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

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SFRevu Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

by Ernest Lilley

From SFRevu December 1997 Vol. 1.6

Review of Robert J. Sawyer's Illegal Alien

Ace Science Fiction, Decmeber 1997, ISBN 0-441-00476-8, US$21.95, Cdn$30.95

by Ernest Lilley

[Illegal Alien] Robert J. Sawyer, Nebula Award-winning author of Factoring Humanity, Starplex, and the Quintaglio saga (Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner) boldly takes science-fiction readers where they have never gone before — the Los Angeles County Courtroom. Illegal Alien is a cross between a Perry Mason whodunit and a first contact novel, written by an author in a position to comment on the American legal system — a Canadian.

When an extraterrestrial lander comes down off the coast of Brazil and is greeted by the USS Kitty Hawk with a presidential science advisor and a PBS astronomy show host for a first contact team, things seem to be going really well for interplanetary relations. The aliens are reasonable, friendly, quick students of human language and custom and besides, they need our help fixing their ship and are willing to share their technology to get it done. Everything is going just fine, until the PBS host turns up very dead in the complex the aliens are staying in and from the evidence lying all over the dissected body, including alien blood, you don't have to be O.J. Simpson's lawyers to point a finger at our friends from the stars.

But this is California, where the laws of space and time may apply but with the right legal team, anything can happen. Right? Frank Nobilio, Presidential Science Advisor and friend of the deceased, has to try to quietly engineer a verdict that won't start an interstellar war while serving justice for his friend. Finding out the truth might be nice if he can manage it too.

If you missed the O.J. Simpson trial, or if you miss its daily appearance on the news, you can sit back with what must surely be the trial of the millennia, when illegal aliens meet our justice system. I enjoyed the story, reading it at one sitting, (Objection! The reviewer stood up several times to stretch his legs!...Sustained.) well, almost one sitting. This book would make great reading while waiting to be rejected from a jury, in fact it might pretty well ensure it from what Sawyer says about the jury selection process.

After reading the testimony in the book, we hauled the author in to answer a few questions concerning this and other acts of Science Fiction he has perpetrated.

Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Conducted by Ernest Lilley

[Robert J. Sawyer] SFRevu: Great job on Illegal Alien. I make it a point not to watch criminal proceedings on TV myself, but you certainly seem to know a great deal about what goes on inside a courtroom. Too much time watching O.J. or just good ol' research?

Robert J. Sawyer: Illegal Alien isn't so much a response to the Simpson trial per se as it is my response to the experience of watching the that trial — or, indeed, any American trial — as a non-American. I'm sure the whole Simpson affair was bizarre to Americans, too, but I am a Canadian, and so I was looking at it from an outsider's perspective. And that thought kept running through my mind: an outsider's perspective on American justice. The title Illegal Alien popped into my head, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As far as research is concerned, yes, I did tons of it. I went to Los Angeles three times during the writing of that book, and I sat in on trials in the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building. I also read all kinds of books — things with titles like The Art Of Jury Selection and Techniques Of Cross-Examination. And, as I always do, I enlisted experts to help me out, including Ariel Reich, a practicing California lawyer; Karl Fuss, who runs a court-reporting company; law professors, and more. And, yes, I did have the Simpson trial constantly running on the TV in my office . . .

SFRevu: OK, Robert, one more time. Where does one start when writing a whodunit? Does the author know it was Col. Mustard in the Library and work backwards to lead a trail up to the door? How much Erle Stanley Gardner have you read?

Sawyer: Actually, I've never read any Erle Stanley Gardner, but my mother was addicted to the Perry Mason television series; it was on in our house all the time. But I do read a lot of crime fiction; I was reading one of Ed McBain's Matthew Hope courtroom dramas when the idea of doing Illegal Alien occurred to me.

And, yes, really the only effective way to write a crime novel is to know who did it and why before you start; you've got to plant clues along the way, after all. I spent a lot of time trying different scenarios before I came up with the one I settled on. I won't give anything away, but readers familiar with my earlier books, especially Fossil Hunter, know that I've got a fondness for playing with Darwinian theory.

SFRevu: Last time we talked, you told me you were intent on doing mainstream (if my memory serves me correctly). Since then I've read Frameshift and Illegal Alien to see how far you've gone. How far have you gone? How far will you go? Is the Science Fiction tag on the spine hampering sales? Also: How did Frameshift do?

Sawyer: Lots of good questions. I don't deny that for a long time I wanted to break out into the mainstream, but I've had a change of heart. Winning the Nebula Award was probably the decisive factor, convincing me that writing science fiction was my first, best destiny. Sure, The Terminal Experiment, Frameshift, Illegal Alien, and the one I've got coming in June 1998 called Factoring Humanity could all be read by any intelligent reader inside or outside the genre, but Starplex is also a recent book of mine, and it's pure spaceships-and-aliens SF. I don't want to give up writing about aliens or starships or time travel, and I've discovered, to my shock, that books like Frameshift — difficult, complex novels — really do go over the heads of mainstream reviewers; it seems the SF audience really is more intelligent, and more interested in being made to think, than the mainstream one is.

Still, as to whether that "Science Fiction" tag hampers sales, I'm afraid the answer is probably yes. When Tom Doherty Associates bought Frameshift, my editor — the terrific David G. Hartwell — and I had some discussions about where the book should be placed. Tom Doherty Associates has two imprints: Tor, which they use for genre fiction, and Forge, which they use for mainstream fiction. I wanted to be published as Forge, but David said the rule is that if there's more than one SF element, the book has to be Tor. Well, Frameshift has cloning, breakthroughs in DNA research, and a little bit of scientifically justified telepathy, so that made it a Tor title. I've come around to thinking that that's actually a fine thing, though. I'm making a comfortable living writing SF — partly due to the generosity of Tor, but also do largely to my agent Ralph Vicinanza's ability to aggressively place me in international markets, and my the work of Brian Lipson, my Hollywood agent, in optioning film rights to my books. Sure, I'll never become the next Michael Crichton by staying a genre-SF author, but the publishing world is littered with Michael Crichton wannabes who never caught on. It looks like I'm going to have a long and comfortable career inside the SF field, and I think I've become content to have just that.

As for how Frameshift did, the answer is very well indeed: so well, in fact, that when Ralph went to Tor to negotiate my next deal, they started out by offering double what they'd paid me for Frameshift, without Ralph having to say a word. Of course Ralph, being a great agent, got them to go even higher.

SFRevu: The normal approach to expanding the readership of SF is to try and hook young readers, Charles Shefield, Allen Steele and a few others are trying to go this route. You, on the other hand, seem to be trying to reach adult readers with techie stories that happen to have SF elements in them. Am I right?

You're right, although I think Far-Seer, which I did early in my career, could easily be read and enjoyed by teenagers — indeed, the New York Public Library called it one of 1992's best books for teenage readers. When I started out writing SF novels, I do think I was trying to re-capture the wonder I'd felt as a teenager reading SF myself for the first time. But now, I am indeed writing SF for a middle-aged audience. I know it turns off some younger readers who have no interest in reading about mid-life crises and marital problems. But in general the SF audience is graying, anyway. I entered fandom in 1975, at the age of fifteen, and I seemed to be about the average age of the people I saw at SF conventions then. Now, it's 22 years later, and I'm still the average age. The field IS growing up, which is a fortunate thing for me, since I am indeed trying to write SF novels for mature adults.

SFRevu: OK, I believe you can write stories without dinosaurs in them. Don't you miss the cute guys just a bit? Will the Quintaglio fleet ever reach Earth to see what the old neighborhood looks like?

Sawyer: I'm really amazed — and very pleased — by how much fan mail I still get about Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner. I do dearly love those characters, and hope to return to them someday. But I'll tell you the honest truth: all three books are out-of-print; Ace would either have to reprint them, or they'd have to revert the rights to me so that I could sell them to someone else, before I could contemplate doing more work in that universe. That's not the answer the fans want to hear, but it is the reality of the publishing game. I really do hope that circumstances will allow me to write more about the Quintaglios soon.

SFRevu: What are you up to now?

Sawyer: I'm about halfway through a novel with the working title of Mosaic. It has to do with an experiment that goes awry at CERN, causing the consciousness of everyone on the planet to jump ahead twenty years for a period of five minutes. It's very much a character-driven novel, but with lots of nifty physics thrown in. It'll be out in hardcover from Tor in 1999.

SFRevu: Besides writing, what would like to do that you haven't yet?

Sawyer: I don't have many unfulfilled ambitions; I'm actually a very happy and reasonably contented man. My wife Carolyn and I both like to travel, and there are lots of places we haven't seen yet but want to — including Australia, which we'll be visiting for the 1999 Worldcon. And one of these years, I'm going to take part in a real dinosaur dig: Phil Currie at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in the Alberta badlands is a friend of mine, and he's invited me to come out sometime. It's just a matter of scheduling; I'm sure that will happen someday. Also, I've spent a lot of time teaching SF writing, but I've never done it at Clarion or Clarion West; someday, I hope to get asked to teach there — I think it would be a fascinating experience.

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Other interviews with Rob
The first chapters of Illegal Alien

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