SFWRITER.COM > About Rob > Oxford Bookshop Interview
Robert J. Sawyer
Conducted in February 1998
by Pete Vanderlugt
of Oxford Bookshop,
Good afternoon, Mr. Sawyer. I've heard that you bill yourself as
"Canada's only full-time native-born science-fiction writer."
That's quite a title. Is it all right if I just call you Rob?
Well, it was actually The Sci-Fi Channel that dubbed
me that, during a profile of me that aired on
Sci-Fi Buzz but it's true and it is a significant
combination of attributes. Canada has produced very few
SF writers lots of fantasy writers, but not many who actually
write SF. And, of those who do, most of the others were born
elsewhere, and utterly ignore Canada in their work I defy you
to find Canadian content in William Gibson's books, for instance.
And any writer who can make a full-time living at it, well,
excuse me, but that is a significant achievement. But, sure, you
can call me Rob although a lot of people in the SF field call
me R.J., a nickname that fantasy writer Tanya Huff gave me almost
twenty years ago.
You have two books published recently with your name attached.
The first is your novel Illegal Alien. It is a highly detailed
courtroom drama that, besides the fact that the defendant is an
alien, is reminiscent of a Grisham novel (I say that in a good
way). What, if anything, inspired you to write it?
Oh, Grisham is not a dirty word with me. I quite admire what he
does. Like the best SF, his courtroom dramas are usually
issue-oriented. The Runaway Jury dealt with the evils of the
tobacco industry; The Rainmaker with corruption in the insurance
industry; The Chamber with the debate over capital punishment;
and his latest, The Street Lawyer, with the plight of the
homeless. As an issues-oriented writer myself
The Terminal Experiment deals with the
Frameshift deals with
the crisis in U.S. health insurance,
Factoring Humanity deals
with false-memory syndrome I have to admire a guy who tells a
really entertaining story while at the same time making people
think. He deserves every bit of success he's had.
is my response to the
criminal trial. To me, the single most interesting thing to come
out of that was the pretty cut-and-dried distinction between the
way white America and black America viewed the outcome. White
America almost unanimously felt that O.J. had gotten away with
murder, while black America, again almost unanimously, felt that
this was a classic example of the authorities being out to
persecute an innocent black man. One of my personal heroes is
Martin Luther King, Jr. I use an epigram from him as the
opening of my novel
Starplex, quote his "I have a dream" speech
at length in Frameshift, and of course mention him in
Illegal Alien. I think the civil-rights struggle not just in the
U.S., but in South Africa and elsewhere has been the defining
experience of the 20th century, even more so than World War II.
And yet it was clear in the Simpson trial that race still
permeates everything in the U.S. Well, I wanted to explore that
in science-fictional terms, and putting a real alien an
extraterrestrial on trial let me do just that.
Your second recent book, edited by you and your wife, Carolyn Clink, is
Tesseract 6, the 7th in a series of Canadian SF&F anthologies
(one was entitled Tesseracts Q to honour Quebec writers).
It is an honour to be chosen to edit such an excellent anthology.
I am surprised they waited so long to ask you. As an editor for
a Canadian SF anthology, what qualities were you looking for in
the stories submitted?
When we were asked to edit
Tesseracts 6, we were told that the
publisher looks for a "balanced" anthology: male and female
writers, new and established writers, eastern and western
Canadian writers, etc. etc. etc. And my wife and I thought,
basically, that those were well-intentioned instructions, but we
decided to simply ignore them and to pick the best stories,
period. And you know what? We are the only volume in the
Tesseract series to end up publishing work by visible minorities
Eric Choi, who is Chinese-Canadian, and Nalo Hopkinson, who is
Jamaican-Canadian. We never did bother to tally up in how many
women vs. men we had, or where they came from in Canada. I
actually do believe in affirmative action in the business and
academic worlds, but there was no need for that here. We were
simply looking for creative stories, well told. A lot of people
expected the anthology to have a strong SF bent, given that I was
one of the editors, but we actually ended up with far more
fantasy. In terms of quality, the fantasy submissions were
better than the SF ones, and, in the end, what matters is not
what the demographics of the contributors are, but simply whether
the book is a good read which, we think, Tesseracts 6
How does Canadian Science Fiction stack up to, say, American
writing? What is the difference (in a nut-shell; I know there
are volumes of things to be said on the topic).
Oh, that's easy: Canadian SF good; American SF bad. No,
seriously, despite the efforts of countless academics to try to
find a difference between the two, there isn't any that is
meaningful; for every supposed rule you can come up with, there
are numerous exceptions. Canadian SF
writers are a very diverse
lot, and Canada has always prided itself on being a cultural
mosaic instead of a melting pot, like the States. There is no
kind of SF that Canadian writers don't write well. Space opera?
Phyllis Gotlieb. Cyberpunk? William Gibson. Alternate history?
S. M. Stirling. Feminist SF? Candas Jane Dorsey. Funny SF?
James Alan Gardner. So I leave it for others to try to figure
out what we've all got in common.
Your next novel, Factoring Humanity, is due out in June. Could
you tell us a little (or a lot) about it?
I'm rarely enthused about my novels while I'm writing them; I
think a healthy degree of self-loathing is important if a writer
is ever going to grow as an artist. But
Factoring Humanity is
the first novel I've ever actually been pleased with when I
finished it; I really think that it, rather than my
The Terminal Experiment, is the one I'll be remembered for after
As usual, I'm trying to combine the very human with the grandly
cosmic. Kyle Graves is a computer-science professor at the
University of Toronto in the year 2017. He's working towards a
breakthrough in quantum computing; the pseudo-AI he's created, a
computer named Cheetah, is one of my absolute favorites of all
the characters I've ever written.
Meanwhile, Kyle's wife, psychologist Heather Davis, is trying to
decipher a series of
radio messages received from inhabitants of
a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. But before either of them
makes a breakthrough, their lives are shattered when their
nineteen-year-old daughter Rebecca accuses her father, Kyle, of
having molested her as a child. An alien technology gleaned from
the Alpha Centauri messages holds the key to determining the
absolute truth about what happened all those years ago. The book
is really Heather's story, and what she learns will not only
transform her family, but the entire human race, as well.
Your novels touch on a variety of issues that are not necessarily
SF-themed. They discuss immortality, life-after death, the soul,
sanctity of life, etc. Is SF, for you, just a tool to discuss
philosophical and metaphysical issues such as these?
SF isn't "just" a tool for this it's the best possible tool,
for several reasons. First, you simply can't discuss religion
or politics or morality at their fundamental levels in most
venues; indeed, people are advised to avoid those topics in
polite conversation. But in SF, the audience is wide open to
them and, because you can use the metaphoric disguises of
alien beings or alternate histories, SF allows you to get past
the readers' preconceptions. As for metaphysics, serious SF
as opposed to silly X-Files stuff, for which the slogan seems
to be "trust no one and believe in everything" is just about
the only venue for discussing these topics with an appropriately
intelligent but fundamentally skeptical and rational audience.
If you say to most people that you're interested in telepathy,
they think you're a flake. But SF readers understand that you
can be genuinely curious about telepathy, or the existence of
souls, or whatever, without being a gullible, credulous fringe
character. When you've got an appreciative, intelligent audience
like that, why wouldn't you tackle the big issues with them?
Your newest novel, Factoring Humanity, has been awarded Spain's
UPC prize, the largest cash award in SF. Congratulations.
You've won quite a few awards over the years (Aurora, Nebula,
Arthur Ellis, etc.). Besides the cash prize, what do they mean
for you as a writer?
I've won nineteen national and international
awards to date,
including, to my surprise and delight, the top SF awards in the
United States (the Nebula),
Japan (the Seiun),
France (Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire),
Spain (Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción), and
Canada (the Aurora).
And they've had an enormous impact on my
career, in several ways: first, they've helped my advances.
Winning the Nebula more than doubled what I was making in the
U.S., more than doubled what I was making in the U.K., and sent
my Japanese advances soaring 500%. Second, they provide an
assurance to potential readers that, hey, maybe this will be a
good book after all. Most readers are skeptical of quotes from
reviews that appear on the cover of a book, because the know that
artful editing can make even a pan appear as praise, but there's
no way to take "Nebula Award winner" out of context if you won
that, it means, in the eyes of the field's own writers, that you
wrote the best work of the entire year. It's a sterling
credential to be able to place on a book. Third, awards are
great way of getting respectability outside of the field. I've
lectured at lots of universities, spoken at mainstream writers'
festivals, and get interviewed on
TV a lot the people booking
me for those things often know nothing about SF, but they
understand the significance of winning awards. Finally, I think
awards are good for the field as a whole: to a lot of people,
the idea that SF can be quality work is still a foreign concept;
the fact that SF does produce award-caliber work is something
You said once that you don't believe in genres. All your
stories can generally be classified as Science Fiction or
Fantasy, yet for
"Just Like Old Times," you won the
Arthur Ellis Award, which is a Mystery award.
You've also done courtroom drama in Illegal Alien.
Have you lost a large readership by
being classified as a genre (SF) writer?
Well, there's no doubt that if I could pull in Michael Crichton's
audience, I'd sell a lot more books. But the world is littered
with failed Crichton wannabes. Sure, there are lots of readers
who, I'm sure, would enjoy my books, but never venture into the
SF section of the bookstore. But I've become convinced that it's
folly to try to go after the largest possible audience; rather,
every writer should target his or her most-appreciative audience
the core readers who will most enjoy what you're writing. If
I really wanted to go after a mainstream audience, I'd have to
dumb down a lot of what I do; the SF readership is enormously
well-educated, after all, and actually enjoys the odd five-page
excursion into pure physics or pure philosophy. I'm not a rich
man, but I make a comfortable living . . . and, in SF, it looks
like I'll be able to continue to make that living for decades to
come. Sure, if I could get my books shelved in SF and mystery
and mainstream, that would be great, but the reality is that
booksellers are only going to put a given title in one section,
and since I have to choose just one, SF is the one I pick. It's
where I would go if I were looking for books like those I write;
it's the natural water hole for my natural audience.
Canadians are known to "eat their young," so to speak. How
difficult has it been to make a name for yourself in Canada?
Well, I've been lucky; you remarked earlier on the fact that I'm
Canada's only native-born full-time science-fiction writer. That
makes it pretty easy to get press attention
in Canada. And,
unlike some Canadian writers, my work revels in its Canadian
content, and also has a hopeful view of Canada's future. That
seems to appeal enormously to Canadians. It's not pandering;
it's what I sincerely believe. I'm extraordinarily proud of
Canada; Americans, you know, keep asserting that theirs is the
best country in the world, but each year the UN does a survey to
actually determine what's the best place to live, and Canada
often comes out number one in the world and always beats the US.
Still, the biggest boost in making my name in Canada was winning
the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula
Award. That "of America" carries enormous weight in my country;
Canadians have never trusted their own tastes, and have always
looked south of the border for validation. I'm lucky enough to
have been given the USA seal of approval.
In terms of self-promotion, you seem to do quite well on the
Internet. Your web-site (www.sfwriter.com) is enormous!
Everything you ever wanted to know about Robert J. Sawyer, and
more! Is it worth taking the time off of writing to keep it
Oh, sure. The web site has been more effective than all the SF
conventions I've attended and all the bookstore signings I've
done combined in reaching people who might be interested in my
books. I can't believe other writers are failing to take
advantage of this medium you'd particularly expect SF writers
to be savvy about new technologies, but so many of them are
blissfully ignorant of what's going on in cyberspace. They hole
up on Genie the lungfish of online services, without graphical
web access or home-page hosting, or binary Internet e-mail and
kvetch about why their advances are shrinking and their books
I'll give you one concrete example of the benefit of having such
an extensive web site. I'm going to be USA Today Online's
"Author of the Month" for July 1998. USA Today Online is one of
the most popular web sites in the entire world, with millions of
hits each day; the promotional value of being associated with
that for an entire month is beyond calculating. Neither I nor my
publisher could ever afford to buy such advertising. And how did
I get this? Simple. The books editor for USA Today Online was
surfing the net, looking for author sites that impressed her . . .
and she found mine.
Your web site has a number of
short stories in their entirety, as
preview chapters for your novels.
How soon do you feel
you might publish a full length novel on-line? Similarly, do you
feel the Internet holds promise or problem for writers in general
(i.e., publishing, promotion, "hack" writing)?
I think it's going to be a good long time before we see new
novels from established writers appearing first online; I rather
print-on-demand will be the next revolution in
publishing, instead (that is, booksellers will print and bind
novels in the stores when the customer orders them). The
problems with posting novels on the net are several: first, how
do readers distinguish the wheat from the chaff? There already
are lots of amateur novels available online, and they almost all
stink; what makes a published novel stand out is that someone
other than the author put tens of thousands of dollars into
bringing the book to market that's a vote of confidence, and a
sign that some trained experts thought the work had real merit.
Second, how does the author control copying? You pay $20 to
download my latest opus . . . which is great, until you email it to
five hundred friends. It's going to be very difficult to control
that. Also, all the pundits who predict the imminent death of
the book are the same pundits who predicted New Coke would work:
they're people who don't understand emotional attachment to the
way things are, nostalgia, and sensual pleasure. People like
reading paper books; they like the feel, the heft, the
portability. The public is not clamoring for paperless novels;
until they are and, as I say, I doubt they will be for many
years to come there's no demand waiting to be met.
There certainly are lots of promotional opportunities on the web,
though. I suspect one of the biggest boons to SF publishing may
be the advent of
online bookstores. For a typical SF hardcover,
only five or ten thousand copies are printed. But, of course,
there are far more than ten thousand bookstores in the
English-speaking world, so you're not going to get even one copy
into most stores. Which means most media promotion related to
hardcover SF is pointless: if you hear me on the radio, and I'm
talking about my new book, and you say, gee, that sounds
interesting, and you remember to look for it next time you're in
a bookstore, and the bookstore doesn't have it, you just forget
about it and the sale is lost. But if you hear me say in an
interview, "Check out my web site at sfwriter.com" I chose
that name because once you've heard it you'll never forget it
and you can directly order the book from there via a link to an
online bookseller, well, then a sale is made. Web sites make it
possible to read sample chapters,
and online ordering makes it
possible to have the book delivered to you anywhere in the world,
even if no regular bookshop within a hundred kilometres has a
copy. What we need now is for the SF specialty stores to get
aggressively into this. Future Fantasy in Palo Alto, California,
has made a good start but whoever produces the first online SF
specialty store that really builds a sense of community, with
author real-time chats and
reading groups and more will really
Where do you find time to write fiction? You are involved in
everything from doing a column entitled
"On Writing" in On Spec magazine, to
teaching SF at Ryerson Polytechnic University and the University
of Toronto, a bi-weekly spot on
@discovery.ca, and various
essays, articles and
Actually, I think I managed to get bit over-committed there in
the eighteen months following my Nebula Award win. I've given up
teaching the course at Ryerson my buddy
Edo van Belkom has
taken over the course, just as I had taken it over from
Judith Merril, who asked me to pick
it up when she wanted to retire from
it. I'm not teaching again at U of T; I've stopped doing the
On Spec column; and I'm turning down
almost all non-fiction requests. I'm keeping the bi-weekly
"2020 Vision" spot on
The Discovery Channel, though, because
it's lucrative, fun, and enormously good publicity.
Still, I wasn't getting as much actual writing done as I liked.
I've taken a couple of steps to help with that. First, in June
my wife quit her job in the printing
industry to come work
for me full-time; I was losing about two days a week to
correspondence, proofreading, promotional stuff, accounting, and
so on. My wife now takes care of that. And, now that we're not
tied down to her schedule, we're spending much more time away
from the hustle and bustle and ringing phones! of Toronto.
Mostly, we retreat down to Canandaigua Lake in Upstate New York,
where I do nothing but write my fiction without interruptions.
I've done about half of my current novel, FlashForward, down there.
Due to the accessibility of computer-graphic technology, SF
movies are becoming easier and cheaper to make. We see this in
the quantity of SF movies being made. Which of your books do you
feel could be adapted to movies, and which would you most want to
First, I want to address one of my pet peeves. I'm a novelist;
my art is writing books and the expression of what I wish to
accomplish is compete when the book is published. No one ever
asks a painter if he's hoping someone will make an animated
cartoon out of one of his paintings. No one says to a sculptor,
gee, bet you're hoping someone will make an action-figure toy out
of your statue. But somehow, quite recently, writing books has
begun to be perceived as merely a step on the way to the silver
screen. I actually have a degree in Radio and Television Arts; I
studied scriptwriting at university and I decided it was not
what I wanted to do. The printed page is my medium of choice.
That said, if someone wanted to make a movie of one of my books,
that would be great for one reason and one reason only: the
money. Even a low-budget direct-to-video film puts a hundred
thousand dollars in a novelist's pocket; a feature would look
after my wife and my retirement very nicely. But I certainly
don't think a scriptwriter is going to improve on my
storytelling, nor that any computer-generated imagery is going to
be better than what you, the reader, could come up with in your
Do I think my books would make good movies? Sure. Do I think
there's an audience for them? That's hard to say. I write
intelligent science fiction, for educated adults who have an
appreciation for real science and who enjoy the intellectual
process. Are there hundreds of thousands of people out there who
appreciate that sort of thing? God, I hope so. Are there the
millions that Hollywood needs to make a feature film viable? I'm
dubious although we've had dozens of inquiries about film
rights to The Terminal Experiment,
including from some very major Hollywood players, and the book
is constantly under option, so perhaps I'm being too cynical.
Still, I suppose the
Quintaglio trilogy would be visually
stunning, either as computer-generated imagery or traditional cel
animation, but I'd hate to see the stories dumbed down. Of all
my books, I guess Illegal Alien
which has a simple, linear plotline might be the most eminently
A few years ago, you were involved in a highly acclaimed
television series titled
Prisoners of Gravity, which was
canceled for some reason. What was that reason, and would you be
interested in doing something similar again (besides
Prisoners of Gravity was produced by TVOntario, which is the
provincial public-broadcasting service in Ontario, Canada. It
ran for five seasons, which, by the standards of any country's
broadcasting, is a great success. But, yes, it was canceled
and for purely political reasons. TVO was always somewhat
embarrassed by the success of PoG, which they saw as low-brow
compared to their "serious" books program, Imprint which
PoG slaughtered week after week in the ratings. And they got
it in their heads that they should be doing a nightly
current-affairs program, even though Canada was already knee-deep
in such things. Anyway, to free up funds for this new series,
they had to cancel some things. It was the perfect excuse to ax
PoG, even though it cost a minuscule $26,000 an episode.
Fortunately, Mark Askwith [in photo, holding microphone], co-creator of PoG, is now a producer
at Space: The Imagination Station, Canada's SF specialty channel,
and he's making a lot of use of me; indeed I was the very first
person to appear on Space when it debuted back in October 1997. I
enjoy doing TV appearances, and, of course,
they're great promotion for my novels, but I really don't want to
get much more involved in television than I am now; I'm doing about one TV
appearance every other week, and that's plenty. The most
important thing is writing the books and I don't want anything
to get in the way of that.
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