science fiction books for me. He didn't read SF himself, but he knew the name Isaac Asimov from Asimov's non-fiction work, and so that's who he started me with. I began trying to write science fiction as a teenager, and actually managed to sell a story when I was just 19.

Q: Can you find one or more reasons why you decided to write about SF, instead of choosing a different genre?

A: I chose SF for several reasons. First, because it's what I enjoyed reading. Second, because I was always very interested in science — an interest I maintain to this day. Third, because the path to career success in science fiction has always been very clear: you write good short stories, you sell them, you write a novel, you get an agent to represent it based on the strength of your short-fiction credentials, and so on. Other branches of writing are very hard to break into, even if you are talented; in SF, though, the process is completely open. It seemed an obtainable goal, and that was important to me, since I've always been very pragmatic.

Q: Where would you position yourself, and your way of writing about SF, thinking among Golden Age, New Age, and Cyberpunk SF authors? In other words, do you fell more close to the SF written by, for example, Pohl, Ballard, or Gibson?

A: I think of myself as a golden-age author updated for the Nineties. I really like sense-of-wonder and big, thought-provoking ideas. My favorite SF author is Arthur C. Clarke, and someone once quipped that I write like Clarke, but with good characterization. That's an assessment of my work that I'm very happy with.

Q: Could you kindly tell me your preferred authors and books?

A: In the SF field, my all-time favorite novels are Gateway by Frederik Pohl and The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke. I'm also a big fan of the short fiction of Larry Niven. Outside of SF, my favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Q: Which SF magazine did you used to read in the past, and which one are you reading now? Do you feel any big difference between the old and the current SF magazines?

A: I've always enjoyed the big three American SF magazines: Analog, Asimov's, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I'm a hard-SF writer, so Analog has always appealed to me most; it's also the magazine that's changed the least in the last few decades. Its editor, Stanley Schmidt, knows exactly what his readers want, and he gives it to them every month. The big change in Asimov's is, I think, a tendency to publish works with minimal, or even no, SF content at all. I'm not 100% happy with that; there are lots of venues for mainstream fiction, but very few for SF anymore. I'd prefer to see real SF in each story.

Q: Trees are getting less and less common in our world. Do you believe that the future of any magazine will be based on the Internet only?

A: I suspect electronic publishing will eventually take over — but not nearly as soon as most futurists seem to think. Magazines and books have all sorts of advantages over electronic versions; although several million people are now on the Internet, there are almost a thousand people who aren't for every one who is. People like the feel of printed pages, they like the portability, they like reading in their bath tubs. Online publishing has lots of advantages for the publisher — most notably, reduced distribution costs — but not nearly so many for the actual reader, and, in the literary marketplace, it's the reader who ultimately controls everything.

Q: What do you think about the Internet citizens and the cyberhighway in our day-to-day society? Which evolution do you foresee?

A: The Internet has reached a crucial turning point. All of those who do want to be on it — who immediately perceive the benefits — are now on it. But there are many, many more who aren't on it, who dismiss it as hype, or a fad, or a vast wasteland. They'll need to be convinced to come on board, and doing that is going to be difficult. I think the biggest shift we're seeing in the Internet is a move away from interactivity — such as the Usenet newsgroups — and toward simply getting information without any human contact — such as through a World Wide Web home page. Ironically, that's probably going to bring more people onto the Internet in the long run; many people get burned very early on in the newsgroups by the incredible rudeness of some of the people there. Human beings were not meant to communicate by short snatches of text glowing on a computer screen; we see everything that's written as much harsher than the writer intended it. Until we find some way to deal with that, the Internet will still have a wall around it keeping most people out.

Q: What are your main projects for the future? Is there any new book coming out?

A: I have three more books completed and on their way out. Starplex is a hard-SF far-future novel, which will be published in the U.S. in October 1996, after serialization in Analog. Frameshift is a novel very much like The Terminal Experiment, set in the present day and dealing with some of the moral quandaries presented by genetics research. After that, it's Illegal Alien, a courtroom drama with an extraterrestrial defendant. I'm keeping quite busy — and loving every minute of it.

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