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

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Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Sci-Fi Weekly (Volume 2, Issue 31 [October 7, 1996])

Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer
  • Name: Robert J. Sawyer
  • Age: 36
  • Residence: Toronto, Ontario
  • Last book read:
    The Galactic Gourmet, by James White
  • SF recommendation:
    Gateway, by Frederik Pohl

Robert J. Sawyer bills himself as Canada's only native-born, full-time science fiction writer. It's a job he takes quite seriously by injecting a healthy dose of Canada into most of his work, something which "American editors and readers have embraced." Fittingly, Sawyer has been honored for his work in both countries, earning the Aurora Award — Canada's national science fiction writing award — a Nebula Award and a nomination on the Hugo ballot.

Sawyer first began publishing science fiction with a short story sale to The Village Voice in 1981. Since then he has produced numerous short stories and nine novels, including seven novels currently in publication and two which have been completed but not yet published (Frameshift, due from Tor Books in May 1997, and Illegal Alien, due from Ace Books in 1998). His latest book, Starplex, just hit store shelves, and typical of Sawyer it combines both hard science fiction and mystery.

Last week Sawyer sat down with Science Fiction Weekly to answer questions submitted by our readers about his views on science fiction, reading and the next millennium. Here is what he had to say:

How did you become so interested in science fiction, and why?
—Adam, Alandau@nrhs.lhric.org


I was born in 1960; in the early 1960s a series of British television programs produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were imported into Canada, including Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, and Thunderbirds. These were my first introductions to science fiction, and I immediately fell in love with the genre (even if the programs themselves were very bad science fiction — I still remember that all Steve Zodiac in Fireball XL5 had to do if he wanted to take a spacewalk was swallow an oxygen pill).

When I was 10 or so, my older bother Peter gave me a used copy of Alan E. Nourse's science fiction novel Trouble on Titan. It was the first science fiction novel I'd ever seen, and I devoured it. My father followed that up with two gifts: Isaac Asimov's The Rest of the Robots and David Gerrold's first novel, Space Skimmer. I was hooked, and throughout my childhood and teenage years, science fiction formed the vast bulk of my reading. These days, I still read science fiction, of course, but I also read a lot of mystery fiction and classic literature.

What was your motivation to become a writer? Was it, "Oh let's try it and see if I'm good" or more of a, "This is what I want to do"?
—Chris Fulton, dfulton@isbe.state.il.us


Definitely the latter. That first science fiction novel I ever read — the aforementioned Alan E. Nourse's Trouble on Titan — began with an essay by Nourse entitled "I've Never Been There," about the joys of writing science fiction. So for me, from the very first book I read, I knew science fiction writing was a job people did, and it was something I wanted to do, too.

I actually got my start professionally as a non-fiction writer: during the 1980s, I wrote over 200 feature articles for Canadian and American magazines, and I was making as much as a dollar a word — so I knew I could write. But writing science fiction was what I really wanted to do, and finally, in 1988, I said to my wife Carolyn, I'm going to start turning down assignments to make time to write a novel. My first novel was Golden Fleece (Warner/Questar, December 1990); Orson Scott Card named it the best science fiction novel of the year in his year-end summation in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. After that, there was no turning back for me: I knew this is what I wanted to do full-time for the rest of my life.

What would you say distinguishes your writing as "Canadian"?
—Pete Vanderlugt, vanderlu@sfu.ca


Well, of course, I have a lot of Canadian characters and settings in my novels: The only earth-based scenes in Golden Fleece take place in Toronto and Thunder Bay, Ontario, and the main character, Aaron Rossman, is Canadian; End of an Era is set entirely in Canada past and present; The Terminal Experiment is also set completely in Canada; and the starship commander in Starplex is a Canadian.

But that's an easy sort of Canadian content. I think the Canadianness of my stories goes deeper than that. For one thing, my scientists often have to make do with less-than-ideal conditions. In End of an Era, the Canadian time-travel expedition was a very low-bucks affair, sponsored in part by The Toronto Sun newspaper.

Margaret Atwood has said that the principal Canadian literary theme is survival against a harsh landscape: if you just stand still, the land will kill you. That's certainly the underlying theme of my Quintaglio Ascension trilogy (Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner). Also, Emperor Dybo in that trilogy is a very Canadian sort of leader: he seeks compromise and avoids confrontation. That ultimately makes him a more effective leader than an American-style gung-ho president, I think.

What "makes" a science fiction writer a Canadian science fiction writer?
—Henry Leperlier, hleperli@indigo.ie

I tend to think that a Canadian writer is one who spent his or her formative years in Canada. I'm Canada's only native-born full-time science fiction writer; most of my colleagues now living in Canada are American-born. To me, Robert Charles Wilson (who wrote Mysterium) is a Canadian because, even though he was born in California, he spent his childhood in Canada; on the other hand, William Gibson, who came to Canada as an American draft-dodger, grew up in the southern U.S., and there's nothing distinctly Canadian about his work. Likewise, Gordon Dickson who was born in Canada, but left in his early childhood, is an American writer, not a Canadian, in my book.

What do you think of Canada's reputation and presence in the science fiction industry? Do you think we will see more Canadian science fiction writers pop out into the industry?
—Gajo Rasic, bm408@torfree.net

Canada is home to William Gibson, Spider and Jeanne Robinson, Robert Charles Wilson, Terence M. Green, and myself; all of us are very fine and rather prolific writers. In addition, there are a bunch of less-prolific, but still excellent Canadian science fiction writers including James Alan Gardner, J. Brian Clarke, Andrew Weiner, and Candas Jane Dorsey. And there will doubtless be more names emerging over the coming years. On a per capita basis, there are fewer Canadian science fiction writers than there are American ones, but I think our quality is higher over all; we don't have any hacks. Gibson, Robinson, and I have all won Nebulas; Robert Charles Wilson has won the Philip K. Dick; and Terence M. Green's latest novel shipped 30,000 copies in hardcover, six times the usual science fiction quantity. I think Canada can be very proud of its science fiction writers, and I suspect that we'll see Canadians recognized as a major force in science fiction in the coming years. Sir Wilfrid Laurier said the 20th century belongs to Canada; I like to quip that he was off by a hundred years.

How would you define science fiction?
—Henry Leperlier, hleperli@indigo.ie


My definition: "Science Fiction is the mainstream literature of an alternative reality." The central conceit of science fiction is that the reader is already familiar with the milieu of the story, even though, in fact, the milieu has been wholly created by the author. As long as the alternative setting is plausible, and as long as the story is told as if to someone from the background in which the story takes place, it's science fiction.

Do you limit your work to the "parameters" of this style of writing?
—Patrick O'Leary, Patri10629@aol.com


My prose style on the sentence level is rather plain; I think being clear and concise are underrated virtues. However, I do try to push the limits of the genre in other ways, especially in areas of acceptable subject matter. The Terminal Experiment was a very hard sell, for instance, because it talked about abortion and religion, something not usually associated with what modern science fiction has devolved into; I had to change publishers, in fact, to get it into print.

I also try to bring a more sophisticated level of characterization to my science fiction than usually found; I minored in psychology, and really work at making my people — and aliens — multifaceted studies in contrasts. Far too many science fiction writers labor forever on getting the tenth decimal place exactly right, but have their people behave in ways no one really would. In a profile of me last month, The Halifax Mail-Star newspaper said, "Sawyer's novels — intelligent, literate, and immensely readable explorations of the biggest ideas there are — prove that science fiction is now literature." I couldn't have asked for a more pleasing summation of exactly what I'm trying to do.

In your novel The Terminal Experiment you introduce the concept of the "Soulwave." Was this idea born out of hope or personal belief?
—Jim Johnson, jjohnson@lante.com


I was raised a Unitarian, but I practice no formal religion now; the last time I was in a church was when I needed to use a restroom. Throughout my teenage years, I counted myself an atheist, but these days I'm more of an agnostic. I don't know whether or not God exists, but I don't deny the possibility (on the other hand, I do deny that any God that has any personal interest in us as individuals exists — you simply have to look around at the horrors of the world to know that that can't be true).

The idea of the soulwave isn't really born of either hope or personal belief. I believe that when we die, we're eaten by worms — end of story. That's one of the reasons why The Terminal Experiment debunks the so-called near-death experience. But I do think that questions of immortality fascinate writers (they crop up again in my latest novel, Starplex). After all, we write so that something of ourselves will survive our death.

In The Terminal Experiment, your protagonist was prompted to question the moment of "death" because of an experience in graduate school. What prompted your own question of death, the existence of the soul, and existence after death?
—Wayne Carey, esvax!careywg@a1.LLDMPC.umc.dupont.com@umc@uunet.uu.net


When I was in my early teens, I was with my grandfather just before he died. He was lucid up until the end, and it was astonishing to me that one moment, he was there, and the next, he wasn't — that he had simply ceased to be. I suppose a lot of the questioning in The Terminal Experiment comes out of that. I certainly didn't have the kind of shocking experience Peter Hobson has in the novel, but I did do a ton of research for The Terminal Experiment, and it all got me thinking about these issues.

If there's one overriding theme to my fiction, it's that rational thought must be prized above all else. So the investigation of death in The Terminal Experiment is a skeptic's investigation, asking the question intellectually rather than superstitiously: if something were to survive separate from our physical bodies, what nature would that something have? I think the answer in The Terminal Experiment is the only one that makes sense.

Did you notice that in Independence Day no Canadian cities were destroyed?
—Earl J. Woods, ewoods@istar.ca


Actually, I haven't yet seen Independence Day. I've more or less given up on TV and movie science fiction; I find most of it to be so much worse than the best of the written genre that it rankles me to think that this crap is what most of the general public thinks science fiction is all about. But if no Canadian cities were destroyed in Independence Day, well, it just shows the value of clean living, I guess . . .

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