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

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Writing Frameshift

A Discussion with Robert J. Sawyer

Interview by David Pitt

On May 26, 1997, David Pitt, a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, interviewed Robert J. Sawyer by email about the writing of Rob's eighth novel, Frameshift, for an article which appeared in the July 5, 1997, Halifax Chronicle-Herald. Here's a transcript of that email interview.

Note: This interview discusses many aspects of the plot of Frameshift. You may prefer not to read the interview until after you've read the book.

David Pitt: Were you worried about readers' reactions to Pierre's fate at the end of the novel — in the sense that most readers will probably expect a happier ending?

Robert J. Sawyer: The one area of real disagreement my editor and I had over this book was the question of what should happen at the end. It's often said that American SF has happy endings and Canadian SF has unhappy ones. I don't think the ending of Frameshift is unhappy; indeed, I think it's rather uplifting. But I posited a character with a fatal disease, and had to decide whether or not to save him at the end of the book. There was some thinking that, well, you know, Huntington's is a genetic disorder and my main character is a geneticist, so maybe he could find a cure. But I felt that would have been a cheat. First, of course, I didn't want the character devoting his life to trying to cure his own disease; there's no particular nobility in that. Second, I felt that real people who had Huntington's would be insulted if I pulled a magic rabbit out of the hat at the end; it would have been as though I were minimizing their very real problem.

Pitt: Molly's telepathic gift: Did you introduce it to fulfill certain plot requirements — e.g., Pierre's search for the genetic difference that leads him to the realization that Amanda may be Hapless Hannah — or did those plot developments grow out of her gift? In other words: which came first, Molly's gift or the plot?

Sawyer: Molly's genetic gift — her limited ability to read minds — came first, and, indeed, I tried as much as possible to avoid letting it drive the plot or use it as a convenient way of solving plot problems. What I was really interested in was a family portrait of the human species through time. I knew where we'd come from — mute Neanderthals. And I knew where we were: articulate beings. But where were we going? Well, telepathy seemed a reasonable guess for the next stage in human evolution, and Molly exists as my way of portraying what that might be like.

Pitt: What made you choose the Demjanjuk case, instead of creating a fictional Nazi war criminal (as most writers probably would have done)? And where did you do your research? (I pulled an article by Pat Buchanan off the Internet; it confirms most of what you say in Frameshift.)

Sawyer: All the facts I present relating to the Demjanjuk case are absolutely accurate. In researching it, I relied on countless newspaper and magazine articles, plus the books Identifying Ivan: A Case Study in Legal Psychology by Willem A. Wagenaar (Harvard University Press, 1988); The Trial of Ivan the Terrible: State of Israel vs. John Demjanjuk by Tom Teicholz (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1990); and Show Trial: The Conspiracy to Convict John Demjanjuk as "Ivan the Terrible" by Demjanjuk's Israeli attorney Yoram Sheftel (Victor Gollancz, London, 1994 — that's the title of the current paperback edition; the hardcover edition was called The Demjanjuk Affair: The Rise and Fall of a Show-Trial).

At first, I didn't know if I'd be able to use a real Nazi in the book or not, but I preferred not to have to make one up. What I needed was someone who had been involved in mass exterminations and who was possibly still alive and still at large. It took only ten minutes to think that, well, if John Demjanjuk isn't really Ivan Marchenko, the gas-chamber operator at Treblinka, then somebody else must be.

Buchanan, by the way, is a somewhat controversial figure in the Demjanjuk affair; take what he says with a grain of salt. The Teicholz book is probably the most balanced account, even though it was written before the conviction of Demjanjuk was overturned.

Pitt: Does Frameshift exist to solve the "Ivan the Terrible" mystery? (Of its many story threads, that does seem to be the most important.)

Sawyer: Interesting take. To me, the "Ivan the Terrible" mystery, although fascinating, is a subplot; the main story is the effect of breakthroughs in genetics on the insurance industry. So, no, Frameshift doesn't exist to solve that particular mystery, although I do think my own explanation for why Demjanjuk was misidentified by so many people is the most likely one.

Pitt: Why did you choose Huntington's, as opposed to any other disease? Was it because the cure to Huntington's may lie in genetic research, and you needed to keep genetics in the story without "telegraphing" the Hapless Hannah subplot? (Even so — Pierre's quest for the secret of Molly's gift would have kept genetics in the story.) So why Huntington's specifically? Was there a personal reason?

Sawyer: When I started writing Frameshift, I had never met anyone with Huntington's disease, so there's no personal connection. But it seemed natural, if I was going to tell a story about genetics research, that the main character might have a hereditary disorder, and Huntington's, with its slow onset in middle age, fitted my dramatic purposes perfectly. Also, I wanted to make clear that genetics research is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, there's enormous potential for evil — hence the subplot about genetic discrimination. But on the other hand, it's only through genetics research that people with hereditary disorders, such as Huntington's or diabetes — another disease I touch on in the novel — have any hope of a cure. To leave out the plight of those with genetic diseases would have left me writing a Luddite anti-genetics-research novel, and I didn't want to do that.

Pitt: Were you concerned about "dumbing down" the science in the novel? (You didn't dumb it down — but did you worry that you might have to?)

Sawyer: I always worry about how much science I can put in my books, and how much I have to explicate it. It's amazing how many otherwise-educated people know no science at all. But I figure, what the heck, the science fascinates me, and my job is to make it interesting even for those who don't have a natural affinity for it. After all, I enjoy Dick Francis's books, and I don't care at all about horse racing — but any author tries to be infectiously enthusiastic about his or her personal interests, and my personal interest happens to be science.

Pitt: How did the novel evolve? (I'm assuming you didn't sit down and say, hey, I think I'll write a novel with a Nazi war criminal, the Human Genome Project, a one-way telepath, Huntington's, and a cloned Neanderthal.) And were you worried about whether you could pull off a novel with so many different plot elements?

Sawyer: After I finished my previous novel, Starplex, I actually sat at my desk and made a list of intriguing topics that I might write about next. I wrote down "artificial intelligence," "genetics," "first contact with aliens," and a bunch of others. But I very quickly homed in on genetics as being the most likely to have potential for a terrific human story — and that was important to me, just then, because, although I'm very proud of Starplex, it's a very cerebral book, full of ruminations on quantum physics and cosmology. I needed to write something very human next. Well, once I'd decided on genetics, I made a list of words we associate with genetics research, and one you keep hearing, fairly or unfairly, is Nazism. So it wasn't much of a leap to come up with the search for a potential Nazi war criminal who might have a senior position in the Human Genome Project.

I knew I'd put a lot of stuff into this one book, but the feedback I've gotten from readers of my earlier works is that that's one of the things they expect and enjoy in a Rob Sawyer novel: the interplay of disparate areas. But I did worry about how it would be received, and whether people would call it a mess or if all the elements would jell for the readers the way they did for me as a writer. Fortunately, most reviewers have gotten the point. Library Journal said, "Sawyer has created a gripping medical SF thriller. Skillfully interwoven is the misidentification of John Demjanjuk at the Treblinka death camp's Ivan the Terrible, the cloning of Neanderthal genes, and a greedy insurance company. Highly recommended." So, it looks like it was a success.

But, in fact, my agent at the time I wrote Frameshift did suggest that I should cut out some of the plot elements. I actually tried that at one point. The Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Spain has an annual contest for the best SF novella written in Spanish, Catalan, French, or English. I won their 250,000-peseta prize for a shortened version of Frameshift that concentrated solely on the Neanderthal/telepathy subplot. But I felt as I removed various elements to get it down to the length required for that contest that I was diminishing the book. All those things aren't in there to pad it out; they're in there because they each form an integral part of the overall view of genetics I wanted to present.

I did, however, drop one plotline from the novel before its publication in book form: there was a whole sequence about what's called a "wrongful life" lawsuit by the parents of a boy who has Down's syndrome; the mother's OB/GYN botched the tests that should have warned them in time to abort the pregnancy because it was bound to result in what the mother would have viewed as a defective fetus. The boy actually still appears in a scene or two in the novel, but the lawsuit plotline got cut to save space.

Pitt: Hapless Hannah: Unlike Huntington's (a real disease), the Human Genome Project (a real scientific enterprise), and Demjanjuk (a real person), Hannah is — so far as I know — fictional. Were you disappointed you could not "adapt" a real Neanderthal to suit the requirements of the story? Or was the Neanderthal in Frameshift intended to be fictional from the outset? (I confess I wondered why you didn't use Lucy — who's not a Neanderthal — perhaps by having Klimus make some new (and fictional) discovery about her.)

Sawyer: I didn't use Lucy for the same reason I didn't use a real Neanderthal: at the time I wrote the book, there was no real DNA available from Lucy or any existing Neanderthal fossil. People have gotten the wrong impression from Jurassic Park and the use of DNA to clear up old murder mysteries: DNA is actually a fragile substance, and so I had to posit a very specific set of events that might result in a Neanderthal dying in such a way that the DNA might survive intact. Hapless Hannah dies in a a cave-in that completely sealed her in, and aerobic bacteria in the cave used up all the oxygen, meaning her remains spent the last sixty thousand years in an oxygen-free environment. That prevented the cytosine and thymine in her DNA from oxidizing, meaning that her DNA could be recovered intact.

Another reason not to use Lucy is, of course, that Lucy wouldn't pass as a modern woman's natural child for even two seconds after birth. Lucy is Australopithecus afarensis — far more similar in appearance to a chimp than a human — whereas Neanderthals arguable are even the same species as us, and so might indeed look like modern humans.

But, to answer your question, sure, I was disappointed that there was no existing Neanderthal that I could have used; it's much better from the point of view of making the whole thing seem real to have to invent as few things as possible.

Pitt: Were there are "suggestions" (to use the polite term) from your publisher or editor about changing any parts of the novel? (i.e., making the science simpler, making the plot less complicated, or whatever) And, if so, how did you react?

Sawyer: I've touched on this already above, but the answer is that it's my novel. Frameshift sold in an auction, with three houses (HarperCollins, Warner, and Tor) bidding against each other for the rights to publish the book; in a situation like that, they're not likely going to ask for big changes. Still, there were a bunch of minor things my editor suggested I change, and on most of them I agreed — but suggestions isn't just the polite term; it's the correct term. I've never had a book editor demand any change. For those suggestions that I didn't want to adopt, my editor understood. After all, it's my name that goes on the book's cover.

More Good Reading

Other interviews with Rob
The first chapter of Frameshift

Writing The Quintaglio Ascension trilogy
Writing The Terminal Experiment
Writing Starplex
Writing Illegal Alien
Writing FlashForward
Writing "Lost in the Mail"
Writing "You See But You Do Not Observe"

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