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

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Reuter World Report

Wednesday, August 14 1996 at 09:05EDT

Sci-fi writer wins awards
with focus on human soul

This article ran in newspapers all over the world — including The West Australian for August 21, 1996.

TORONTO, Aug 13, 1996 (Reuter) — With alien invasion film Independence Day shattering box office records and TV networks scrambling to imitate The X-Files, you might expect the top sci-fi novel of 1996 to be a sweeping tale of extraterrestrials or government coverups of UFO landings.

But the book sweeping this year's top science fiction awards is about a Toronto engineer in a bad marriage who stumbles across scientific proof of the human soul. Hard to believe? Some days Robert J. Sawyer, who wrote the award-winning The Terminal Experiment, has trouble believing it himself. "I always wanted to be a science fiction writer but I never thought I could make a living at it," the bearded writer said. "The prize has changed my life in all kinds of ways."

Sales of The Terminal Experiment have skyrocketed since it won the Nebula, the world's top award for a work of science fiction. A movie deal is in the works and the book is being translated into five languages. Often described as the Academy Award of science fiction, the Nebula is voted on by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Sawyer is in good company as past winners include Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Arthur C. Clarke.

But unlike most science fiction stories, Sawyer's book contains no aliens, spaceships or adventures on distant planets. It is set just 15 years from now and tells the story of a death-obsessed engineer who finds scientific proof that the human soul exists.

Critics said it was the book's focus on character and the complicated ethical issues that arise from new technology that helped it win both the Nebula in April and the Aurora, Canada's top prize for science fiction, in July. Sawyer's book set itself apart by "dealing with real people — it's not dealing with cardboard cutouts the way much of science fiction does," said Michael Capobianco, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

At the core of the The Terminal Experiment is a story of a marriage in trouble, and people responded positively to that, Sawyer said. The award is especially satisfying for him because he was originally encouraged by editors to remove some of the more controversial parts of the book.

Sawyer's previous novels were set on different planets with aliens as main characters and the publisher of those novels was uncomfortable with the discussion in The Terminal Experiment of the human soul and abortion. Rather than change the book, Sawyer changed publishers.

"I had some very strong feelings about the vision of this book. This one meant an enormous amount to me and I wanted to do it my way," Sawyer said. His gamble paid off. Publishers tell him the book will likely never go out of print. Japanese, Polish, Russian, German and Italian language rights have been sold and a British film producer has optioned the movie rights.

In the first three months the book sold more than 50,000 copies in English and orders flooded in after the award was announced, said Sawyer, the first native-born Canadian to win the award. U.S.-born William Gibson, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, won in 1984 for his novel Neuromancer and went on to become one of science-fiction's most popular authors, coining the term cyberspace and helping to found the "cyberpunk" movement in science fiction.

Sawyer, who considers Gibson one of the best stylists writing science fiction, said he does not expect his novel to have the impact or popularity of Neuromancer. "That one novel was enough to secure his claim to fame," Sawyer said. "My novel did not start a movement like Gibson's did."

However, The Terminal Experiment is raising the profile of Canadian science fiction, which is often overshadowed by its U.S. counterpart. Many Canadian science fiction writers rarely set their stories in Canada or make them distinctly Canadian.

"It will give credibility to writers that are working up here," said Rick Green, who hosted Prisoners of Gravity, a television program about science-fiction that ran for five seasons in Canada.

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